- Bill Stephens
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TOPEKA, Kan. -- Heartland Park Topeka, the locale for this weekend's 16th O'Reilly Summer Nationals, is a drag racing facility where ultra-low elapsed times and monumental top speeds have become a common occurrence.
In 1993, the NHRA saw the first four-second run and 300 mph top speed in Funny Car go into the record books at HPT thanks to two different drivers. Chuck Etchells' 4.987 e.t and Jim Epler's 300.13 mph speed turned drag racing on its ear.
Might we see more record-smashing performance this weekend, in light of the groundswell of incredible times and speeds that erupted in Joliet last week?
Here's a preview:
Make no mistake: Doug Kalitta's 4.420 lightning bolt in last week's final round in Joliet was a phenomenal performance milestone, achieved on the same racetrack where he ran the previously quickest e.t in history last fall, 4.428. But one shouldn't lose sight of the fact he carded two other 4.40's passes in eliminations on his way to his first win of 2004, and has moved to within striking distance of points leader Tony Schumacher. However, the weather forecast for Topeka through the weekend is calling for sunny, hot conditions, which will keep track temperatures high, making the possibility of more performance heroics rather slight.
Meanwhile, we've seen what Schumacher can do this year, and Brandon Bernstein has won twice. But Kalitta's win now poses the question as to whether he can run another strong race in Topeka and continue to put pressure on Schumacher (and Bernstein, in second place).
Defending event champion Larry Dixon's three straight first round losses in Bristol, Atlanta, and Joliet have now essentially taken him out of the title chase -- an unusual statement to make about a two-time champion whose Miller Lite team is still dangerous on any racetrack. But if and until he can begin to show the same round-winning and race-winning flair he has displayed over the past three seasons, the Schumacher-Bernstein-Kalitta triple-team will control the category.
Over the past three races, 12-time champion John Force and the driver who has dogged him for the better part of the last decade, Whit Bazemore -- who now drives the quickest and fastest Funny Car in history -- have stepped into the spotlight. Whit has advanced to the last three final rounds, winning one, while Force has won two of the last three races. Last year, it was Bazemore and Force's former teammate, reigning POWERade champion Tony Pedregon, who waged a fierce war both on the track and in the media for the 2003 crown. Might the 2004 championship hunt come down to the same two teams again?
Unless Del Worsham, who lost the points lead to Bazemore last week, finds his groove again, he may slip even further behind. And while Gary Scelzi's landmark 330.55 mph top speed record from last week was remarkable, as was Pedregon's 4.713/331.28 rip -- both in qualifying -- they remain winless in '04. But Pedregon has won here the past three years, albeit with Force's mighty operation behind him-and he'll feel right at home at HPT.
Tricky track conditions may dominate this week's storyline, but with seven Topeka wins already under his belt (and having never lost a first round matchup at this event), not to mention his amazing escape act to win in Joliet last week, Force could be on the verge of calling the shots in the class again as he has done throughout his career.
Jason Line's first career Pro Stock victory in Joliet last week did little to weaken the stranglehold Greg Anderson continues to hold on the category. Anderson lost on a redlight to Line in the final round but shared low e.t. honors with his teammate in every round. Anderson's reaction times (except in the final round) were dead on and you can make whatever case you'd like about how Anderson has not qualified No. 1 in two straight races, but there's little evidence the Vegas General Construction team is heading downhill.
It's time for the rest of the class to take a stand. Larry Morgan, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Warren and Kurt Johnson, and the other premium teams in Pro Stock may find that the past two weeks could be the closest to a dry spell that Anderson will have this year. He comes in the defending event champion and if he's allowed to retain his event title at HPT, there will likely be no catching him in the POWERade points.
The final round of the rain-postponed $50,000 King Demon Crown will be held in Topeka this weekend, with Anderson tangling with 21-year-old Dave Connolly for the big payout.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.