Although a few tough breaks during the first three races of the year have put a damper on Mark Pawuk's early season performance numbers, they certainly haven't suppressed the enthusiasm of the veteran Pontiac Grand Am Pro Stock driver. And as he looks ahead to next weekend's Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 46-year-old Akron, Ohio native remains positive about the long-term success of his race team.

"What we've been able to find out in testing keeps us extremely optimistic about our prospects for 2004," Pawuk said. "We're confident of our chances at Las Vegas and that things will head back in our direction. There are also a lot of things that excite me about the Nationals It's one of two national events over the next eight weeks where Summit Racing is the title sponsor - Atlanta being the second race on May 15. The incentive to drive well, and from a team standpoint, to perform at our optimum level, becomes a top priority. 

"I also enjoy racing Las Vegas Motor Speedway because the last time I won was in October of 2001 was at this facility. Most importantly though, Summit Racing has invited Cindy Lingenfelter to be the grand marshal next weekend and it will be nice to be able to spend some time with her. John was such a class guy for so many years, and was one of the great personalities and engineering minds of our sport - I was so proud to be a Summit Racing teammate of John's. So I certainly have my own personal reasons for wanting to do well and maybe this is the race where we get this program headed back in the right direction." 

Pawuk is a realist, and he'll be the first to admit that the first three contests have been a tremendous disappointment to himself and his teammates, especially after the performance and promise his Grand Am showed during pre-season testing. At the same time, Pawuk also knows that the current roster of individuals that make up the Summit Racing Pro Stock program may be the best group he's ever assembled during his 20 seasons as a professional competitor. That's why he remains ever so hopeful on this year's prospects. 

 "This is one of the best teams we've ever fielded," Pawuk said. "When you look at Marcus Bowen, Terry Adams, Scott Pastircak and Dale Eicke, it's hard to find a better, more talented bunch in motorsports. Everyone is very selfless and positive, their attitudes are great, they're working well together and there's no reason why we won't run better. When you have a group of guys like we have, who work non-stop, seven days a week, good things are bound to start happening. We really feel that a break or two could take us a long way, and once you qualify and get in the show, anything's possible. That's what's so great about our sport."

Everyone likes a cowboy, especially one that has learned to wrestle and tame the ferocity of a racecar powered by 1,200 horses. Since the summer of 1985, Pawuk has displayed his skills as a Pro Stock competitor on the NHRA tour. Now in his 20th season on the professional circuit, Pawuk's endurance and longevity have been well earned. At the Nationals Pawuk will enter his 351st event, placing him second among active drivers for most starts behind Warren Johnson (436) and just one race in front of Bruce Allen (350). 

Pawuk entered his first contest at Columbus (Ohio) in the 1985 and during the last three decades he's accumulated six national-event victories, raced in 21 final-rounds, scored 199 round wins, two top-five and 11 top-10 points finishes. He scored a pair of career-best fifth-place finishes in the 1993 and 2000 final points standings, but a sixth-place effort in 2001, the result of five final-round appearances and two No. 1 qualifiers, may have been his best overall performance. Pawuk also set the national e.t. record at Englishtown (N.J.) that year and held first place in the standings in late May. It's still wait and see, but the Summit Racing Pontiac driver feels his team is capable of being one of the categories' elite programs.

"Our engines may not produce the most horsepower out there, but if we make good runs they are good enough to qualify us anywhere from No. 6 to No. 12," Pawuk said. "That's why every run down the racetrack counts. When you miss a qualifying session like we did at Gainesville, you get behind, dig yourself into a hole and it's difficult to find your way out. Don't forget, the Summit Racing Pontiac Grand Am was the ninth fastest and then the seventh fastest car during Saturday time trials at Phoenix. We were able to recover and get in the show in the slowest  session of the weekend, and then we were the fastest car in the first round in the right lane on Sunday. Since then, we found some additional horsepower and ran good speed at Gainesville. With just a small amount of luck and a few breaks, this racecar is ready to fly.

"Although you never have the motor situation completely figured out, we have a brand new engine we're going to run before Las Vegas. It will have the complete Dale Eicke-designed cylinder head, and even though it may not run at it's full potential right off the bat, it looks like it's going to be very good. Dale's put a lot of technology into and there are a lot of applied characteristics that have worked well in the past. Although there are always issues when you're trying to get a new engine up to speed, if everything goes right we could have it in the car in Las Vegas."

The NHRA Summit Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the fourth race on the 23-event NHRA POWERade schedule, and the highest elevated racetrack the series will compete on (2,100 feet) until the tour's stop in Denver in mid July.

"With Las Vegas, we're going into a different climate, with a tremendous difference in elevation and entirely different conditions from what we faced in the first three races," Pawuk explained. "We had a pretty good race track at Phoenix. At Gainesville we had a lot more power because of the higher barometer, and better weather conditions but we had to adjust to the new racetrack. Now we're going into a lower barometer situation where we'll have less power and if the heat comes in, that will be just one more adjustment we'll have to make with our tune-up. With every racetrack we face different variables that makes each event a whole new chess game. Now we're starting to gather tune-ups for the different conditions we will face and we're getting more and more comfortable with the new tire and wheel combination.

"I got the team together Saturday night after we missed making the Gatornationals. and I told the guys that I have complete confidence in each and every one of them - that we will get this program turned around. The Pro Stock points race is wide open. With the team we have in place and the strides we've made with our engine program, I'm certain we can still be a player."