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Fri, 22 Oct 1999, 11:42 PM

Kalitta, Johnson Jr., Martino, Osborne Qualifying Leaders
Courtesy of NHRA Communications

At O'Reilly Fall Nationals Presented by Castrol Syntec

ENNIS, Texas -

Kalitta, from Ypsilanti, Mich., covered the Texas Motorplex's all-concrete quarter-mile in 4.546 seconds at 318.92 mph in his Kitty Hawk dragster to lead the 16-car field.

"That was a lot of fun," said Kalitta, the 1994-95 NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion. "Doug (Kalitta) and I switched cars this weekend so I could help him work out some things with his car. It looks like we figured it out a lot quicker than we thought. Now he's going to want the car back."

Tony Schumacher posted the top speed of the second session, earning the Budweiser Qualifying bonus of $2,500, which will be donated to the charity of the team's choice. Schumacher was second in the Top Fuel order with a 4.557 at the Bud bonus winning speed of 326.19. Tommy Johnson Jr., Tom Martino and Mark Osborne also were qualifying leaders in their respective pro categories at the $1.8 million race, the 20th of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Johnson, driver of the Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird, covered the distance in 4.857 at 316.45 to pace the Funny Car order.

"That was a pretty awesome run, it lifted the front wheels off the ground," said Johnson of his career-best Funny Car effort. "With cooler conditions coming we think we can go quicker tomorrow."

Johnson -- who learned earlier today that team owner Joe Gibbs decided to dissolve the team at the end of this season when sponsor Interstate Batteries announced it would not renew for the 2000 season -- has won two of the last three events and is closing on a Winston top 10 finish.

He was puzzled by the abrupt decision.

"It's a total shock," Johnson said. "I don't know all the details, but from what I understand, Joe is planning to drop the Funny Car team and field only a Top Fuel team next year. It's frustrating because the team chemistry is there and we're really starting to come along. We've been running really good lately, and now I'm going to be looking for a job."

Martino powered his Century 21 Pontiac Firebird to the front of the Pro Stock lineup, running 6.900 at 199.29, just edging local favorite Bruce Allen, of nearby Arlington, who was a tick off the pace, running 6.906 at 199.51 in his Outlaw Additives Firebird.

"Knowing how good the track is here at the Texas Motorplex, we left the car alone and it made two good runs today," Martino said. "It's not as much rocket science as we lead you to believe. If you get the car in the happy zone, the window opens up. Being number one is great, but our emphasis is on winning rounds and races. If we're able to run consistently throughout qualifying, we'll be in a better frame of mind and have a better handle on the track for Sunday."

Osborne earned his third No. 1 qualifying award of the season and will lead Pro Stock Truck competitors into two rounds of eliminations Saturday. Osborne claimed the top spot with a track record elapsed time of 7.574 at 177.86 in his RCL Components Chevy S-10.

"We threw a little more clutch at it and it took off," said Abingdon, Va.'s Osborne, who trails leader Bob Panella Jr. by 92 points entering this event. "We really need to win and set a record here to get back in this points chase. It'd be nice to be around here late on Sunday afternoon and put this Chevy S-10 in the winner's circle."

Qualifying continues for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock competitors Saturday with sessions at 11:15 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.

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