- Bill Stephens
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It has been three weeks since the NHRA POWERade series wrapped up its business at the Mac Tools Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.
This weekend, the four professional classes will pick up where they left off when the 18th O'Reilly Spring Nationals roar to life at another famously quick facility: Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas.
It's the fourth national event of the 2005 schedule, and here's a look at how it all shapes up:
Big power played into the Top Fuel results in Gainesville, as two of the heavy hitters in the category, Doug Kalitta and Larry Dixon, squared off in the final. It wasn't their horsepower that decided the final round, since both smoked their tires, resulting in Kalitta's first win of '05 in a pedaling match; but big power got them to the payoff round. Houston Raceway Park has long been a venue where aggressive tuneups lead to success, so it's likely 4.50 elapsed times and 325-mph speeds will occur frequently.
Dixon's runner-up finish in Gainesville is a clear indication that his lukewarm 2004 season is well behind him. He'll be thoroughly motivated to build on his Gainesville success this weekend at the track where he made the sport's first 4.40s pass in 1999 (with Dale Armstrong tuning). Defending series champion Tony Schumacher was upset by Dixon in the second round in Gainesville, and the U.S. Army team will be hoping to rebound, as will Brandon Bernstein, who fouled out at the Gators for the second year in a row.
All indications point to another power struggle in Houston. Timid tuning and conservative combinations won't get the job done this weekend.
One can almost sense the pattern about to change in Funny Car. Tommy Johnson Jr., John Force and Whit Bazemore have won the first three races of '05 and one could be left with the impression that this kind of "Who's next?" feeling will chart the course for the season. But the recent parity in F/C could be on borrowed time as the class's most accomplished tuners begin to find their rhythms.
Force is a six-time winner at this race, and although all three of his team's cars fell off the pace during Gators eliminations, they did qualify 1-2-3. Houston could be a feeding frenzy for the Castrol cars. But Bazemore's gritty performance in Gainesville, where he earned his first win of the season, makes him a prime candidate for an encore in Baytown.
The CSK team of Del Worsham and Phil Burkart needs to step up, especially Del, who has been quiet so far in '05. Watch for Burkart's car to be wearing a Toyota body in Houston, an indication that Worsham's GM-based stable could be shopping for another setup.
Again, the cream of the Funny Car crop might be poised to make a statement in Houston this weekend. Could one of the category's supporting cast get in the way? Tim Wilkerson's single-car operation comes in as the defending event champion, and Bob Gilbertson was the surprise runner-up in Gainesville three weeks ago.
Pro Stock has truly been "democracy in action" this year, with three different winners, three different low qualifiers and only one driver, Dave Connolly, advancing to more than one final round. A Chevrolet has won a race (Pomona); a Dodge has won a race (Phoenix); and a Pontiac has won a race (Gainesville). Things have certainly been spread around in '05.
Greg Anderson watched teammate Jason Line win the Gators. Can that be the boost the two-time champion needs to break his 2005 winless streak? Anderson was low qualifier three weeks ago but was outrun by old nemesis Warren Johnson in Round 2. Anderson's "fear factor" is fading, and unless he begins winning rounds steadily, his opponents are unlikely to bring any psychological disadvantages to the starting line.
Meanwhile, there's no tangible evidence that any one driver or team is going to run and hide this year. Anderson was on a white-hot streak when he won in Houston in '04, but so far this season, Pro Stock has regained its "on any given Sunday" personality that has been missing since '02.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Harley fans got what they wanted in Gainesville when Andrew Hines took his Screamin' Eagle V-Rod into the 6s and won $10,000 from the Mickey Thompson Tire Co. for that historic pass. Now that Hines has taken care of that milestone, he and his Harley colleagues have a real fight on their hands, hoping to defend the POWERade championship from the hordes of Suzuki-riding challengers powering up for Houston.
One need only remember that the first half of 2004 belonged to the Harley teams before they were hit with a 40-pound weight penalty in June and saw the Suzuki riders run wild. Hines won the title based on his pre-40 pound performance, but the V-Rod engines were blessed with additional power this offseason, and Houston will be an important test to show whether the American-made machines can remain at the head of the class.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.