- Bill Stephens
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This year's "Big Go" will be the biggest we've seen in quite a while.
One would have to dig deeply into the NHRA's record books to uncover a previous edition of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at which the largest points lead in any of the four professional classes was only 136 points. But this year, that's the scenario as the 52nd running of the NHRA's venerable Labor Day classic gets under way.
The leads in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle range from a high of 136 points to a low of 3 points. There's always a lot on the line when the NHRA comes to O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis, and this year there's more at stake than there has been in a long time.
Here's a preview.
Who would you rather be? Doug Kalitta, the points leader and the winner of the most recent event in Memphis? Or Tony Schumacher, who has reversed the shaky performances that plagued him from February to June and has now moved to within 136 points of Kalitta for the POWERade title?
Kalitta is neither flamboyant nor feisty, but in his understated and laid-back manner, he has taken the role of front-runner in this year's incredibly competitive chase. He was also riding a wave of inconsistency to begin the season, but between April and August, his five national event wins and much-improved steadiness earned him the top spot in the standings as he heads for Indy, a race he's never won.
Schumacher has owned this race in four of its last six episodes, and his recent resurgence -- two victories and 18 round wins in the last six events -- puts him in a strong position. Brandon Bernstein remains squarely in the thick of the points race, as well, only 16 points back from Schumacher thanks to a victory and a semifinal finish in the last two races.
But it's no secret that where the 2006 Top Fuel championship goes from here will depend a great deal on how Kalitta and Schumacher fare this weekend. Kalitta is feeling the heat; Schumacher knows he must keep generating it.
Who would you rather be?
Since his remarkable championship tear began in 1990, John Force has always been the driver to beat for the NHRA Funny Car crown. Only once in the last 16 years has the 13-time champion been tracked down late in the season and beaten for the title. In 1992, Cruz Pedregon pulled off the ambush, while in 1993 Cruz's brother Tony won the championship but led the points most of the way. Last year, Gary Scelzi's title was scored by fending off Force, rather than having to overtake him. This year, Ron Capps finds himself 17 points behind Force heading for Indy after leading the standings since February, and with no other drivers within shooting distance of the top two, will Capps be able to get past Force with six events left?
The championship stretch drive in '05 was a three-way affair, but this year the title will go to either Force or Capps. In similar situations in the past, Force has been the heavy favorite, but this one is too close to call, and Capps has proved he has the chops to take this fight all the way to the finish. Of course, Indy has often been the stage for unsung heroes to emerge, and that kind of surprise can't be ruled out.
Plus, with the $100,000 Skoal Showdown on tap for Sunday, the Funny Car teams assembling at O'Reilly Raceway Park will be throwing everything they have at the competition. But for Force and Capps, their seasonlong game of cat and mouse is about to slide up a notch.
Greg Anderson and teammate Jason Line come into the U.S. Nationals in a dominant position. Line leads the points, and in the last seven races he has advanced to the final round five times, with two wins. Anderson is second by 121 points -- and has won Indy three of the last five years. The only real threat to the Line-Anderson duopoly is Dave Connolly, who is 171 points behind Line and in third place.
This will be a crucial event for Connolly. He must take a bite out of the points lead Line now enjoys, or his quest for the POWERade championship will be lost. All Line and Anderson must do is hold serve, knowing that only 24 rounds of eliminations remain in the season and Connolly trails Line by over eight. A Line victory on Monday could bring him tantalizingly close to his first Pro Stock championship, while an Anderson victory would give him four consecutive Labor Day wins -- a feat that would place him alongside legends Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson as the only drivers to rack up four straight U.S. Nationals triumphs.
A win for Dave Connolly would keep him alive in the title sweepstakes and give him his first taste of victory at the "Big Go." Motivation doesn't come any bigger than that.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
This year has been a wide-open war zone in PSM, and the points standings offer solid evidence. Andrew Hines leads Antron Brown by 3 points, while third-place Chip Ellis and fourth-place Angelle Sampey have fallen back by 91 and 115 points, respectively. Those are fairly daunting margins to make up in the four bike events remaining on the schedule. However, the added pressures that come with racing at the U.S. Nationals can help dish up some unexpected twists of fate.
For instance, last year Steve Johnson was awarded the final-round victory over Matt Smith the day after the race, when taped replays conclusively proved Johnson had hit the finish line first. Could a bizarre race-day anomaly tamper with this year's results as well?
Hines has never won Indy, and Brown was the 2000 champion. They will both be racing in this year's bonus event, the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle, and they both know the unpredictable nature of this season's bike picture. So don't be too shocked if something truly uncanny plays a part in determining the 2006 U.S. Nationals Pro Stock Motorcycle champion.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
2dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz