It doesn't bother Larry Dixon.

He deflects attention from the fact he has won the last two National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel championships by saying things like "You know, I'm just the guy that gets shot out of the cannon. I'm not the ringmaster." So he couldn't have cared less about the latest buzz among Top Fuel teams Feb. 6-8 as preseason testing continued.

Like an echo resounding through the Firebird International Raceway pits, dragster drivers and team owners told how much they're improving their dragsters for the 2004 POWERade Drag Racing Series season to compete not with Dixon and the Miller Lite Dragster but with Tony Schumacher and Kalitta cousins Doug and Scott.

"Everybody had to go through pretty big changes this winter to keep up with the Schumacher and Kalitta cars," Budweiser/Lucas Oil Dragster team owner Kenny Bernstein said. "They had a little bit of an advantage over most of us, and it was in the blower area and manifold area and the fuel system area and the clutch area."

That's a significant laundry list. And Bernstein said that in retrospect, he might have better used the 15 races in which he came out of retirement and subbed for injured son Brandon. The six-time champion won four of the last five events, but he wondered aloud if they should have tried out some new equipment to put Brandon that much farther ahead when he reclaims the seat at the season-opening Winternationals Feb. 19-22. "We elected to try to win some races and not experiment. Looking back now, maybe we should've, because we weren't going to win the points championship anyway."

But after he won the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals last November, Bernstein mentioned Schumacher's U.S. Army Dragster and the Kalitta clan's Mac Tools matched set as the teams to try to keep up with.

"Granted, we won four of the last five races at the end. We were more consistent than they were," Bernstein said. "But if we had to run those guys at the end of the season on a heads-up run where they had no malfunctions and we had none, they would outrun us." They didn't show much at the Phoenix test session -- understandable on the retreated but less-than-desirable surface. Meanwhile, Brandon Bernstein hit a comfortable 4.698-second e.t. at 254.86 miles an hour -- not scintillating but respectable on this tricky track and certainly encouraging among his first handful of runs since recovering from a broken back.

"Now we have to move it up to that next level," Kenny Bernstein said. "It's a major undertaking this winter for everybody, not just our team."

Darrell Russell proved that crew chief Wayne Dupuy and his staff had been onto something at owner Joe Amato's shop in Scranton, Pa., where they installed new cylinder heads, fuel system and set-back blower. Russell recorded the best time and speed of the weekend with a late-Sunday blast of 4.525 seconds at 313.00 mph on the often-uncooperative quarter-mile. The former calf-roper from Hockley, Texas, said he and the Bilstein Dragster team planned to stay in Phoenix, testing their new combination "till the cows come home, if we have to." The career-best e.t. gives him hope of improving his already impressive fourth-place finish.

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