- Bill Stephens
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READING, Pa. -- When the originally scheduled 22nd Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway were postponed two weeks ago, Tony Schumacher was fresh off his impressive Mac Tools U.S. Nationals victory in Indianapolis on Labor Day.
Robert Hight was savoring his first-time victory in only his second appearance in the sport's biggest race, and three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson had just bagged his fifth Indy trophy.
This weekend, the rescheduled Toyo Tires Nationals sets up shop in Reading once again, but the lay of the land in the professional points races have changed since the weather caused a two-week delay for the fall classic. Only four races remain in the 2006 season and the championship scenarios -- especially in Top Fuel and Funny Car -- have some added drama.
Here's a preview of this weekend's race and an explanation of how the picture has changed.
Based strictly on past performance, Schumacher will arrive in Reading with sufficient firepower to blow away his rivals. Some of the quickest and fastest runs of his career have been chalked up at Maple Grove and he was the runaway winner here last year. Doug Kalitta knows that whether or not he wins his first career championship will greatly depend on how deeply into eliminations he can advance on Sunday since Schumacher is no longer his only concern. Kalitta's other pursuer, Brandon Bernstein, also has the potential to run immense numbers in the cool Pennsylvania air this weekend.
With 16 rounds of racing to go this year and three contenders who have collectively won half of the national events in '06 (12) all capable of winning the Big Prize, expectations are that the points standings may be just as tightly tangled following this race as they are going in.
Ron Capps and his Don Schumacher-owned team had two regrets after last week's action in Dallas. First, Capps missed a chance to pick up some serious breathing room between himself and John Force as the No. 1 and No. 2 drivers in the POWERade points race faced off in the first round. The second came in Round 2, when Mike Ashley -- driving for owner Evan Knoll, whose team is headquartered and transported by Don Schumacher's operation -- outran Capps and prevented him from opening up his points lead.
Ron Capps and his Don Schumacher-owned team had two regrets after last week's action in Dallas. Capps, after coming out on top against John Force in Round 1, later missed his chance to pick up some serious breathing room between himself and Force as the No. 1 and No. 2 drivers in the POWERade points race. Capps missed his chance in Round 2, when he was outrun by Mike Ashley -- driving for owner Evan Knoll, whose team is headquartered and transported by Don Schumacher's operation.
The upshot? Capps heads to Reading with a 37-point lead rather than the 97-point bulge he would have racked up had he won the race.
But Hight, Force's remarkably gifted teammate, has now won two straight races and has moved to within 93 points of the standings lead. What had been a two-driver matchup for the championship has now grown to three. And Hight's recent surge gives Team Castrol a two-pronged attack against Capps down the stretch. That could be a major tactical advantage for Force and Hight.
Capps leads the points race by roughly two rounds over Force and 4½ rounds over Hight. That may be the ultimate advantage with only 16 rounds of racing left to go, but if Capps is given another golden opportunity to pad his lead in Reading (as he was in Dallas) and doesn't take advantage, his charmed life may be in jeopardy.
Dave Connolly missed out on making a substantial move on both drivers ahead of him in the points in Dallas last week. Leader Jason Line and second-place Greg Anderson -- the formidable teammates from Ken Black Racing -- left the door wide open for Connolly when Anderson fell in Round 1 and Line in Round 2. Connolly had already been trailered by the time Line lost and all he could do was reflect on what might have been.
But Connolly only dropped five points further out of the lead, a slip that could feasibly be made up in Reading qualifying. Realistically, with only four races remaining this year, Connolly realizes his shot at making a concerted run at the championship may be out of his reach.
That leaves Line and Anderson to settle the '06 title between themselves, and team politics will have nothing to do with the outcome. A fourth straight championship for Anderson would be a prized accomplishment, but no less so than Line's first pro crown. Line leads Anderson by 78 points, so regardless, Team Summit will enjoy a 1-2 finish in 2006. The only thing left to determine is which driver will be the champion.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
The bikes have been idle since Indy on Labor Day weekend, when Matt Smith took his G-Squared Racing Suzuki to the winner's circle. But the championship showdown involves three other racers.
Two-time POWERade champion Andrew Hines leads Antron Brown by only eight points, three-time champ Angelle Sampey by 98, and G-Squared/S&S Racing standout Chip Ellis by 113. Only three national events remain in the class, which could mean Sampey and Ellis need to make up significant ground in a very short time.
Statistical signposts? Sampey has owned this race. She scored her first national event win here in 1996 as a rookie and has won it five times since, including four victories in her last five Reading starts. Plus, an American-built bike has never won here. If those are the kinds of factors which are sufficient to determine a prerace favorite, expect Angelle and her U.S. Army Suzuki to shine Sunday.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
Reading redux brings tweaks in the standings, but Pennsylvania will still be critical for the pro class contenders, writes Bill Stephens.