VEGAS COULD BE TURNING POINT FOR BAZEMORE

It's early in the 2004 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series season, with 20 events to go, so Whit Bazemore is not as frustrated as a Funny Car driver might be after three outstanding qualifying efforts in three events that were followed by three early-round upsets in eliminations.

The driver of the Matco Tools Iron Eagle Dodge Stratus qualified No. 5 in the season's first event and No. 2 in the last two events, clearly demonstrating his team's ability to conquer the fickleness of the car's new combination. Getting past those early rounds has been the tough part.

Bazemore suffered second-round losses at the season-opener in Pomona, Calif., and in Chandler, Ariz., as well as a first-round upset in Gainesville, Fla., which put him eighth in the point standings.

With these three races under their belt, as well as a productive test session at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway the Monday following that last event, Bazemore and crew chief Lee Beard are set for a turn-around of luck at this weekend's NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"The Matco Tools Dodge is showing signs of being really strong, but we're a little inconsistent now," said Bazemore, the 2003 NHRA Funny Car championship runner-up. "We haven't parlayed any of our qualifying success that we've had into race-day success for a couple of different reasons. Our goal right now is to try to be consistent and get into the later rounds on Sunday.

"We have a car and a team that can do that, but for several different reasons in the first three races we haven't gotten the results that we're capable of.

"Lee and the team made some changes after testing in Gainesville. So, we're very hopeful that what held us back in Gainesville won't hold us back in Vegas. I don't think it will.

"We feel good," added the Indianapolis resident and two-time U.S. Nationals champion. "We've got a great team, a great car, the season is young and things change awfully quickly in this sport, so you don't ever get too excited when you're doing well. But, by the same token, you don't want to drag yourself through the mud either when you're not winning."

Bazemore, who took the Funny Car championship chase down to the penultimate race last season right here at The Strip, is more determined than discouraged at this stage of 2004. "It's always nice to go out the first of the year with victories," he said. "It doesn't always happen that way. You have to have the ability to bounce back and we definitely have that ability. We're working hard to make ourselves successful. We're smart enough to be able to do that. We've done it in the past.

"We're going to be successful this year. There's no doubt about it. We're working hard to make it happen now. We're learning our new tune-up and Lee and the team are learning where we can go and where we can't go with it. To be stronger later on in the year we had to make changes over the winter and it's just part of the learning process."

Returning to The Strip at Las Vegas is always a highlight for Bazemore, who was Funny Car runner-up at both events in 2003, as well as runner-up at the SummitRacing.com Nationals in 2001. "It's one of the top facilities we race on during the year, so we like it a lot. The fan base has been growing here every single race and we certainly like that. I'm excited about racing here. The track will be excellent."

Bazemore, who has 15 career Funny Car event wins, was low qualifier twice at The Strip (2001 and 2003), but has not won here. He continues to hold the elapsed-time record here, however, of 4.748 seconds, established in October 2001.

Pro Nitro qualifying is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 2, and 12 noon and 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 3. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 4.

ESPN2 will cover qualifying at 10 p.m. ET on April 3, eliminations at 11 p.m. ET on April 4, with a repeat eliminations show on April 9 at 1 a.m. ET.

WHIT BAZEMORE QUICK FACTS:

* Qualified No. 1 at NHRA SummitRacing.Com Nationals in 2003, was runner-up to Tony Pedregon

* Was also runner-up to Pedregon at the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals in 2003

* Holds Funny Car track E.T. record at The Strip of 4.748 seconds

* Was No. 1 qualifier at The Strip in 2001 (second event) and 2003 (first

event)

* Has not won a pro Funny Car event at The Strip

* First Funny Car driver to break 325-mph barrier (U.S. Nationals 2001)

* 2003 Funny Car points runner-up

* Won three times in 2003, runner-up five times

* Has 15 career Funny Car event wins

* Took the 2003 championship chase to penultimate race in Las Vegas in an exciting final round against eventual champion Tony Pedregon

* Was also second in the NHRA Funny Car championship in 2001, third in 1997 and '99 and has finished in the top five six times and 11 times in the top 10 since 1992

* Age 41, born in New York City, an avid cyclist, lives in Indianapolis with wife Michelle, a semi-pro cyclist

* 2004 is his fourth season with Don Schumacher Racing

* Stands eighth in Funny Car points following Gainesville

* Two-time U.S. Nationals champion