- Bill Stephens
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LAS VEGAS -- Things were a whole lot more fun for "Hot Rod" Fuller last year.
The former sportsman and drag racing home run hitter, who has now jumped into the NHRA's Top Fuel class not once, but twice, ended the 2007 POWERade season in the No. 2 spot in the championship points. It was only an untimely first-round loss in the season's concluding event that spoiled what would have been a remarkable title-winning campaign for the affable, engaging resident of Las Vegas -- by way of Rogers, Ark. -- who will celebrate his 37th birthday on April 20.
Fuller broke into the Top Fuel ranks in 1995, switched to the Lucas Oil Sportsman Series between 1997 and 2004, and returned to the professional level in 2005, finishing in the POWERade Top Fuel top 10 for the first time in his career. His 2007 stat sheet was easily his most impressive with three victories, three runner-up finishes, and a 40-20 round record. And despite just missing the crown, Fuller went into the offseason with high expectations for 2008.
Then, things took a turn.
Three of his most valuable crew members left the team, including Doug Foxworth, an experienced Top Fuel veteran who had owned and campaigned his own Top Fuel team in the past.
With vital positions needing to be filled heading into 2008 and with a rather shallow pool of replacements with extensive nitro racing experience to choose from, Fuller began the new year with a revised opinion of where his season might be headed.
"Experience is important out here," said Fuller, shortly after his first-round loss at the SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "The guys I have now are great and they are really super to work with, but putting new people into three different positions going into a new season is tough. We are still developing team chemistry and learning to work together as a unit.
"The best teams out here know each other and can get their jobs done almost with their eyes closed. We want to be that kind of team, but I knew coming into this year that things would be a lot different than they were last year."
It was another first-round exit for Fuller in Vegas, falling to Troy Buff on Sunday.
Even Fuller's off-track activities took a major spiral downward on March 31 when his prized 2001 Lamborghini Diablo caught fire as he drove home shortly after purchasing gasoline for the rare supercar. The Lamborghini was totaled and video of the fire's aftermath has been posted on YouTube. It wasn't the kind of notoriety the demoralized Fuller was looking for and he is anything but proud of having his exotic sports car become an unwelcome star of the Internet.
"I was hoping to keep the whole thing quiet," admitted Fuller. "But before I knew it, it seemed the whole world knew about what had happened. Luckily, it was insured and I'd be able to find another one to replace it if I wanted to. But with the way the economy has been heading, I'm not going to go out right away and shop for another Diablo."
Fuller's livelihood comes exclusively from his duties as one of two drivers employed by David Powers Racing, alongside rookie Antron Brown. He feels the pressure of having to perform well and keep his primary sponsor, Caterpillar, enthused and invested in his program.
No driver likes to have to make that Monday morning call to the sponsor explaining why he missed making the winner's circle at a national event, and this year, Fuller has already had to make that call five times. There's still a long way to go in the 2008 season, but Hot Rod longs for the kind of successes he and his team earned in 2007.
"We know that all it takes is a win to put a whole new face on our situation," he said. "When that happens, we'll start having a lot more fun."
It was Cory McClenathan who had the most fun in Top Fuel when he outran Brown in the final, 4.654 seconds at 315.86 mph to 4.703/315.93.
"This was a long time in coming," said McClenathan, who hadn't won a national event since his Richmond, Va., victory in 2006. "It was my 30th career win in the 30th race since my last one so you might say the numbers were working in my favor in Las Vegas. Antron has really been impressive in his first year and I knew that his win two weeks ago was no fluke. We had to be at our best and luckily, we were."
In Funny Car, Ashley Force missed her chance at making category history for the second consecutive race. She is trying to become the first woman to win a national event in F/C, but dropped her final-round matchup with Tim Wilkerson, 4.962/292.58 to 4.993/313.95. Force was beaten by Del Worsham in the Houston final two weeks ago.
"Del won two weeks ago and now we've won so you might say the 'little guys' are getting some of the spotlight," said Wilkerson, who, along with Worsham, competes with one of the few successful single-car teams in the NHRA's Funny Car class. "It's been over three years since we've done this and you'd hate to have to say you've forgotten what it feels like."
Wilkerson's victory helped to erase the frustration of his strong qualifying performances in 2008, including two No. 1 starts, which had led to a disappointing 3-4 round record in eliminations.
Jason Line, the 2006 Pro Stock champion, picked up his first win of 2008 when he turned back first-time '08 finalist Greg Stanfield in the payoff round, 6.782/203.83 to 6.816/203.16. Line's previous victory came just over a year ago in Houston.
"It's been so long since we had won a race, you start to lose confidence," Line said. "To finally win a race, it's redeeming. To win the Summit race [Line's sponsor] is a huge deal for us.
"The truth is, I haven't done a good job [driving]. The stars may lie but the numbers don't. This is the best car I've had in one and a half years. I think the lack of confidence is definitely a bad thing for sure. I finally got some back and it feels really good."
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.