Worsham sneaks up on Funny Car field

Originally Published: September 4, 2005
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Del Worsham has never won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. The closest he has ever come to winning the NHRA's landmark event in his nitro Funny Car was in 1992, when he was runner-up to a rookie sensation by the name of Cruz Pedregon.

That year, Pedregon would go on to shake up the Funny Car universe by outslugging John Force for the world championship while Worsham continued on his quest for a fuel coupe title -- a quest that endures 13 years later.

On Saturday, though, Worsham finally broke through with a victory at historic Indianapolis Raceway Park. He won the $100,000 Skoal Showdown for the first time, held during the final day of qualifying for this year's 51st U.S. Nationals.

On paper, Worsham had been anything but a lead pipe, pre-race pick.

In fact, 2005 has been an exasperating struggle for Worsham, his father and tuner, Chuck Worsham, and the entire Checker Schuck's & Kragen team. After his best points finish of his career in 2004 (second), Worsham was poised to go after the '05 championship with a confident attitude, slippery new Monte Carlo bodywork, and the momentum that builds following a successful campaign.

However, Worsham has climbed no higher than sixth in this year's POWERade standings, and that was back in February. His only victory of the year came in June in Englishtown, N.J., and over the past two-and-a-half months, he has been mired in ninth place in the title chase.

With a 13-16 round record, eight first-round losses, and only a single semifinal finish to his credit, Worsham has had to keep fighting the good fight despite accepting the harsh reality that his first Funny Car championship will have to wait at least another year.

But on Saturday, Worsham disposed of former Showdown winner Tony Pedregon, current Funny Car points leader Robert Hight, and Force Racing teammate Eric Medlen -- the hottest driver in the category -- to claim the $100,000 prize in the eight-car Indy bonus race. All three of Worsham's opponents were current or former Force proteges, and his win was just the shot in the arm the CSK team has needed.

"It's just awesome, and my dad and the crew were spectacular," Worsham said. "We were delayed quite a bit by some oil-downs, and that pushed us back to where the sun was actually going down behind the grandstand. The track was changing by the second, and we had all sorts of options as to what we could do to the tune-up.

"It was getting confusing, so finally right before the run I just told my dad I was done talking about it, and I was just going to drive. It was totally up to him. At the last second, he made the exact right call, and we just blistered that lap. This was a really big day for us."

Surely, the icing on Worsham's cake would be to come back on Monday and win the U.S. Nationals -- giving him the same kind of emotional rush that veteran driver Gary Densham enjoyed last year when he doubled-up.

But in the meantime, Worsham has lifted his game several notches and has given the other teams in the Funny Car class something to think about as the 2005 season heads down the stretch.

Lightning has struck, and as it usually does, unexpectedly.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.