- Bill Stephens
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Traditionally, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park on Labor Day weekend is the NHRA POWERade event which signifies the homestretch of the professional drag racing season. But thanks to the remarkably close points races in each of the four pro classes, this weekend's 25th Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway in Brainerd, Minn., could be considered this year's stretch drive kickoff.
With the Western Swing now far behind them, Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle championship contenders will head for Brainerd knowing that round wins are unquestionably the gold standard upon which they'll pin their title hopes. The 20 points earned for every round victory from now until the four category championships are clinched have never been more vital since the 2006 campaign began in February.
Here's the lay of the land as this year's 16th national event throttles up.
For Doug Kalitta and Melanie Troxel, it may be time to circle the wagons. Tony Schumacher had been a non-factor in the Top Fuel title picture until four races ago when he suddenly surged. Four consecutive final rounds, two victories and a return to the facility where last year he ran the low elapsed time of the race (4.446 seconds) and made the fastest pass in NHRA history (337.58 mph) make him as serious a threat to win this weekend as he has ever been.
This year, Kalitta and Troxel have both shown they have ample firepower when they need it. For instance, Kalitta's pre-Swing consistency was impressive and earned him the points lead in Denver. It's also a plus for the Mac Tools team that Kalitta won in Brainerd last year.
Troxel is far from out of the hunt, needing only to make up an 82-point deficit -- or at least whittle away at it -- with a strong showing this weekend at BIR. Her early-season consistency was phenomenal and a reprise of her springtime heroics would put her back on top.
But with a 126-point gap -- about six rounds of racing -- between Schumacher and the top points position, the importance of round wins for the three-time champion becomes much more apparent. Schumacher is applying some real pressure and his adversaries are feeling it.
If past history were the deciding factor as to which Funny Car driver comes to Brainerd with the most mojo, John Force would be the undisputed favorite. Ten times he has appeared in the Brainerd winner's circle for the most victories at this venue of any pro driver, regardless of class. Ron Capps, who now leads Force by 70 points in the POWERade standings, has two Brainerd titles to his credit, but more important, a stubborn determination to remain in the points lead despite some choppy results over the past half-dozen races.
Eric Medlen also has to be a possible pick if previous results are factored in, having won here the last two seasons highlighted by a holeshot victory over his employer, Force, in last year's final round.
Weather shouldn't complicate the qualifying and racing results this weekend with typical upper-Midwest summertime conditions expected. While Saturday and Sunday may bring a few scattered showers, searing heat and smothering humidity are not in the forecast and that will give tuners a blank check when it comes to dialing in plenty of horsepower.
Capps and Force will monopolize the Funny Car spotlight in Brainerd, just as they have in the first 15 races of '06. It's all about how their scorecards compare on Monday and they know it.
Past track success won't be the wild card when it comes to the intangibles in Pro Stock this weekend. That will be home-field advantage.
Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Warren Johnson and Kurt Johnson (last year's winner) all hail from Minnesota and the annual trip to BIR represents a grand homecoming for those racers. This year, the points race has a new face with Line holding on to a 64-point advantage over teammate and perennial points leader Anderson. With the recent inconsistencies of Dave Connolly, Jim Yates, and KJ, this year's Minnesota reunion has all the signs of being twice as sweet for Anderson and Line. This is looking more and more like a battle of the Summit Pontiacs for the '06 title.
But it's not too late for other drivers to give chase. Connolly, Yates and Kurt Johnson all need a big run of round wins combined with some early-round slip-ups by the Summit boys to make things interesting again.
The points race could be wearing a totally different face on Monday, but only if Line's recent upswing, Anderson's refusal to roll over and the dogged pursuit of the category's remaining contenders all take a major hit on Homecoming Weekend in Minnesota.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
The bikes have been waging all-out war since their first national event of the year in Gainesville. Teams, riders and brand names have all taken their best shots at the opposition and the results in the POWERade points reveal a four-rider scuffle that shows no signs of easing up.
Only 61 points separate the class' top four racers with two-time and defending champion Andrew Hines sitting atop the standings by only 28 over three-time champ Angelle Sampey.
By now, neither the Suzuki, Harley-Davidson nor Buell-based operations has dominated. However Chip Ellis, currently third, has become a much bigger player in the title picture thanks to his monstrous 6.911-second elapsed time in Sonoma two weeks ago. Antron Brown, in fourth place, also raised his face value in Sonoma after joining the Mickey Thompson Six-Second Club at Infineon and he's been the Brainerd winner in three out of his last six starts here.
This weekend marks the second of five straight bike stops on this year's schedule. Only six bike races remain overall and nobody should be surprised if the nip-and-tuck nature of this year's points race only intensifies in Brainerd.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
3dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz