- Bill Stephens
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CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Vieri Gaines doesn't look like a racecar driver.
Pass by him on a busy sidewalk and you could be convinced he's heading to his law practice, accounting firm, or insurance brokerage. The 60-year-old native of Lakewood, Colo. -- who is better known by his abbreviated first name, V. -- is the CEO of one of the largest trucking companies in the western United States. He would be the first to admit that he fails to possess the emblematic looks or swagger of a professional racer.
But on Sunday at the 24th Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird International Raceway outside Phoenix, looks didn't matter. Gaines ripped through the Pro Stock ladder, picking off four opponents representing 11 NHRA championships, on his way to only his third career national event win.
His three wins have been earned at only two different NHRA venues. (Both of Gaines' previous victories occurred at the Texas Motorplex in 2000 and 2001.)
"Nobody can accuse me of bunching up all my wins", said Gaines, who had advanced to only seven prior final rounds -- the most recent in Richmond, Va., last year. "It's really a kick to win, especially when you have to get past the great drivers we were able to beat today. But I'm having the time of my life just being out here and doing something a lot of people would love to be doing but will never have the chance. That's the part that is the most satisfying for me."
Gaines defeated Greg Stanfield, a former 4-time NHRA Super Stock sportsman champion, in the first round. In Round 2, he got past the No. 2 qualifier and three-time POWERade Pro Stock champion, Greg Anderson. His opponent in the semifinals was reigning Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. -- who also has a Super Gas title --, and his opposite number in the final round was Jason Line, the 2006 Pro Stock champ.
"It's been a long dry spell," Gaines said. "They said when I beat Greg Anderson, that this was the first time I'd beaten him since 2001, so that's bittersweet."
There was nothing sweeter than Larry Dixon's win in Top Fuel. With many of the category's heavy hitters and high qualifiers running into tough sledding throughout the day, Dixon picked up his first win of the year at the same track where he rang up his first career national event win in 1995 as a rookie.
In the final, he dropped David Grubnic, a perennial NHRA bridesmaid (two wins in 13 final rounds), who had qualified No. 2 to Dixon's No. 8 spot.
"Any time you get a win it's special," Dixon said. "[Crew chief] Donnie Bender has been on our team since 1999 and he's never been on a car that's won here. When you think about that, it would be nice to get that one out of the way. I'm dedicating this win to him."
"Hot Rod" Fuller had won this race in his previous two visits. Fuller, however was not a factor following the semifinals during which he was capped by Grubnic. Reigning five-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher, the No. 4 qualifier, was also stopped in the semifinals, and low qualifier Brandon Bernstein fell victim to Dixon in Round 2. Doug Kalitta, whose struggles from last year seem to be dogging him again in '08, was beaten by Schumacher in the opening round one day before his team owner, uncle, and NHRA legend Connie Kalitta was to celebrate his 70th birthday.
"Fast Jack" Beckman arrived in Phoenix suffering from a nasty case of the flu.
He somehow muscled his MTS Dodge Funny Car into the No. 15 qualifying spot -- a noteworthy accomplishment considering the shortened qualifying program due to the rain that washed out Friday's two sessions. On Sunday, the former Super Comp world champion and cancer survivor used a combination of solid passes and lucky strokes of survival to capture his fourth career victory.
"I went through chemotherapy," said Beckman when asked about racing with a stubborn virus. "I get a flu shot now every year, but I guess the flu this year is immune to that shot. I'm living proof. We drove the motorhome out here [from North Hills, Calif.] and I had to make a promotional appearance on Wednesday. You get up in the morning and you just feel like hell. I'm thinking it will go away tomorrow and it didn't. And you look at the back of the cold medicine and it says 'do not operate heavy machinery.' I don't know if that counts as a Nitro Funny Car.
"I didn't want to take anything, but after the second round I finally had to take some Tylenol. It was just getting hot in that thing. I'm glad it wasn't a 95-degree day in the summer. We would have been in big trouble."
Beckman's tuning team, of Rick Cassell and Tommy DeLago, was thrilled with the victory and stunned that somehow they were able to dodge several nagging miscues during the day.
"It's unexplainable," Cassell said. "We put this whole thing together about six weeks ago, with a whole new crew, and everything new. We're all just kind of surprised it's fallen together this quick, but we're happy. Jack is doing a great job."
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.