Commentary

Bernstein ready to put winless first half behind him

Brandon Bernstein has never had a winless season in Top Fuel, but he's halfway there now. With the Western Swing on the horizon and the days getting hotter, it's like just a matter of time before Bernstein heats up himself, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: July 3, 2008, 4:50 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Brandon Bernstein has never had a winless season.

The 35-year-old son of drag racing superstar Kenny Bernstein has won at least one NHRA POWERade national event in every season he has competed in his Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster, including his injury-shortened rookie campaign in 2003.

But after this past weekend's second Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio, Bernstein was still without a 2008 victory as the first half of the '08 schedule wrapped up.

It is an unusual position for the second-generation racer to be in, as it is the latest point in the season during his five-and-a-half year career as a pro that he has nto found a POWERade winner's circle.

In fact, the early entries of his Top Fuel résumé are distinctive for final-round success ratio. He won his first four career final rounds before his first runner-up finish.

It would be another six final-round meetings before he would be beaten in a Top Fuel playoff -- the 2006 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis by five-time champion Tony Schumacher.

But that impressive trend has been reversed recently.

Two races ago in Englishtown, N.J., Bernstein was beaten by Schumacher in the final round on a holeshot.

Then, on Sunday in Norwalk, he again fell via a holeshot to Doug Herbert, who is dedicating his 2008 campaign to his two sons, Jon and James, who were killed in a traffic accident in North Carolina this past winter.

For Bernstein, his loss on the racetrack was immensely less significant than the loss that Herbert has had to cope with and, more recently, the tragic death of Funny Car veteran Scott Kalitta on June 21.

"As much as we wanted to win the event, we know Doug has dedicated his season to his two sons," said Bernstein. "It was an emotional win for him. He also had his daughter with him. We have a lot of compassion for him as well as the Kalitta family. Our racing fraternity is all about families. Doug lost his sons, and we just lost Scott Kalitta.

"In the big picture, it's about families. Our team will have another day."

Bernstein has first-hand experience in overcoming adversity. His 2003 rookie season was abruptly cut short in May when he severely injured his back in a crash at Raceway Park in Englishtown. He nonetheless was that year's NHRA Road to the Future Award winner, returned to action in 2004, and in each successive NHRA season has finished in the top 10 -- three times at No. 3.

He is now holding sixth place in the Top Fuel standings, far below what he and his team -- led by master tuners Tim and Kim Richards -- would call satisfactory.

Brandon Bernstein

When we get into the hot summer months, it takes a shrewd crew chief to create a tuneup that can help one of these powerful dragsters negotiate the track without losing traction.

-- Brandon Bernstein

With the Denver-Seattle-Sonoma "Western Swing" starting in two weeks, Bernstein is aware that this midseason marathon during the hottest weeks of the summer will provide either further frustrations as he tries for 2008 victory No. 1, or will see him capitalize on the tremendous experience of his tuning team.

"When we get into the hot summer months, it takes a shrewd crew chief to create a tuneup that can help one of these powerful dragsters negotiate the track without losing traction," said Bernstein. "Fortunately, we have Tim and Kim who have a lot of experience in this regard. Tim has a good hot weather tuneup combination and he just proved that at Englishtown, where we qualified second and went to the finals in eliminations."

With a 15-12 round record, three final-round appearances and six races to secure a slot in the Countdown to 1, Bernstein is in no jeopardy of missing the next phase of the championship sweepstakes.

The dynamics of winning a title differ greatly from the pre-Countdown days, when to win the championship you had to finish the season with the most points -- period.

But now the process is a bit more involved, and 10 drivers will move into the decisive stages of the Countdown following this year's U.S. Nationals in Indy before getting eliminated along the way to the season finale in Pomona, Calif.

For Bernstein, making the cut on Labor Day weekend will be a vital step in achieving his first career championship and giving the Bernstein family seven altogether. But, perhaps, he'll be focused on clearing up one piece of unfinished business along the way -- outlined in the opening statement of this story.

Brandon Bernstein has never had a winless season.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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