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Thu, 7 Sep 2000, 08:22 AM

What is Hot and Not in Funny Car
By Susan Wade





CLERMONT, Ind. -- NHRA Funny Car driver Whit Bazemore tried to tell everybody. Jim Epler was the one who finally made them listen.

"They said at the press conference that this is the hottest car out here," Bazemore said, nodding to the Kendall/Matco Tools Chevy Camaro. "Quite frankly, it's not. We've been struggling tremendously, and we're still struggling."

The hottest car, it turns out, is Epler's WWF-sponsored Camaro - and Bazemore still is struggling.

But maybe just a little bit less, after reaching the finals of Monday's 46th annual U.S. Nationals.

Epler, making his second straight final-round appearance at Indianapolis, scored his fourth career victory to earn $75,000. He began by eliminating Scotty Cannon, John Force and Ron Capps before dispatching Bazemore with a 5.01 elapsed time (285.41 miles per hour). He remained in fifth place in the Winston points standings but cut fourth-place Capps' margin from 74 to 38.

Force remained the Funny Car points leader, increasing his edge from 160 to 186 over Jerry Toliver, who lost to Force teammate Tony Pedregon in the opening round.

Bazemore jumped from ninth in the standings to sixth. He said the extra rounds helped crew chief Terry Manzer figure out why the car had slogged through nine first-round losses, including two of the previous three races. "We kind of know where we are now," Bazemore said.

"Usually in most races, if you're runner-up, you're happy. But this is Indy. If you're lucky you get to race here maybe 20-25 times in your whole career. You hate to get that close and not win. It was still a huge struggle." The whole season has been difficult for Bazemore. Even through the successful times, he and crew chief Manzer wrestled with the set-up.

"It's been a grind, the whole tuneup. We can't pinpoint one reason," Bazemore said. "For Terry, it's coming to grips with this car. I feel for the guy - he's working his butt off. This car has tremendous performance potential, but it's all about consistency. I'd rather run a 4.99 every time than the occasional 4.87 then a 4.95."

Bazemore, a local resident who won the prestigious U.S. Nationals in 1997, had found Indianapolis Raceway Park to be anything but home, sweet home the last couple of weeks. In pre-Nationals testing, he did little but smoke tires. He made the field as the 16th and final qualifier in Sunday's last session, then hung on as Dean Skuza failed to bump him out. It was reminiscent of the way he slipped into the field as the top qualifier at Denver. There he began a run of three No. 1 qualifying spots and won, breaking a string of five first-round losses.

With a 5.04 elapsed time Monday, he survived the first round of eliminations, paying back No. 1 Tommy Johnson Jr., who knocked him out in the first round at Seattle, where their qualifying order was reversed.

He continued to advance with victories over Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon.

Bazemore said he "had a great day," despite Cristen Powell's first-round loss in the Nitrofish Camaro he owns. Epler had his frustrations, as well. He hadn't won in 15 rounds against Force since 1993, "and it was starting to eat at me. A lot of times we beat ourselves. And Force has been lucky. Sometimes he's messed up and we didn't take advantage of it.'' He said the Round 2 win over Force was the most satisfying - "and what happened after that didn't much mean anything." Bazemore said he relishes the challenge, but he clearly looked weary during a visit this weekend to his favorite Indian restaurant. The waiter looked concerned and said, "Sir, you look tired tonight. Racing tough today?" Bazemore nodded, hungry for that sweet taste of victory again. He almost had it.

It also eluded fellow Funny Car competitor Ron Capps, who said he was "downright pissed off" Sunday when denied a third straight Budweiser Shootout crown. He lost to Epler, who had never won a round of Shootout competition. Epler later lost the $100,000 prize to Force.

Capps had some consolation in qualifying third in his U.S. Tobacco Chevy Camaro and advancing to the semifinals for the second time since 1997. Besides, when he won the Shootout in 1998, he dropped out in the second round and when he won it in '99, he was a first-round loser. So he was hoping that reverse luck could work in his favor.

It didn't, and this season continued to be frustrating for the Vista, Calif., resident. In 15 national events that carry points, Capps has no victories and has lost in the first round four times and in the second round five times.

"We've been running good enough to win any race. We've come so close all year long. We're on the verge of winning," Capps said.

He shook his head at his luck, or lack of it. "I know I had it in '98 (when he finished second in the Winston Series points race). If anything broke, it'd break at the finish line," he said.

Capps said he wishes the NHRA would return to the "points and a half" system it once used for the Indianapolis race only. "This is the biggest race we run, and you'd get a big jump by doing well here. I wish they'd go back to that," he said. He said all he can do is "go with the flow."

All he'd really like to do is change streams in the middle of the horsepower.



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