- Bill Stephens
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MADISON, Ill. -- On Sunday, the points leaders went 0-for-4.
The second half of the 2006 NHRA POWERade season is under way with the completion of the 10th O'Reilly Midwest Nationals at Gateway International Raceway just east of St. Louis. The upshot of raceday eliminations bears out one indisputable fact, and that is things are basically starting over from scratch.
By the time the semifinal rounds in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle were over at this event, not a single driver leading the points in their respective category was still in the mix.
In three weeks, the notorious Western Swing begins in Denver, with subsequent back-to-back stops in Seattle and Sonoma, Calif. By then, all four POWERade points leaders will be taking tentative advantages along with them.
Melanie Troxel knows the scenario all to well. She was beaten on a holeshot in a critical second-round meeting thanks to a virtually psychic reaction time of .038-seconds (.000 is perfect) by the driver relentlessly pursuing her in the standings, Doug Kalitta. Luckily for Troxel, Kalitta fell in the semifinals to Brandon Bernstein which prevented Kalitta from carving further into Troxel's points lead -- similar to the chain of events which unfolded in Englishtown, N.J., last weekend when Troxel lost in Round 1 and Kalitta was stopped one round later.
Her once triple-digit points bulge has been reduced to 24 -- a little more than two rounds worth of racing.
"Obviously, that was a huge race, going head-to-head against the No. 2 guy," said Troxel. "I really wanted to win that, but unfortunately he pulled out a .038 light. Doug has some great lights, but even that is kind of out there. As far as I'm concerned, it kind of falls under the bad-luck category; he really pulled one out of the hat."
So did Troxel's teammate, three-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher, who finally ended his improbable string of early-round losses and picked up his first win of 2006 by when Bernstein's Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster smoked the tires. The win moved Schumacher from eighth to sixth in the points -- still a considerable distance from title contention.
Schumacher carried a Purple Heart medal with him throughout eliminations and dedicated the 31st victory of his career victory to a fallen Marine.
"Today would have been the birthday of a young Marine we lost," Schumacher said as he clutched the medal. "Chris Belchik was killed in action Aug. 22, 2004, but he was with me today. I might be the U.S. Army driver, but the men and women in the armed services are all together when it counts."
Meanwhile, the Funny Car points picture is as tight as it's been all season, thanks to Ron Capps' untimely first-round loss at Gateway and John Force's runner-up finish to former teammate Tony Pedregon. Heading into this weekend, Capps was riding a 106-point spread on Force, bulked up by Capps' win in Englishtown last Sunday. However, that lead has been sliced by more than half following the season's only night race. The difference now stands at only 44.
In the Funny Car final, Force was on his way to his second victory of '06 but the blower belt on his Castrol Mustang flew off the supercharger at around 1000-feet and Pedregon raced past, scoring his third national event win of the year.
"I heard him out there and I saw him put a fender on me at about 800 feet," Pedregon said. "In this class that's usually not a good thing. But the cars have to run to 1,320 feet and I guess his fuse was a little short. I really like John. I was over there with him for a long time and learned a lot from him. To beat the 13-time champ is always special."
Greg Anderson couldn't have picked a more inopportune time to lose in the first round. The Pro Stock points leader and No. 1 qualifier saw two of the closest drivers to him in the championship standings advance all the way to the semifinals. While fourth-place Jim Yates was a first-round victim and fifth-place driver Kurt Johnson lost in Round 2, Anderson's teammate Jason Line and the ever-dangerous Dave Connolly -- who moved into third place -- edged closer to Anderson by 40, making an already tight title chase even more so.
Anderson leads Line by only two points and is 71 ahead of Connolly. Yates is 93 back and Johnson is 105 away from the leader.
Mike Edwards picked up his second win of the year with a baby holeshot victory over Larry Morgan in the final, 6.717 seconds, 205.76 mph to 6.715/205.82. The win moved Edwards to within 120 points of Anderson -- not an insurmountable margin.
"There's a long way to go but I'd rather be 120 points out of the lead than 420 like we probably were at this time last year," said Edwards of his 13th-career victory. "Someone's gotta win that championship and I sure would like to do it. It's been a lifelong goal of mine. We've gotten close in the past. Maybe this could be our year. But there're a lot of guys saying that."
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the V-Twin bikes have taken command of the category after Chip Ellis picked up win No. 1 of 2006 on his Drag Specialties Buell, thus giving the American-built entries three-consecutive wins. Three-time champion Angelle Sampey and teammate Antron Brown had erupted for victories at the year's first four bike events, but since then, Ryan Schnitz, Matt Smith (Ellis' G-Squared Racing teammate), and Ellis have scored a V-Twin hat trick.
In the standings, Sampey increased her lead over reigning champion Andrew Hines from 14 to 28 points by virtue of her second-round victory over the Vance & Hines team rider, but she lost to third-place Ellis in the semis, moving him within 82 points of her.
"It takes rounds to win the championship so I'll stay focused on that," said Ellis. "It's important to get down the track every time. We got lucky in the first round because we burned up some wires, but luckily for us Karen Stoffer had red-lighted. After that, we had the quickest bike every round."
Rest up, everyone. In three weeks, we'll be headed west for Thunder Mountain.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
The NHRA takes a break after a big weekend outside St. Louis, but one thing is certain; no lead appears to be safe, writes Bill Stephens.