Gary Densham knows his way around a race car. Even if it is a new one.
A 21-year drag racing veteran, Densham defeated Tim Wilkerson in the Funny Car final in the 22nd annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway Sunday.
The win was only Densham's second this season and only his third final appearance of the year. The win was also Densham's fifth of his long career.
The No. 4 Densham edged No. 5 Wilkerson in the final 5.009 to 5.042, a .0052 margin of victory. Densham raced to a speed of 298.01 mph compared to Wilkerson's 297.29 mph.
Even though he gave up a .077- to .105-second reaction time to Wilkerson, Densham ran down his opponent to capture the Oscar trophy.
After a disappointing showing at Sonoma, Calif., two weeks ago, in which Densham didn't even qualify, this victory was hugely satisfying.
"What a turnaround," Densham said of the win. "We struggled with the new car a little bit. The car is great, there's nothing wrong with the car. But after you're used to having 20 years in your old easy chair, you know exactly where the beer holder and remote control are.
"(The car) was just different. It's taken a little bit of time to get used to it. (Crew chief) Jimmy (Prock) made all the right calls today."
With as close a race as he had with Wilkerson, Densham didn't know if he'd won until he was told what to do with his car.
Nitro Funny Car winner Gary Densham (left) hugged Powerade representative Marj Nordstrom after winning the title at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway Sunday. (Dispatch Photo by Steve Kohls)
"If I can see the other car I know I lost," Densham said. "I knew as soon as I hit the parachutes and I saw him I knew it was a very close race.
"People are smart to look at the light on the guard rail and I'm just too dumb because I turn the corner and wait for them to tell me where to park. If I get to park in front where the cameras are I'm a happy guy."
The surprise of the day came when John Force, the second-winningest driver in all of motorsports behind only Richard Petty, red-lighted in his first-round pass against Bob Gilbertson, ending his weekend early. It was Force's third red-light of the year and seventh of his career.
That cleared the way for Densham, the other member of Force's racing team, as he beat Tommy Johnson Jr., Gilbertson and Frank Pedregon. The win over Frank Pedregon gave Densham lane choice in the finals by .002 seconds.
"John's the true professional," Densham said of Force. "He came back and told me the lights were very hard to see in the left lane. In the Funny Car class right now we've got such great competitors you can't look ahead. But if you have the choice of who do you want to race, John Force or Gilbertson?"
Wilkerson's path to the finals was paved with wins over Scotty Cannon, Bob Bode and Tony Pedregon.
Tony Pedregon, who beat arguably the hottest Funny Car racer in Gary Scelzi in the quarterfinals, gained 17 points to keep a slim 61-point lead over Whit Bazemore in the standings.
BIR has been a kind track to Densham in the past. Before his win Sunday, Densham had raced in three finals, losing them to who else? Teammate John Force.
"I've had great success here," Densham said. "I've been to the final round three times here and I lost all three times to John Force. I've contributed to three of his 10 wins here. I think he owes me."
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