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Bernstein, Hight Close in on Leaders; Stevens gets Back into Winner’s Circle

Former Rookie of the Year drivers Brandon Bernstein and Robert Hight brazenly pushed their way into their respective championship chases Sunday with convincing wins at the $1.5 million O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals near Dallas. Both men started and finished the day third in the points, but not before gaining some serious ground on the men in front of them. Bernstein is now just 40 points of the Top Fuel lead, while Hight closed to within 93 of Funny Car's top slot.

In Pro Stock, Richie Stevens score his first victory in more than five years, riding new teammate Allen Johnson's horsepower to a .026-second win over Mike Edwards. Bernstein's victory came at the expense of "Hot Rod" Fuller, who entered the final with lane choice but overpowered the track early in his trophy run. Hight pulled away from first-time finalist Mike Ashley when he began hazing his tires at half-track.

Bernstein's nearly silent pursuit of headline grabbers Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta has featured three final-round showings in the last four races, including his win here and his runner-up finish at the last event in Indy. This one was over early in the run when Fuller was lost in a cloud of tire smoke.

This was the fourth win of the year for Bernstein, one more than Schumacher, who he now trails by seven points. He moves to 12-4 all time and 4-3 this season. Fuller scooted past Dave Grubnic and into the POWERade top five. He's now 2-2 this year and 3-4 lifetime in final rounds.

"It seems like the pressure has been squarely on Doug and Tony," said Bernstein, who was born in Dallas and attended high school in Richardson, Texas. "I know that no one in the media has asked me about it. But within the team I kept telling the guys we just needed to stay consistent and keep plugging away. Now I think everyone knows what we already knew, that we have a racecar that can win the championship.

"It was a big concern to go into the final without lane choice because 'Hot Rod' had been running so well today but Tim Richards and this Budweiser team always seems to do everything right on race day and as long as we have a chance, we give it our all."

Doug Kalitta's lead in the POWERade standings continued to erode as he went out one round before second-place racer Tony Schumacher, who was the event's top qualifier. Kalitta now leads Schumacher by 33 points.

For the first time since the Brainerd event more than a year ago, a top qualifier in Funny Car managed to convert his strong showing into a race win as Hight beat Ashley with a 4.796 at 322.73 mph in his automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang to Ashley's resigned 6.024 at 159.08 mph in the Torco Fuels Dodge Charger.

Combined with his Indy win, Hight won back-to-back races for the first time in his career. This was his third victory of the year and fifth overall. For Ashley, a two-time Pro Mod champion, he got his first chance at an NHRA trophy in 23 Funny Car starts.

"I feel like we don't have a choice, we have to win every round left," Hight said of his championship aspirations. "I can't begin to describe the feeling you get when [crew chief] Jimmy Prock pounds on your hood just before you run and you just know that you have the best car on the property. Jimmy is a very confident guy and it filters down to the team.

"We're back in the championship hunt and the most exciting part of it all is I know we have a racecar that can beat any other racecar out there. This is a championship team and when the guys ahead of us went out then they just stepped it up even more knowing we could gain ground."

The much anticipated first-round race between points leader Ron Capps and 13-time champ John Force, who is second in the standings, was a thrill with Capps upsetting the higher qualified Force. But Capps didn't capitalize much on the victory, losing in the next round to Ashley. His lead over Force increased from 19 to 37. With his win, Hight is now lurking just 93 points back.

Recording his first Pro Stock win in more than five years left Stevens practically speechless at the top end as he tried to collect his thoughts and soak in the moment. His finale with Edwards was a classic pro stock race, with both men leaving within one-thousandths of a second of one another with stellar reaction times and staying locked together most of the way down the track. Stevens inched away at the end and won with a 6.693 at 204.60 mph to Edwards' 6.718 at 206.39 mph.

This was the first race that Stevens was using Johnson & Johnson engines. This year alone he's worked under the tuning direction of Bob Glidden, David Nickens, and now Mark Ingersol.

"I can barely talk," Stevens said as he climbed from his Mopar Dodge Stratus R/T. "It's been a long time since I've won. I forgot what I'm supposed to do. I've been wanting to win for Don Schumacher for almost two years. I'm so thankful for him giving me this chance and for sticking with me.

"I wanted to be the first Don Schumacher Pro Stock driver to win but Jeggy [Coughlin] beat me to that last year. Maybe I'll be the first to win twice. It's so cool to run strong with the new guys on Allen's team helping us out. They are definitely making some horsepower. We lost Mopar's top engineer Greg Reeves this past week but I know he's proud of what we've done here today."

The two men battling for the 2006 Pro Stock title, teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson, fizzled in Texas with top qualifier Anderson losing on a holeshot to Dave Northrop in Round 1 and No. 2 qualifier Line losing on a holeshot to Edwards in Round 2. Line's lead over Anderson in the points grew 19 markers to 78.