For almost 20 years, Cory McClenathan has followed the NHRA trail, coming agonizingly close to winning the Top Fuel title on several occasions. As the NHRA tour once again comes to Bristol for the June 18-20 NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, “Cory Mac” could be on the verge of finally earning the coveted crown.

With a steady early season charge, including two wins in the first four events, McClenathan finds himself within striking distance of the lead. While he has been in the same position many times before, he feels this could be the year.

“We are in a great position,” McClenathan said. “The car has been strong all year long. We have done well this year; we have some wins already and several final rounds. I try not to be overzealous or too excited too early, but I think we have the makings of a championship season.

“The car is speaking for itself. I’m very lucky that my guys are very level-headed and there are no egos there. We’ve been trying to do this and be very positive about it. We’re definitely in the hunt and really happy at this point.”

McClenathan’s chief competition comes from the juggernaut on the same team, Tony Schumacher. Schumacher is a seven-time NHRA Top Fuel World Champ and has kept many drivers out of Winner’s Circle. McClenathan, however, has no ill will against his teammate and looks forward to trying to knock him off the top this season.

“Our chances are as good as his,” he said. “We share so much information between everybody (at Don Schumacher Racing). You can’t help but go in to every single weekend thinking you have a car to win a drag race. It will be a tough year for Tony to repeat, but that isn’t to say he won’t be able to do it.

“I’m lucky to have the teammates I do. Obviously, working with Tony and Antron (Brown) is great. I have a lot of fun with the Funny Car bunch, Matt (Hagan), Ron (Capps) and Jack (Beckman). We have all the parts and resources at our fingertips to go out and win championships. This is my second year with Todd and Phil on the FRAM car… I’m enjoying the partnership with everyone and Don and his family.”

While some may feel Don Schumacher might provide extra support for his son Tony, McClenathan says nothing is further from the truth.

“Don is not a one championship-minded guy,” he explained. “He knows we have the ability to go win the championship. If Tony wins, even better. If my son was out there doing it, I’d also like to see him win. But Don is very fair when it comes to giving everybody the equal opportunity to go out and make it happen.”

Because of his time on the NHRA circuit, McClenathan has ascended into the position of a mentor, helping the new students of Top Fuel learn the intricacies of the sport. It is a position he holds in high regard.

“I like the position I’m in,” he admitted. “Especially the younger drivers if they are willing to listen. If I see something during the weekend that raises an eyebrow, or if I see them do something well, I try to be the first to point that out…I hope they can take away what they can learn on the positive side. It has been fun to watch the kids go from, not one or two laps, but to 50 to 100 laps and say, ‘I know what you are talking about.’”

“Shawn Langdon, by far, has done a great job. He always comes up with great questions and has been a quick learner. He leaves on time better than everybody. He has that down. That, I have not helped him with. If he could teach me that, I would be happy. It has been fun…I’ve never been a closed book. I’ve always been one that if I can help someone learn something, I try to do it. It hasn’t been to make money or for the accolades; it is just for the enjoyment of trying to help.”

Above all, McClenathan, the driver of the FRAM Top Fueler, feels humbled by his time in the NHRA.

“I love what I do for a living,” he said. “There are a lot of sacrifices along the way. My family sacrifices every single weekend I’m at the race track. I’m going on 20 years traveling the NHRA circuit. NHRA has been good to me. Wally Parks had a dream that I’ve been able to live; making a living as a race car driver. A lot of people haven’t been able to do it for this long, so I’ve been very fortunate.”

While he has enjoyed his time in NHRA, there is one moment he would rather forget when he returns to Bristol, his spectacular crash during the Friday night qualifying session in 2006.

“I expect to win this year,” he began. “I’ve had great days and I’ve had bad weekends in Bristol. I think everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. Winning the funny car vs. dragster deal there was huge. It was great when I drove for the Carrier boys because that was their hometown and that was fun. The folks have always treated us great there, Bruton has always been great.

“But, ’06 definitely comes back to your mind every time and haunts you when you pull up in that right hand lane for a night session on a Friday night; it gets your attention. I know it is one of those things that can happen anywhere, but it happened there for me.”

When the NHRA visits Bristol, McClenathan is sure of one thing, a tight battle among the top contenders.

“We talked earlier in the season with media about predictions on what would happen this year,” he said. “They came back at the drivers and asked what we thought would happen. The first thing we said was the DSR cars, Larry Dixon, Doug Kalitta will all be in the running, and they are. It should be fun.”

The NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals begin when gates open at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 18 with the first round of Pro Qualifying slated for 5 p.m. The pro cars will return at 7:30 p.m. for the exciting night qualifying round.

Gates open at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 19 with Pro Qualifying set for 12:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. The special NHRA Fan Fest, located in the pit area, begins at 4:30 p.m., allowing fans the opportunity to meet the stars face-to-face.

Sunday’s action kicks off when gates open at 9:30 a.m. and Final Eliminations crank up at 12:00 noon. Tickets begin at only $20 due to special Father’s Day pricing on Sunday.

Ticket prices are as follows: Friday -- Sections A - D $30 Adult / $10 Junior; Sections E - U $35 Adult / $10 Junior; Thunder Terrace $35 Adult / $10 Junior, Saturday -- Sections A - D $45 Adult / $15 Junior; Sections E - U $55 Adult / $25 Junior; Thunder Terrace $55 Adult / $25 Junior, Sunday -- Sections A- B $20 Adult / $10 Junior, Sections C - D $45 Adult / $15 Junior, Section E – P $55 Adult/ $25 Junior, Section Q – U $20 Adult/$10 Junior, Thunder Terrace $55 Adult / $25 Junior. Weekend combos are: Sections A - B $79 Adult / $30 Junior, Section C – D $95 Adult/$30 Junior, Sections E - P $120 Adult / $50 Junior, Sections Q – U $95 Adult/$30 Junior and Thunder Terrace $120 Adult / $50 Junior. Thunder Valley Club admission for three days is $300 for adults and $100 for juniors. Three-day Bruton’s Suite admission is $450 for both adults and juniors.

To purchase tickets, please call the Bristol ticket office at 423-989-6900 or visit www.bristoltix.com.