- Bill Stephens
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Every year as the NHRA POWERade schedule rumbles into Firebird Raceway outside Phoenix, Ariz., for the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals, the same scenario seems to play out across the pro categories.
That scenario? The Pomona results from the previous outing often tend to be reflected in what happens at Firebird.
There were some surprises, putting it mildly, in what played out at the Fairplex two weeks ago. And while it's way too early to use the season's first race to make any credible predictions on the 2005 championship outcome, here's what's on the line this weekend at the CSK Nationals.
Can Brandon Bernstein cash in again and score a three-peat at Firebird? Will Tony Schumacher bounce back and shake off his second round loss in Pomona at the track where he made the sport's first 330 mph pass six years ago? Or will the Kalitta clan mount another three-pronged attack and see Scott Kalitta snatch his second win in a row?
Those are the big themes in the Top Fuel class this weekend and you can't discount the possibility of any of those three possibilities becoming reality. But don't overlook three others. Doug Hebert's final round appearance and runner-up finish in Pomona may be a sign his new tuner, Rob Flynn, has a winning combination. Morgan Lucas showed big numbers in Pomona and has to be considered a threat, as does Cory McClenathan, who got off to a rough start in Pomona and will be hungry for redemption in Phoenix.
Many teams tested here in January and, after plenty of tire smoke, worked out the bugs and you can expect those same teams to hit the ground running strong this weekend.
Tommy Johnson Jr.'s Pomona win was equal parts great team preparation, driver consistency and unabashed luck. But any drag racer will tell you that sometimes -- many times -- you need that kind of marriage to win on Sunday. This weekend will clearly determine if Tommy's win is repeatable or just a fortunate fluke.
Meanwhile, the biggest dogs on the block, Team Schumacher and John Force Racing, are hoping for much better than what they got in Pomona. The two teams, which run a total of six F/C's, combined for a meager two round wins on Sunday as Whit Bazemore advanced to the semifinals.
But if you're looking for the class's most motivated team, look at the CSK outfit of Del Worsham and Phil Burkart. Phil fell short to Johnson Jr. in the Pomona final while Del never got into a groove at the season opener. What better way to give themselves a boost than to win their sponsor's race -- something Del has done two out of the last three years.
If Pomona proved anything, it's that the Pro Stock class is beginning to resemble what it looked like three years ago, before Greg Anderson rode into town.
The improvements made to just about every upper-tier program and the resulting equitability of performance points to a major fight for this year's championship. Dave Connolly's Pomona win has given him genuine frontrunner status for this year's title, but impressive showings by Jim Yates, Warren and Kurt Johnson, and Ron Krisher indicate the playing field is as level as it's been since 2002.
Who haven't we mentioned? Two-time champion Anderson, who struggled in Pomona, along with teammate Jason Line, who both need strong outings this weekend to try to regain the swagger they had enjoyed for the previous 46 national events.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
The NHRA is set to turn up the heat in the desert this weekend. Here's what to expect out West.