- Bill Stephens
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When you compile a list of NHRA POWERade pros who have logged 10 to 20 years of their lives in pursuit of a Funny Car championship but have fallen short, some rather impressive names wind up appearing on that list.
For example, Ron Capps entered the category in 1997; Tim Wilkerson debuted in the class a year earlier. Gary Densham's Funny Car career began way back in 1979 while Jim Head's kicked off in 1980. Scott Kalitta has bounced back and forth between Top Fuel and Funny Car since 1982 and won back-to-back T/F titles in 1994 and 1995 -- but not in F/C.
Then there's Del Worsham.
The 38-year-old veteran is a second-generation racer whose father, Chuck, has handed his knowledge of the sport down to his talented son, who is as much at home behind the wheel of their Checker Schuck's Kragen Chevy Impala SS race car as he is digging in and working the wrenches between rounds. Del has never competed in organized drag racing in anything other than a nitro-fueled machine, and the 1991 NHRA Rookie of the Year has national event experience in both nitro categories.
In 2004, the Worsham family enjoyed its best points finish to date, ending the season in second place behind John Force, but since then, event wins and strong points finishes have been in short supply -- a situation that is making Worsham's 2008 run for his first POWERade championship an exercise in futility.
Worsham's '08 tally sheet after 10 national events is sketchy at best. The team celebrated a victory in Houston in March, but that victory has been overshadowed by four DNQs -- including at his sponsor's event in Phoenix -- three first-round losses, and a distant 13th place in the POWERade standings.
Worsham is pulling no punches, not making feeble apologies, nor playing the blame game to explain why he and his team are in the midst of a dry spell that could prevent them from advancing to the Countdown to One at the end of August.
"It's true that the competition level in the Funny Car class is pretty much at a modern all-time high, I will give you that, but it's still unacceptable to us to have four DNQs on our record in one year, let alone by the beginning of June," said Worsham, who is regrouping after his latest DNQ in Joliet, Ill., last week and preparing for the next race in Englishtown, N.J., on June 20-22.
"That's the best word I can come up with, unacceptable, because that's exactly how every person on this team feels about it. It's hard to believe, even though I've lived through every minute of it and it's definitely for real."
It has been a challenging year across the board in Funny Car, with new rules and safety regulations requiring teams to add weight to their race cars and adjust their combinations to compensate. Some crew chiefs have had better luck than others finding the elusive balance that these 8,000-horsepower creations demand, but again, Worsham's attitude about what he and his CSK team need to do comes back to focusing on the "what now" and not the "what if."
"There are lots of ways to DNQ, and every team out here has lived through most of them," Worsham said. "It can be bad luck, the weather can be involved, or it can just be a bad tuneup, and I think we've covered just about all the possibilities so far in 2008.
"If there's one key to it, in my mind, it's how we've been racing on Fridays at each event. It's so critical to get well up into the field on Friday, and far too many times we've missed both ways on the Friday runs. Whether it's too aggressive on [the] afternoon session, and then too conservative during the later run, or just the opposite, we haven't been able to get it right on Friday very often, and that puts you in that defensive Saturday situation where you have to just get down the track.
"That's no way to race, and when it gets in your mind that you're trying more not to make a mistake, rather than trying to go out there and succeed, it can mess everything up, including your mood and your decision-making."
Even Worsham's Funny Car adversaries sense the frustration and exasperation the CSK operation is fighting through. One of the Worsham team's most respectful admirers is Force, a 14-time POWERade champion and the sport's winningest driver.
"Those are good people over there," Force said. "They race you clean, they race hard, and it's all about family over there, which is what we try to have with our team. I know what it's like to be on the ropes no matter what you try to get your hot rod to do, but that kid and his old man are fighters and they've whipped up on me enough that I know they'll be looking to do it again before too long."
For Del and Chuck Worsham, that can't happen soon enough. With eight more national events remaining for them to climb into the top 10 and advance into the Countdown tournament, first-round losses and DNQs will have to become a thing of the past. Then, and only then, can they take solid aim at that first POWERade championship that has escaped their grasp for nearly 20 years.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Del Worsham is hoping he didn't peak too soon in 2008. Worsham won the Funny Car title at Houston in March, but he's limping in at 13th in the standings after four DNQs and three first-round defeats, writes Bill Stephens.