Opportunities slip away for some in Dallas

Updated: September 25, 2006, 2:41 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Pick any professional class at this weekend's O'Reilly Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex outside Dallas and within the four rounds of eliminations, you'll find someone who let an opportunity slip through his fingers.

Let's start with Top Fuel.

Granted, Brandon Bernstein made the very most of every opportunity he was given, winning the race and moving to within seven points of second-place Tony Schumacher and 40 of leader Doug Kalitta.

And although Hot Rod Fuller came up short in the final round to Bernstein, he did something few drivers have been able to do lately: beat Schumacher and at least temporarily cool off his late-season blitzkrieg for the 2006 POWERade championship.

But Schumacher failed to capitalize on a wide-open opportunity to pass Kalitta in the points after Kalitta was dropped by Bernstein in Round 2. Schumacher did close the gap to Kalitta by 21 points, but he could have left the Motorplex with the points lead had he been able to equal his Mac Tools U.S. Nationals performance from three weeks ago and win the race. But he was outrun by Fuller in the semifinals.

"That's the upside of this weekend," said Schumacher. "You definitely don't want to take any steps backward at this stage of the game, so to gain a little over a round on him here in Texas was important."

It was still a whopper of a missed opportunity and one Schumacher and his U.S. Army team might deeply regret if the championship eludes their grasp.

In Funny Car, a familiar scenario involving points leader Ron Capps and second-place John Force all season was repeated once again. It has been almost surreal how each of the two drivers has repeatedly been given perfect opportunities to gorge himself on points after his rival has stumbled early -- only to get upended in the next round.

It happened again in Dallas when Capps beat Force in what could have been a decisive first-round matchup, only to get dropped by Mike Ashley in Round 2. Ashley eventually advanced to his first career Funny Car final round -- losing to race-winner Robert Hight -- but his victory over Capps, his Schumacher Racing stablemate, raised more than a few eyebrows.

"It could have been worse," said Capps, who is aiming for his first Funny Car crown. "Obviously, we got by a huge first round. It's kind of what's been going on all year long. It's hard to capitalize. [Force's team] had a hard time capitalizing on those moments they needed to and we obviously feel like we didn't capitalize when we should have."

No team orders were issued at DSR, but if you're a drag racing fan who believes T.O.s are justified this late in the season with the POWERade championship on the line, you might not agree with how things shook out for Capps.

Going into Dallas, Dave Connolly was the sole driver with a chance to prevent Pro Stock standings leader Jason Line and second-place Greg Anderson from charging to a 1-2 finish in this year's title chase.

Connolly was 135 points out of first, meaning he couldn't afford to lose any additional ground to Line or Anderson with the season heading to its conclusion. He got what he wanted in the first round when No. 1 qualifier Anderson suffered an upset loss to newcomer Dave Northrop.

Connolly received another gift in Round 2 when Line lost on a holeshot to eventual runner-up Mike Edwards. But Connolly couldn't capitalize on the miscues by Ken Black Racing, since two pairs before Line's loss, Connolly fell to another racer with outstanding starting line skills, Greg Stanfield.

With that defeat, it's almost a foregone conclusion that Connolly's championship hopes -- however dim they were -- have been extinguished.

Missed opportunities dominated the storylines in Dallas this past weekend. For those who were on the wrong end of them, this coming offseason might be a time filled with "What Ifs" and "If Only I Hads."

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.