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Thu, 2 Nov 2000, 03:14 PM

Top Fuel's "Mr. October" Eyes 2001 Ring
By Susan Wade

Exactly half a lifetime ago for Top Fuel driver Mike Dunn, a major-league rookie named Bob Welch stood on the pitcher's mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers, reedy but unbent by the intimidating glare of New York Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson, "Mr. October."

It was the ninth inning in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. Welch didn't blink. Instead, he did the nearly impossible -- struck out Jackson to preserve Burt Hooton's victory.

Dunn does burnout.
Dunn, the No. 1 qualifier in the Yankee Dragster with the NHRA elapsed-time record (4.530 seconds) under the new 90-percent nitromethane rule, sat on the starting line Sunday at Baytown, Texas, looking much like the NHRA's Mr. October at the start of eliminations in the Matco Tools SuperNationals. Dunn had used that second of four qualifying passes, that 322.34 miles an hour -- his career best -- to serve notice to the rest of the Top Fuel field that the Darrell Gwynn Racing Team is ready to play hardball again.

But Bobby Baldwin, Welch-like in his quiet perseverance, outran him in their Round 1 showdown. Dunn smoked the tires two seconds into the run. Baldwin won with a less-than-all-star 5.341/189.07 and reached the finals against winner Cory McClenathan.

The happy news for Dunn is that in 1978, the Yankees stormed back to win the World Series, four games to two, earning their 22nd of 26 fall-classic titles. And Dunn knows this Yankee Dragster has many more pinstripe-proud moments ahead.

"This car has a ton of potential," he said after the disappointing first strikeout Sunday, "but we still don't have a handle on it. The car is still in a feast-or-famine mode. Despite the early loss, our data shows that we are on-track in building a combination that will allow us to contend for the 2001 championship."

As for the first-round error, Dunn said, "The car did exactly what we told it to do. The computer showed that the run looked identical to our qualifying attempts. This time the track just didn't take what we threw at it.

"We know how to make power and run a 4.53 Now we just have to find the combination that will allow us to back it down a bit. At this point in our 'Spring Training' program, we just don’t have enough information . . . to run in the low 4.6s."

All along, Dunn has talked about consistency. And as he looked toward this weekend's O'Reilly Fall Nationals make-up date at Dallas and the NHRA Finals in Pomona, where he won last November, he maintains that's the key: "to get the car as consistent as we can under the changing track and weather conditions."

Dunn had said of the Yankee dragster before heading to Houston, "If it goes down the track, I guarantee it'll qualify . . . and qualify well."

His scouting report was right on target. Although he has complete faith in longtime crew chief Ken Veney and the newly assembled crew that includes Todd Smith (who has worked for Connie Kalitta and for Melanie Troxel), Dunn still called the record-setting e.t. a shock. "We made only 30 test runs . . . and have struggled a bit making full passes. We had some good information from our testing in Memphis, and we applied it."

He said he recognized the Yankee Dragster was on a blistering run after some early tire shake. "(It) made a great move off the starting line and really hiked up the nose of the car. I gave a good tug on the brake to settle the car down and hoped it wouldn't smoke the tires. The car really started to pull after half-track, and I just hung on for the ride." Then, before he had perused the computer data, he added, "I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't more left in it at the top end."

Sponsorship problems had kept Dunn idle for much of the season, except for a substitute spin at July's Winston Showdown in Bristol, Tenn., to help out Joe Amato after the Tenneco/Dynomax Dragster driver had eye surgery. But the Wrightsville, Pa., resident said he felt comfortable back in the cockpit after Gwynn and the Steinbrenner family announced their sponsorship/marketing deal in late August and unveiled the car Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

"My main concern," Dunn said, "was to focus on cutting a decent light and not making a dumb mistake."

He didn't make a dumb mistake Sunday. And he should be thankful the Yankee Dragster came away unscathed. After all, the Most Valuable Player of that 1978 World Series was Bucky Dent.

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