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Bernstein (the rookie) is fastest in Top Fuel

Brandon Bernstein took his first trip down a quarter-mile drag strip at Gainesville Raceway the day after last year's NHRA Gatornationals. It was a test session as he prepared to take over the family's Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster when his father Kenny retired.

Friday, his runs at Gainesville counted. The rookie earned the No. 1 spot in the Top Fuel class in the first round of qualifying for the Gatornationals. Other top qualifiers: Tony Pedregon (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Craig Treble (Pro Stock Bike).

"I'm excited; obviously No. 1 is what you're gunning for in every race and Tim and the guys did an awesome job," said Bernstein, already a winner this year in the Feb. 23 event at Phoenix. "That thing, it left nice and got about half track and I knew it was on a good run because I could really feel it, it was really going down there."

He posted a 4.547-second elapsed time at 324.67 mph.

NHRA legend and Ocala resident Don Garlits put his Swamp Rat 34 in 15th place. Three-time champion Shirley Muldowney, a legend in her own right, will have two more chances today to make the 16-car grid. This is the first of six races in her "Last Pass" retirement tour.

"Obviously, those are legends of the sport and that would be kind of neat to be in that caliber with them," Bernstein said of the pair. "It would be fun."

It was overcast and humid Friday, but with today's forecast calling for rain, Bernstein was glad he paced the field early.

"We were just gunning for what today held and you never know with the weather," he said.

Larry Dixon, seeking his third straight Gatornationals victory, was fourth behind No. 2 Doug Herbert and No. 3 Clay Millican.

Qualifying continues today with pro class sessions at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

FUNNY CAR: Pedregon, who won the season-opening Winternationals, posted a 4.814/317.57 mph.

"These are nice conditions and traditionally this is one of the faster track surfaces that we race at," Pedregon said. "I'm surprised some of the other cars didn't take advantage of it."

Pedregon, the defending champion, was runner-up in series points last season to John Force. He has been the series runner-up four times in the past seven years, and when he won at Pomona, Calif., in February, the conventional wisdom was that his car was the one to beat. But Ron Capps took the points lead in the second race of the year, at Phoenix.

Capps qualified 13th out of 16 on Friday. Force, the 12-time NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series champion, was a distant seventh.

PRO STOCK: Anderson was the No. 1 qualifier in his Chevrolet Cavalier with a track-record 6.788-second elapsed time at 203.43 mph.

"Last year I didn't have factory sponsorship, and this year I have factory sponsorship and, by god, it's showing," Anderson said. "I thought it'd take me a while to get up to speed, but I'm way ahead of schedule. I've got the best working car, it almost doesn't need a driver."

PRO STOCK BIKE: Treble, the defending champion, went 7.176 seconds at 181.48 mph to take the lead spot as the class made its 2003 debut.

Treble tested well in Phoenix during the preseason but was riding his old bike. Last week at Bradenton, he said, "We thought we were going to rotate the world. We didn't. That was because of the rider."

Treble said he accomplished Friday what he didn't at Bradenton. He added, however: "We never found the sweet spot on that thing. I still don't think we found it."

_ KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER

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