By Susan Wade
With contributions by team representatives

Nothing has faded from Kenny Bernstein's driving ability. To get back into winning form, he just needs a cooperative car that isn't behaving like a monster. But right now, his Monster Energy/Lucas Oil Dodge Charger is behaving like just that.
He missed the field -- in for a few minutes, then bumped out again -- but in Saturday's final qualifying session, the six-time champion performed a masterful job of pedaling his Funny Car. Bernstein was on and off the throttle, trying to keep traction to the ground to earn a starting position in a field with Robert Hight's quickest-ever Funny Car at the head.
"We're obviously very disappointed for our team, our sponsors, and our fans," Bernstein said.. "We've left no stone unturned. We've tested, and we're still fighting tire shake and loss of traction. I know we'll get the gremlins sorted out, but this is not the way we wanted to start the year.
"All I can say is that we're not giving up. We're continuing to dig for answers, and we will get this team turned around. I promise we're trying everything we can."
Sunday's second straight victory at Phoenix brought the David Powers Motorsports team $40,000 it certainly can use, but it especially brought winning driver Rod Fuller confidence in the face of uncertainty.
"In January, there was a doubt about me driving this year," he said after beating Melanie Troxel in a replay of last year's Phoenix final. "It all comes down to dollars. We had a sponsorship with Valvoline for only two races. These cars are expensive to run, and [team owner] David Powers is funding this out of his own pocket. I wouldn't have blamed him for shutting it down. You hate to take somebody's retirement or whatever -- you hate to take their money. But I am grateful David believes in me and in our team.
"It was scary there for awhile," Fuller said. "I put my car up for sale. I put my house up for sale. It's a trcky game. We have a great car and a great team, but the car needs sponsorship.
"So we're going to Gainesville with the points lead, and we don't even have primary sponsorship on the car. This win helps, and I hope I'm here to stay."
Fuller earned $40,000 for his 4.490-second run at 327.19 mph against Troxel, who gave him a close drag race in the Vietnam Veterans/POW MIA Dragster with a 4.536/325.61.
The Las Vegas-based driver called himself "a grateful person" and said, "Every time I sit myself in that race car, I say to myself, 'This could be the last time I hit the throttle on this thing.' And that's the way I approach it.
"I don’t do this for money," he said. "It's in my blood. It's in my heart. Just that ride that I took just then is worth it. The 18 years I spent getting here are worth it. If it ended today, I could walk away with a smile, because I feel I accomplished a lot." 

For Tony Pedregon, Sunday's  $40,000 Funny Car victory meant validation for himself and crew chief Dickie Venables.
They believed that together they had the driving and tuning skills to be competitive and successful as an independent team when they struck out on their own from a comfortable set-up at John Force Racing in the winter of 2003 with the series championship. They encountered criticism and skepticism. Yet Oedregon insisted that he knew what he was doing and that Venables did, too.
In a showdown of the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers, Pedregon needed to hold off top qualifier Robert Hight, the shining hope so far this season of John Force Racing, and keep him not only from winning the race but doing it with a national-record elapsed time -- a al Tony Schumacher at the 2006 Finals.
Pedregon had the record in his pocket, but Hight -- who had clocked the quickest pass in Funny Car history in time trials with a 4.636-second blast -- still had one last chance to take it away from him.
Pedregon  won with a 4.803-second E.T. at 326.32 mph, while Hight had a host of parts, oil pressure, and fuel problems that developed in the pits before the final round and ended up turning his Auto Club Ford Mustang sideways at the first hit of the throttle and immediately put out four cylinders.
He said he knew Venables had confidence in him and that bolstered his own reassurance. "When those things come together, you become a pretty formidable team," Pedregon said. "I've really had a revelation that this is the direction we're going. For me to win a race this early and for me to win this race for the first time in my career is quite an accomplishment."
He said that when he "ran that 4.65 [Friday, eventually to gain the national record], that really showed us that we can run with these guys. It was confirmation that we could be within a few hundredths of a second of the quickest [Funny Car] that's ever gone down a quarter-mile. I thought if we could keep these guys within striking range, we can beat 'em."
He'll enter the March 15-18 Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., second to Hight in the standings, six points back.

Kurt Johnson has raced with his father, six-time champ Warren Johnson, all of his life.
And that's one of the reasons Roy Johnson's heart attack hit the Pro Stock winner hard.
All day long, the Sugar Hill, Ga., driver had carried banners with various messages on his driver's window of his ACDelco Chevy Cobalt, wishing a quick recovery to Roy Johnson, father of Pro Stock on-track rival and buddy Allen Johnson. The popular Roy Johnson -- no relation to Kurt or Warren Johnson, or to biker Steve Johnson or Funny Car's Tommy Johnson Jr. -- suffered a heart attack at the race track Saturday night and successfully underwent surgery to open blocked arteries.
After winning against reigning champ Jason Line in the final round, Kurt Johnson knew the victory was worth $25,000. And he knew the numbers from the track: winning with a 6.694-seond pass at 206.67 mph to Line's 6.676/207.85. Johnson said all those numbers are ultra-important, only -- referring to Roy Johnson's illness -- "until something major like that happens."
But he talked about what he thinks is truly important in life. 
"All the little things don't mean a darn thing. Nothing matters in life but your health. Racing doesn't matter," he said.
"I felt for Allen [who barely missed the field Saturday, as well]. He didn't sleep all night. Roy, they said he flatlined twice. That's your dad right there, you know?"
Then, breaking the solemnity of the moment, K.J. said he cared because "besides, he's a Johnson. We're all related."
Want to know what scuttled Robert Hight's bid to grab the national elapsed-time record from Tony Pedregon in Sunday's Funny Car final round?
Here's how Hight described it:
"We had issues in the pits [between the semifinals and finals]. A spring came off the cross shaft and was hitting the clutch. So we had to go into the bellhousing and cut the ends of the spring off.
"I was getting ready to stage, and it showed 40 pounds of oil pressure and I'm like, 'Oh, this isn't good.' But what're you going to do? Then, when I did the burnout, there were sparks and I said to myself, 'I hope this thing doesn't come apart.'
"When I hit the throttle, the thing turned sideways. It put four cylinders out on one side all at once. What happened was that one of our switches malfunctioned and the slide valve didn't return any fuel back to the tank. All the fuel was going to the motor all at once."

