- John Schwarb
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CLERMONT, Ind. -- The NHRA POWERade Countdown to the Championship would have felt strange without 14-time Funny Car champion John Force, but he rallied to get in.
He couldn't rally his way into the elimination round at the U.S. Nationals on Sunday.
On a hot day at O'Reilly Raceway Park that saw four Countdown drivers fail to qualify for the first race in the series' new championship format, the most glaring omission was the 58-year-old Force, the hottest driver in the sport.
"You always want to believe you've got magic and you walk on water," Force said. "But you make your own magic. You have to earn the right to qualify at Indy; I didn't earn that right."
Force's Castrol GTX Mustang -- a finalist in the last four races and five of the last six, with three wins -- failed to crack the top 16 during Friday and Saturday qualifying when the quickest times were run under the lights. Sunday's two rounds were in the heat of the afternoon and yielded few runs good enough to make the field in any division.
Force's final try was his best of the weekend, but 4.856 seconds at 318.99 mph left him .03 shy of 16th place and Jon Capps (younger brother of Funny Car veteran and current points leader Ron Capps), who will make his first Funny Car start at Indy on Labor Day.
While one Force failed to make the field, another nearly took the top spot. Rookie Ashley Force, 25 years old and not quite 2 when father John first raced at Indy in 1984, matched her season-best qualifying effort by putting her Ford second on the grid behind Jeff Arend. Both ran 4.754 ET's but Arend had the better mph, 327.51 to 309.70.
The third John Force car, driven by Robert Hight, qualified fourth.
"There's plenty of times [John] has lifted me and Robert up, this is our weekend. The next generation," said Ashley Force, 14th in points and out of the Coutndown. "Let's see what we can do at Indy for him."
Another U.S. Nationals icon, Pro Stock's Warren Johnson, also failed to qualify, his 6.706-second effort falling one-thousandths of a second shy. "The Professor" is seventh in the Countdown but will fall to eighth should seventh-qualifying Larry Morgan win one round in in eliminations.
Johnson had qualified for 31 consecutive U.S. Nationals dating to 1971, where Indy was his first NHRA event. He has won the event six times, trailing only nine-time champion Bob Glidden.
"We really never got the car to work right," Johnson said. "Of course, it's hard to do that when the engine is potentially down on power, because you're just guessing at what you need for gear ratio and clutch. It wasn't for lack of effort, it's just that all weekend we weren't able to establish why the car was behaving the way it was."
Like Funny Car, Pro Stock also had a driver outside the Countdown take the top qualifying spot. Max Naylor, clocking 6.655 at 206.39 mph, will run his first U.S. Nationals at age 54 from first on the ladder.
"This is not just another race. This is a very, very special race to every drag racer that has ever come out," Naylor said. "I'm going to enjoy the moment, if we do well tomorrow that's icing on the cake."
The sweetest prize in points may come in Top Fuel. J.R. Todd and Whit Bazemore, fifth and seventh in the Countdown, both failed to qualify, which could be a crippling blow with the top four drivers in points making the next title cutoff after four races.
"You have to capitalize on those moments," said Tony Schumacher, second in points and first in qualifying at Indy at 4.477 and 333.66 mph, the latter of which is a track record at ORP.
Chip Ellis, fifth in points in Pro Stock Motorcycle, seized the top spot Sunday afternoon with a 6.948 at 192.00 mph, one of the only fast times turned in on the nearly 90-degree day. Championship Monday is expected to be even hotter.
"Fast" Jack Beckman won the the eight-man Funny Car Skoal Shootout, earning $100,000. He qualified third for the big show, and like the rest of the field will look to gain ground on the missing Force.
"Let's face it, that's big for us. He was 20 points ahead," said Beckman, fifth in points. "It's just another race, but it's just another race in the context of the playoffs. We don't have many more rounds left to outperform the rest of the cars."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Force failed to qualify for the elimination rounds at the U.S. Nationals as heat took a toll on several veterans in the NHRA's Countdown playoffs.