Despite difficult season, Pedregon remains a contender

by Kevin McKenna, National DRAGSTER Senior Editor

Tony Pedregon’s turbulent 2009 season has included the departure of long-time crew chief Dickie Venables and assistant Kurt Elliott, a much publicized top-end skirmish with former boss John Force, and a violent body-destroying engine explosion in Memphis, yet with two events remaining, the street-wise and battle-ready Pedregon somehow finds himself in contention for a third Full Throttle Funny Car championship. He currently is just 48 points behind leader Robert Hight and 35 behind second-ranked Ashley Force Hood with two races remaining in the Countdown to the Championship.

“When I look at where we are, I wouldn’t use the word surprised,” says Pedregon, who has three wins this season, including a memorable victory in Brainerd that came just days after the departure of Venables and Elliott. “I think most people are more surprised than I am. That being said, I do feel that we are fortunate that after three [recent] first-round losses, I’m still even within two rounds of first place. In that regard, I would say that I’m a bit surprised.

It’s been a season of highs and lows for Tony Pedregon. (Above) he was overcome with emotion after winning in Brainerd just days after losing his crew chief and assistant crew chief. (Below) The team has a setback in Memphis a few weeks ago with a body-tossing blower explosion.

Rahn Tolber, left, and Tony Shortall have gamely stepped in to help keep Pedregon’s Funny Car in the championship hunt.

“Make no mistake, this has been a tough year,” he said. “Financially, it has been very challenging to keep up with some of the other teams. I think that says a lot about our team and people that have stuck with me. We do not have a lot of depth, but there is a lot of loyalty and determination and a lot of untapped talent here. That has made the difference in the second half. When Dickie and Kurt left, I think most people expected that we’d fall out of contention. That wasn’t the case. [Crew chiefs] Rahn Tobler and Tony Shortall along with the guys who stayed and knew our routing, were able to re-focus and carry on. I called on them in Brainerd to dig deep and they have. The people who stuck with me are our biggest asset.”

Despite the upheaval, Pedregon is nothing if not optimistic as he prepares for next weekend’s NHRA Las Vegas Nationals, and why shouldn’t he be? Pedregon has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with three wins and two runner-up finishes. He also fondly recalls the 2007 Las Vegas event where he nearly clinched his second NHRA Funny Car championship. At that event, Pedregon came into the event locked in a multi-way battle for the top spot. In a bizarre twist of fate, all of his rivals lost early while Pedregon went on to win the event. As a result had to do little more than qualify for the final race in Pomona in order to secure the title.

“Based on what happened in 2007, I know the possibility exists for a repeat [championship],” Pedregon said. “One of the reasons why I’m so optimistic that that there are so many good cars in the class right now. We can’t rely on ourselves to beat either Ashley or Robert and I’m not going to try and go after either one of them. Our goal is simply to qualify and earn as many points as possible. Robert is very strong right now but he’s not untouchable. The same goes for Ashley. They are both very good but so is Del [Worsham] and so is Tim Wilkerson and so it Jeff Arend. Any one of them could win one of the last two races. That being said, going into Las Vegas I feel like we have a good opportunity to get to the final and if we can do that, we have a fighting chance.”

With his close ties to the Palms Resort and Casino and his love for competitive poker, Pedregon doesn’t need many addition reasons to look forward to the two annual stops that the NHRA Full Throttle tour makes in Las Vegas, but his career stats, which include three wins and two runner-up finishes at the famed Strip, certainly help add to the track’s appeal.

“Sure, I have a good history in Las Vegas, but that doesn’t mean a lot,” said Pedregon. “I’m not superstitious but maybe I should be. What matters now is what happens this year. If I do have an edge, it’s that I’ve got experience. I’ve been in this situation several times before and I know what it takes to get it done. Now, we just have to execute. This sport has a tendency to mentally weigh on you. It can make you better or worse. I just need to rely on that experience and use it to my advantage.”

With his mind firmly focused on the job at hand, Pedregon won’t allow himself to look too far into the future. However, he does acknowledge that if he were to somehow claim a third championship, it would rank as the greatest achievement of his career.

“That would be an amazing thing and I hope that is the case Sunday night in Pomona,” he said. We have put in our time an paid our dues but I’m really not thinking that far ahead. For now, the game  plan is to make the final Vegas and get close. If I can go to Pomona and still have a fighting chance, I’ll gladly take it.”

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