Seattle beckons after Swing started with a bang
To describe last weekend's Mopar Mile-High Nationals in Denver as eventful would be a glaring understatement.
For the first time in recent memory, three out of the four professional POWERade categories saw the points lead change hands at the same race, while the Top Fuel title was won for the first time by a black driver.
Will the second stop on this year's infamous Western Swing -- this weekend in Seattle -- serve up as much drama as we saw on Thunder Mountain a week ago?
Here's an overview of the 2006 Schuck's Auto Supply Nationals at Pacific Raceways, which lies close to towering Mount Rainier.
Doug Kalitta's takeover of the Top Fuel points lead in Denver came as no real surprise based on how he and his team have performed over the past eight races.
In contrast, Melanie Troxel's dip into second place is a reflection of the inconsistent stretch she and her operation have struggled through after a sizzling hot start to '06. Kalitta's lead is 22 points, and the goal now is for him to strengthen that margin.
For both drivers, Seattle will be an important tactical strike zone.
Brandon Bernstein's first-round exit in Denver last weekend in a stunning upset at the hands of Mike Strasburg was costly, putting him 128 points behind Kalitta after it appeared that Bernstein was poised to challenge for the top spot. He'll go into Seattle this year as the defending event champion, and if that proves to be any kind of competitive advantage, he'll be happy to use it. Another early-round loss combined with strong outings by Kalitta and/or Troxel will definitely damage Bernstein's title hopes.
Instead of the asphyxiating altitude that teams battled at Bandimere Speedway last weekend, Pacific Raceways' near-sea-level locale will be a welcome change for the nitro tuners. It will be a war of horsepower; expect the championship-contending teams to be armed to the teeth.
Ten races remain on the 2006 NHRA POWERade schedule, and the cat-and-mouse game being played between points leader Ron Capps and pursuer John Force continues to dominate the spotlight. Force would have overtaken Capps for the standings lead if he had advanced to the semifinals in Denver last weekend. That would have meant that all four pro classes had new points leaders. Instead, Force will begin the weekend 26 points behind Capps.
Force didn't win in Seattle last year, losing to Cruz Pedregon in Round 1, but his team enjoyed a sweep nonetheless, with teammates Robert Hight and Eric Medlen facing off in the final. Medlen emerged victorious after qualifying No.1 with the event's low elapsed time. That's the kind of performance Force would love to piece together this time around, but Capps has proved to be a worthy adversary this year -- as he did last year -- and he'll bring his A-game this weekend with every intention of keeping (or increasing) his points lead.
The Pro Stock championship chase might have narrowed somewhat following last week's results in Denver. Suddenly, Jason Line leads the points and Greg Anderson has dropped to second, but Dave Connolly's victory over Line in the Denver final has painted a new face on the points picture. Connolly is only 51 points out of first place, while Jim Yates, Kurt Johnson and Mike Edwards are facing stout three-digit points deficits.
Of course, with 10 races remaining on this year's slate, those numbers are easily subject to change, and any of the above drivers could leave Seattle in much better shape than they are going in. But, most definitely, Connolly is worth watching. His phenomenal driving skills and recent upswing in performance have given him genuine contender status and made him one of the category's most feared competitors.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
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