- Bill Stephens
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Two weeks ago, the NHRA POWERade schedule made its annual stop at Houston Raceway Park -- where performance records have become the norm -- for the O'Reilly Spring Nationals. Thanks to a hot racetrack and humid atmospheric conditions, the event wasn't the powerfest it might have been otherwise. Big numbers were in short supply.
This weekend, the O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals get under way at Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tenn., and it's a facility with quite a different reputation than HRP. Nobody comes to Bristol with visions of national records, career bests, or utilizing their most powerful tuneups. The winning teams in the three professional classes banging heads in Bristol will be pinning their successes on subtle adjustments rather than tuning bravado.
Here's a preview of the season's sixth national event.
Brandon Bernstein returns to the scene of his most eventful race of his rookie season in 2003. It was here last year that he won the race from the No. 1 qualifying spot -- a career-first -- and took over the points lead from Larry Dixon. He also scored low elapsed time and top speed of the race, giving him his first "sweep" of his professional career.
He can repeat history this time around, at least in regards to the points chase, by scoring 38 more points than Tony Schumacher this weekend. That's what separates the two top drivers in the category and that will be the key focus of the class as both drivers have accounted for all the wins so far in '04.
But questions still linger on whether Larry Dixon's team has settled into a groove of consistency with the setback blower setup. After a runner-up finish in Las Vegas, Dixon's semifinal loss to Clay Millican in Houston, when his Miller Lite dragster smoked the tires, kept him from a shot at winning the race -- a victory that would have changed the tempo of the Schumacher-Bernstein duopoly.
Also, can Doug Kalitta show some raceday consistency and score his first win of the year, in fact, can his cousin, Scott, or third teammate, David Grubnic, finally hit paydirt? Not if Schumacher or Bernstein maintain their recent patterns of success.
The tightly bunched drivers in the POWERade Funny Car top 10 fall into two distinct categories. Those who have won races and rounds (Del Worsham, Tim Wilkerson, Jerry Toliver) and have established some form of rhythm, and those who have been hit-or-miss (John Force, Whit Bazemore, Tony Pedregon) and are fortunate to be in the top 10 regardless.
Despite two unsatisfactory races in a row, Worsham remains the points leader with two national event wins. But it is only because most of the other big hitters in the class have been equally inconsistent that Worsham is leading the standings. Any one of three other drivers -- Gary Densham, Wilkerson, or Force -- could bump Worsham out of that lead with a strong showing in Bristol combined with an early Worsham exit.
Predicting the results of this weekend's race could be the toughest class to call since who would have foreseen after five races that Pedregon, Force, Bazemore and Densham would all be winless and Worsham, Toliver, Wilkerson and Phil Burkart would already have made it into the winner's circle?
Three years ago, Greg Anderson was a decided underdog driving the high-mileage ex-racecar of his father-in-law, Troy Humphrey, while striving stubbornly to make his mark as a driver in the sport's most competitive category. It was in Bristol in 2001 that he won his first national event, came back later that year to win the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, and since then has almost single-handedly diminished the remarkable parity that once defined the class.
A year ago, Kurt Johnson won here and made a strong case for being the driver to watch in the Pro Stock title hunt in '03. It was KJ's third win of the year and actually gave him a 95-point lead over Anderson for the top spot in the championship standings. But Anderson was on his way to a record-breaking title season and this year he appears to be even more dominant. Anderson has five No. 1 qualifying awards, four wins and an even greater lead -- 156 points -- than Johnson had over him at this juncture last year.
Until Anderson begins making crucial mistakes and untimely driving blunders, or his opponents discover enough horsepower to close the performance gap, the reigning Pro Stock champion will continue to go into each race as the heavy favorite.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.
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