- Bill Stephens
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This year's NHRA POWERade Western Swing wraps up this weekend at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., after its two preceding chapters in Denver and Seattle ended with inconclusive results as to where the 2006 professional championship chases are leaning.
Don't expect any solid answers in Sonoma.
Heading into the Swing -- as per tradition -- there's always speculation that one driver (or a team) will get hot and put some distance between himself and his adversaries in the points race in the span of the three-week marathon. While the Denver and Seattle events scrambled up the points picture to a degree, the Swing hasn't touched off a feeding frenzy for any one championship contender in the pro ranks.
Here's a preview of what to watch for this weekend at the 18th Fram Autolite Nationals.
Two races, two different winners. Rookie J.R. Todd was King of the Mountain in Denver, while Tony Schumacher went the distance in Seattle. The points lead changed hands from Melanie Troxel to Doug Kalitta in Denver, and Kalitta added to it at the next stop. The difference between first and second is 40 points, but Schumacher's Seattle victory has suddenly shifted the focus of attention from the top of the standings to the fourth-place bash. Brandon Bernstein holds onto third by only seven points ahead of the surging Schumacher, winner of two of the last three races.
Troxel needs to regain her early-season consistency and steadiness on Sunday. Without establishing some real rhythm, she runs the danger of falling even further behind Kalitta and getting overtaken by Bernstein or teammate Schumacher. Keep in mind, Kalitta is the defending event champion and has been a pistol at this race, having won here five out of his last eight visits, including his first Top Fuel victory in 1998 -- the first of three straight Sonoma triumphs.
Kalitta-Troxel-Bernstein-Schumacher. When the music stops on Sunday afternoon, it will be one of those four drivers hoping to have made the most mojo. And if it's Schumacher, the title chase will have a dramatic new slant.
Team Schumacher is one win away from a collective sweep of the Swing. Gary Scelzi's breakthrough win in Denver and Whit Bazemore's first '06 victory in Seattle were each individual boosts for the drivers who had been winless this season. But their teammate, Ron Capps, is the one who would have put those wins to more valuable use as he continues to fend off 13-time POWERade champion John Force for the points lead.
Capps has grown his lead over Force back to 88 points, after nearly having it taken from him in Denver. This is still a two-car battle for the title, and although Scelzi still nurtures a determined attitude that he can make a run at defending his 2005 crown -- since he is only a single point out of the top five after a sputtering first half of '06 -- Capps and Force will be singularly focused on each other this weekend.
Force is a six-time winner here; Capps was runner-up last year in Sonoma and picked up a win in his rookie season in 1997. Capps also considers Sonoma his home track, as it is located within driving distance of where he attended college in Santa Clara, Calif. How each driver does this weekend will determine how much of a success they'll view their 2006 run out West.
The unlikely first-round wipeout of the top six drivers in the Pro Stock points in Seattle did little to shuffle the championship outlook. Between leader Jason Line and sixth-place Mike Edwards, the spread is 190 points -- around 10 rounds of racing. Denver winner and third-place driver Dave Connolly stumbled in Seattle (as did every other driver he's chasing). Connolly remains tucked behind No. 2 Greg Anderson, the defending event champion (by 31), and Line (by 56). That's a tight bunch.
Beyond the top three, the margins get a bit more roomy, but not insurmountable. This category has yet to produce a dominant front-runner this year, and the title fortunes of Line, Anderson, Connolly and the rest can bob and weave from race to race. But the Anderson-Line team won't be easy to get around, and heading into Sonoma they know their most serious threat will be posed by Connolly -- who beat Line in the Denver final on a hole shot. He's not going away.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
The talk in the bike pits at Infineon this weekend will surely touch upon last year's lightning strike by Andrew Hines, which carded the category's quickest run in history (6.968-seconds). Hines won the race and went on to bag his second straight POWERade championship.
Hines comes into Sonoma as defending event champion, the winner at the previous bike event in Denver, and the points leader, having shot past three-time champion Angelle Sampey two weeks ago on Thunder Mountain. He would appear to be holding all the cards.
It has been a curious bike season. Sampey and teammate Antron Brown breezed into the early lead by winning the year's first four races on their Suzukis -- Sampey taking three of them. Then, the Harley-Davidson/Buell efforts took over the spotlight with victories at the next four events. A sign of parity? Who would argue?
Hines is far from uncatchable; his lead over Sampey is only 28 points. This weekend is the first of five straight races in which the bikes tangle, and a strong string of outings by either racer could widen things considerably. For the bikes, they could be entering the most decisive stretch of the '06 campaign.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.