 Even though, for the second straight event, he went into the final session not qualified for the 16-car starting lineup, John Force managed to extend to 394 the number of consecutive events for which he has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car. That streak began with the start of the 1988 season. The second longest active streak is 162 straight events by Top Fuel dragster driver Doug Kalitta, who didn't qualify until his final chance, either.
Force lost a wild match-up against Ron Capps, who had troubles with the starter for the Brut Dodge Charger, then scrambled to do the burnout and not keep Force waiting at the starting line.
"The starter wouldn't come off. We started the car and I could watch the Motel 6 Vision. I saw Force backing up. I know he was watching the screen as well," Capps said. "He could tell that we couldn't get the starter off the car because the camera was on him. So, about the time we finally got it off they were about to send a guy over to tell us It was too late. I got on the radio and said, 'Drop the body. Get out of the way. I rolled up and did a quick little burnout, got back. With the amount of respect you have for those teams, you don't want to hold them up. We would have shut it off had we waited too long but I was surprised. I got back, we lifted the body, Ace did his adjustments, lowered the body, and I was right in behind Force lighting the pre-stage light."
The Dodge "got out there and jumped sideways and I thought I would cross the center line. I did everything I could to keep it in our lane. I was surprised because I could hear Force's headers right out my side as we were going along. I didn't know he was kind of having the same problems. I pulled the parachutes and he went flying by, and I said, Oh, boy, it must have been close. I turned the corner and the camera guys came my way. So, that was a good thing."
The loss was Force's second straight first-round exit. It has been 18 years since the 14-time champion began a season without a round-win in the first two races. Capps is 17-38 against Force in eliminations rounds, but Capps has won nine of the last 11 meetings. Capps also has won the last four first-round races against Force.
Force's take on it was this: "I saw his nose, then he disappeared, then he came back. I thought I won, but my mind got all confused down there at the end."
Ashley Force's Castrol GTX Ford made a hard move to the right, toward the center line,  and ultimately crossed over it. That resulted in her automatic disqualificatio and handed the victory to Bob Gilbertson.
"I felt really bad, because my team gave me such a great race car. And I really felt bad that I got over in Gilbertson's lane, because he and I are friends."
Said Gilbertson, "I knew she was in trouble when I saw timing blocks flying all over the place. It was a very tricky track with a very narrow grove, and it created problems for not only Ashley but all the other Funny Car drivers. I was on a good run but had to back pedal so she wouldn't hit me. And when the timers got knocked out, I didn't get a time slip. So all I ended up with was a win light." Poor Bob.
It isn't enough that Eric Medlen is using one of Robert Hight's AutoClub of Southern California Ford Mustang bodies and his fire suit. Now he wants Hight's clutch set-up.
"We're working to adapt to a new clutch, the one that Robert's running, and we're excited about that," Medlen said after losing to Hight in Sunday's quarterfinals. "We had a flat tire against Robert in round two. That's not normal. But we'll test and we'll get it fixed before we go to Gainesville."

Brandon Bernstein qualified his Budweiser/Lucas Oil Dragster fourth, duplicating his Pomona qualifying elapsed time of 4.494 seconds at 330.31 mph.
In the first round of eliminations, crew chief Tim Richards put a very aggressive tune-up onboard with Bernstein, who was facing off against tough competitor Doug Kalitta. Richards' tune-up produced low elapsed time of the round and a career-best elapsed time for Bernstein, 4.457 seconds at 329.67 mph, to defeat Kalitta's 4.595/326.63.
"That was an awesome run," Bernstein said. "That one felt quick from inside the cockpit!"
In the quarterfinals, Bernstein met  Melanie Troxel. Both drivers lost traction and were on and off the throttle, trying desperately to get the tires to hook up. Though Bernstein had the advantage and appeared he might win the round, the manifold burst plate, an engine component, failed, and Bernstein slowed dramatically, losing all power.
"I couldn't see Melanie, but I knew she hadn't passed me," he said. "I kept trying to get traction to the ground, but when the burst plate went, I just didn't have any power, and she drove by me right at the finish line. That's a tough way to lose a race, especially after such a great first round."
Bernstein is in second place, 43 points off leader Rod Fuller's pace.
Cruz Pedsregon and his Advance Auto Parts Funny Car team missed the 16-car field at Phoenix, but the 1992 champion said he'll be ready to go by the March 15-18 Gatornationals at Gainesville, Florida.
His best effort came during Friday’s second qualifying session with a run of 5.110 seconds at 218.87 mph. However, a series of spectacular engine explosions kept him off the grid.
"We never really got a handle on the engine set-up this weekend," Pedregon said. "It is frustrating, as I know we have so much potential, but I have all the faith in the world in Wayne [crew chief Dupuy] and confident this Advance Auto Parts team will be ready for Gainesville. Although I was not competing, Pedregon Racing showed very well with Tony's big win."
At last check, Pedregon wasn't sure whether he would return to San Antonio for the International Hot Rod Association season-opener. Last year he participated in the IHRA's resurrection of the Nitro Funny Car class and qualified No. 1 there. He said that helped him sort out some concerns with his Chevy Monte Carlo, and that in turn helped him win the NHRA's Las Vegas race the following week.