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Sat, 23 Oct 1999, 10:42 PM

Kalitta, Force, Johnson Claim Top Qualifying Honors
Courtesy of NHRA Communications

At O'Reilly Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec

ENNIS, Texas - John Force stormed to the front of the Funny Car pack Saturday at the Texas Motorplex, taking his eighth No. 1 qualifying award of the season at the 14th annual O'Reilly Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec.

Scott Kalitta and Warren Johnson also will lead competitors in their respective professional categories into Sunday's 11 a.m. eliminations at the $1.8 million race, 20th of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

In eliminations completed Saturday, Pro Stock Truck championship challengers Bob Panella and Brad Jeter advanced to the semifinals and will meet in a battle of Chevy S-10s on Sunday. Panella, from Stockton, Calif., can clinch his first Winston title by winning the race and recording a national elapsed time record.

Force, from Yorba Linda, Calif., covered the all-concrete quarter-mile in 4.844 seconds at 317.12 mph in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang to pace the 16-car order.

"It cooled off a little bit and we were able to just go for it," said Force, who bettered No. 2 qualifier Tommy Johnson Jr.'s previous event best of 4.857 seconds.

Force, who will face archrival Al Hofmann during tomorrow's first round, can clinch his ninth NHRA Winston championship Sunday if he advances one more round than second place points contender Tony Pedregon. "I want to get this deal (Winston championship) done so we can go into test mode for the rest of the season," Force added. "The old hot rod ran good today and we didn't have any major breakage, so we're looking good for tomorrow."

Kalitta, from Ypslianti, Mich., claimed his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season in Top Fuel as no one bettered his 4.546 at 318.92 effort from Friday. The second-generation drag racer, who last claimed a top qualifying effort in 1997 at Reading, Pa., has competed on a limited basis this season after sitting out the entire '98 schedule.

"I'm a little surprised that the time stood, but when the air is good it can get a little tricky out there for these cars," said Kalitta, the 1994-95 NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion, who will face Mike Smith in tomorrow's opening round of eliminations. "There's a fine line to how much clutch you can throw at it when the conditions are cool like they were today. Tomorrow we'll just take it one round at a time and see what develops."

Johnson, from Buford, Ga., set both ends of the Pro Stock national record with his top qualifying effort of 6.822 at 202.33 in his GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird. The effort is Johnson's 15th No. 1 qualifying position of the season. Johnson can clinch his fifth Winston championship tomorrow if he wins the race and second place points challenger Kurt Johnson loses in the opening round.

"Setting the record means that everybody on the crew has done their homework," said Johnson, who will face Mike Edwards in the first round, "and it gives me about a $3,000 thrill (bonus from Holley Performance Products for being the No. 1 Pro Stock qualifier). So far this season I've won about $45,000 from Holley, and that all helps - these things run on money, not gasoline."

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