The Christmas Tree is almost green

Of all the big-time motorsports series, including NASCAR, IRL, CART and Formula One, only the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series begins and ends its season at the same facility. The legendary Fairplex at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, Calif., hosts both the season-opening K&N Winternationals in February, and the season-ending Auto Club Finals in November.

Much has happened within Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock since this past Nov. 9 when the 2003 season came to a close at the 'Plex, and many of those changes play into what we can expect this weekend as the 2004 NHRA slate raises the curtain at the hallowed dragstrip cradled in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Top Fuel

Defending event champion: Larry Dixon

The 2004 POWERade championship may be the most bitterly contested Top Fuel prize in a long time. This year, the top contenders for the title are experienced, focused, well-financed, and determined to make a run for the Top Fuel crown. As veteran Doug Herbert recently pointed out, "Finishing in the top 10 this year may be tougher than it's ever been."

Larry Dixon has ridden the crest of two straight years of red-hot starts to earn him his consecutive championships. That may not do the trick this season. The Top Fuel fraternity missed many an opportunity to close up on Dixon and tuner Dick Lahaie last year, as the Miller Lite team went from sweeping the Western Swing to going winless the rest of the way. This year, look for Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta, Scott Kalitta, Darrell Russell, Brandon Bernstein, David Baca and a somewhat underfunded Cory McClenathan, racing with the "Carrier Boyz" team, to go after Dixon early and often.

Big numbers -- 4.40 elapsed times and 330-plus mph speeds -- will be expected by the "good teams" at the "good tracks" where there are "good conditions." Consistency will again be a vital necessity for whoever wins the championship but "quicker consistency" may be the key ingredient. If the teams chasing after Dixon's title can go quicker more often than Lahaie's machine-like tuneup, this year's championship picture will be filled with drama.

But Dixon and Lahaie have won the Winternationals two years straight -- the first team to ever do that -- and they also won the 2002 Budweiser Shootout which had been moved to February from November due to rain. If they are to win this weekend, with cool weather predicted for the Pomona area, they'll need plenty of muscle.

Funny Car

Defending event champion: Tony Pedregon

Where to begin? The changes within the Funny Car class begin at the top of the 2003 standings and bump all the way down to the bottom. But as has been the case for the past decade, the spotlight shines most intensely on John Force.

Except this time, he's sharing it with his talented rookie driver, Eric Medlen, driving the Castrol Syntec Mustang with which Tony Pedregon won the '03 championship. Medlen enjoyed a successful preseason testing regimen heading into Pomona, and the only unanswered question is whether he can handle his racecar under full combat conditions. His father, John, will continue to serve as the car's tuner and the father-son angle is one that will receive lots of play in '04.

Meanwhile, Force is expected to throw every available resource at regaining the championship belt, and any head-to-head matchups this year with Pedregon, who will race together with his brother, Cruz, will have built-in excitement. There's some contentious afterglow remaining between the former teammates and it will only be intensified on the field of battle.

But Force's most determined adversaries -- Whit Bazemore, Gary Scelzi, Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., Del Worsham, Phil Burkart, Tim Wilkerson and either Pedregon brother -- know that the many distractions Force has had to contend with over the past six months may have left him a bit vulnerable. But almost all of the above names have changes of their own to adjust to this year and beating Force will require a totally unified effort.

Is Force beatable again? We'll know a lot more about that when this weekend is over.

Pro Stock

Defending event champion: Warren Johnson

Greg Anderson. The Pro Stock debate begins and ends there.

With a second car driven by Jason Line to provide extra data and tactical support, the reigning champion will come into Pomona expecting to pick up where he left off in 2003 when he set new category records in almost every statistical grouping.

Anderson's occasional shaky starting line snafus couldn't prevent him from winning a record 12 races last year and he'll surely be a better driver in '04. Who has a chance to overhaul him this year?

Anyone who can throw more horsepower at him -- and that may narrow the possibilities to a precious few. But expect Warren and Kurt Johnson to have more grunt this weekend, especially in light of WJ's win at the sparsely attended Pro Stock Superbowl in Houston several weeks ago. KJ is pumped with a new Jerry Haas-built Cavalier and one can assume the team's long hours in their engine shop has paid off with a few more ponies.

Team Jeg's knows that they'll need a bigger stick this year and Jeg Coughlin Jr.'s test results in Bradenton were encouraging. Team Mopar was totally overmatched by the GM brigade in '03 and although Allen Johnson was last year's Winternationals runner-up, the '03 highlight reel doesn't include much more of him or his Mopar teammates. They'll need to put their Hemi-powered Dodges much closer to the top of the power charts in '04 to have a better outcome.

The bead locks will be an issue only until everyone figures them out, but the real job will be anointing someone to take up the quest to stop Greg Anderson. And that quest begins this week.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.