Pressure on in Dallas as NHRA season recast

Updated: September 20, 2006, 5:56 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Following the 52nd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend, the NHRA's four professional classes were faced with five more national events spread over roughly eight weeks. But with last week's rainout at Reading, Pa., the schedule has taken a more grueling turn.

Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock teams had to load up in Reading and cross the country to the Texas Motorplex outside Dallas for this week's 21st O'Reilly Fall Nationals; then they will have to retrace their long journey back to Reading next week for the rescheduled event. Then they'll quickly pack up and truck to Richmond, Va., for the Inaugural NHRA Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park on Oct. 6-8.

The demanding travel schedule and lack of preparation time between races that the teams now confront have added an unexpected wrinkle to the four intensely close points races. Will this new mini-marathon play a role in where the 2006 POWERade championships ultimately wind up? That's anybody's guess, but at least for the short term, this weekend's race in Texas will certainly have points implications written all over it.

Here's a preview of this weekend's meeting in Big D.

Top Fuel

The 2006 Top Fuel picture has been reduced to a three-car toss-up. Three-time champion Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta and Brandon Bernstein will be the principle players who will decide what has been a seasonlong guessing game with hot streaks, cold snaps and late-season charges tipping the direction of the action since February.

Schumacher's recent U.S. Nationals win was impressive. His U.S. Army dragster was the picture of consistency throughout the weekend. If he and his tuner, Alan Johnson, bring that kind of performance to Dallas, they might be unstoppable.

Schumacher has won here in his last two outings, and that makes it even more dubious to bet against him. But Kalitta is a previous Dallas winner, and Bernstein's ties to the state of Texas give him hometown hero status. The intangibles are always fascinating to ponder, but in the material world each driver knows this is a race in which their 2006 title hopes might become brighter or drastically dimmer.

Funny Car

John Force has now had an extra week to shake off what was a demoralizing first-round loss at the U.S. Nationals. The added time might be just what Force needs to return to the championship battle with renewed determination.

But Ron Capps has had an extra week to savor his retaking of the POWERade points lead in Indy, and holding onto the lead an additional seven days can't be a bad thing. Only 19 points divide the two -- essentially one round of racing -- and although this year's championship scenario is a Capps-Force jump ball, there will be 14 other motivated spoilers in the Dallas field hoping to shuffle the deck down the season's homestretch. Force, the 13-time champion, and his young, unshakable rival had better be wary.

Force comes in the defending event champion at a track where he has not only won five times in the past but also recorded record-breaking runs in the process. Before his shocking first-round loss in Indy, Force had won the Skoal Showdown and qualified No. 1 with a flourish. Yet Capps gained the strategic advantage on race day with a semifinal finish.

In a points race that gives every indication it will end no sooner than last year's -- in the second round of the season's final event -- Capps, Force and every member of their teams realize how serious a single mistake could be at the Motorplex this weekend.

Pro Stock

The Pro Stock class has been a hotbed of activity, especially away from the track, over the past month. New teams, new drivers, new alignments and new plans for the end of 2006 and into 2007 have been making news on a consistent basis. Erica Enders, whose family purchased half of Don Schumacher's Pro Stock operation two weeks ago, will be racing in Dallas with a new primary sponsor, Revive USA. Enders' former DSR teammate, Richie Stevens, will be racing for the first time as part of Allen Johnson's Team Mopar camp.

In terms of the points race, the most dramatic championship story is whether Dave Connolly can overcome the 135-point gap between himself and standings leader Jason Line or the 76-point shortfall to Greg Anderson, who is in second place. As it stands, Connolly is the only driver who can break up what would be a 1-2 points finish for the Summit Racing team.

Line is poised to win his first championship since taking the 1993 NHRA Stock Eliminator title while still a sportsman racer. Anderson already has three straight championships, and the feeling is that team politics have been a nonissue in this year's campaign. Line and Anderson are both going for the championship without any intra-team tampering.

Connolly remains a threat, but only if he can advance further than both Summit cars from here on out. That's quite a bit to ask the Fates to arrange, since both Line and Anderson reached last year's Dallas final, with Anderson emerging victorious on his way to his third crown. Connolly's best hope? That the eliminations ladder places him head-to-head with either Line or Anderson -- preferably both -- on Sunday, thus giving him a hands-on opportunity to slice into their leads.

It's a long shot, but it's the only real chance for Connolly to make serious headway.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.