- Bill Stephens
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This weekend's 11th O'Reilly Midwest Nationals at Gateway International Raceway will be in Madison, Ill., but for the purposes of promotional pizzazz, most drag-racing fans refer to this midspring event as "the race in St. Louis."
Geography aside, the significance of the year's seventh national event is based on simple mathematics. Three drivers in three of the four professional classes competing at Gateway will be gunning for their third straight victory after impressive wins in Las Vegas and Atlanta. In the fourth pro category, one racer will be out to pick up a third win in four races.
But the possibility of three simultaneous three-peats sets the backdrop for St. Louis.
Kenny Bernstein missed at stringing together three straight national event wins during an illustrious Top Fuel career. That's because he won the last four NHRA races in which he competed to conclude his T/F legacy in 2003. Now, his son Brandon is on his way to perhaps equaling or surpassing one of his legendary father's most enduring milestones.
Brandon has used his two previous wins to overtake "Hot Rod" Fuller for the POWERade points lead, and with this weekend's race situated in the town where longtime family sponsor Anheuser-Busch is based, Brandon's timing for hitting a hot streak couldn't be better.
Brandon was last year's runner-up to Tony Schumacher after winning here in 2005. His father was the Top Fuel event champ at Gateway in 2002, so the Bernsteins have a tradition of running well at this race.
But watch for a resurgence by Doug Kalitta, who has been on the ropes since the season began, but will have the services of tuning mastermind Dick Lahaie this weekend. Lahaie retired two years ago but has been lured off the front porch by good friend Connie Kalitta, who spearheads the Top Fuel teams of his nephew Doug, David Grubnic, the Ken Black-owned team of Hillary Will, and the Funny Car operation of Connie's son, Scott.
All four efforts have been stumbling through the season's first six events and Lahaie will serve as a tuning consultant for Kalitta Motorsports. He won the 1987 Top Fuel championship as both driver and tuner before guiding Scott Kalitta to consecutive Top Fuel titles in 1994 and 1995 and two straight championships alongside Larry Dixon in 2002 and 2003.
Meanwhile, other changes will be in place elsewhere in the class this weekend with Kevin Poynter moving from John Force Racing to J.R. Todd's team as car chief, replacing Johnny West, who has signed on with Clay Millican.
Robert Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock are unquestionably the most feared driver-tuner combination in the class. Their two essentially flawless victories in Las Vegas and Atlanta were thunderous and got the attention of every other title-contending team in the category.
Ron Capps still leads the standings by 45 points over Hight but the AAA Ford Mustang of Hight and Prock is the heavyweight favorite heading into St. Louis and has given team owner John Force a source of optimism as his own performances this year have been subpar. Force's daughter Ashley continues to mature as she advanced to her first F/C semifinal last week in Atlanta after a strong qualifying effort.
Partly sunny and seasonably warm weather is predicted for St. Louis this weekend and track temperatures could make race setup increasingly delicate. The class is heavily populated with potential winners -- Capps, Gary Scelzi, Tony Pedregon, Mike Ashley, et al., but anyone who is aiming at a Midwest Nationals victory this weekend will have to find a way to stop the Hight/Prock freight train.
Did someone say freight train?
The third driver angling for a national event hat trick is three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson. In 2004, Anderson amassed one of the most statistically incomparable seasons in Pro Stock history, and now with six races in the books this year, his numbers are beginning to take on a stark resemblance to the '04 spreadsheet.
His 212-point lead over teammate and reigning Pro Stock champion Jason Line is truly remarkable after only 24 rounds of racing. He leads third-place Jeg Coughlin by a whopping 231 and the margins widen considerably as you scan down the top 10.
It's been said before and will probably be said again and again. If Anderson is on his game, hits the setup, cuts respectable reaction times, and doesn't get ambushed by a mechanical snag or driver miscue, there's not much anyone else in the class can do to stop him. If he doesn't beat himself this weekend or suffer an untimely mechanical fracture, the smart money says his three-peat is a lock.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Suddenly, there's a gender gap in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
The men can't beat the women.
Karen Stoffer's Atlanta win last weekend made it a three-peat for the females at all three of the PSM events we've seen in '07, and that's a first.
Only Angelle Sampey has broken Stoffer's career-year start to the season with her victory in Houston, while big names such as three-time champion Andrew Hines, Antron Brown, Chip Ellis, Craig Treble and Matt Smith have been outgunned by the ladies.
The women are also winning on Suzukis, and the Harley-Davidson/Buell brotherhood is looking for answers. Short of the NHRA stepping in to make rules revisions to equalize the apparent performance disparity between the domestic and imported brands (no announcement to that effect is imminent), it will be up to the guys to dethrone the gals in the St. Louis winner's circle strictly through their concerted efforts, which up until this point in the season have come up short.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
Brandon Bernstein, Robert Hight and Greg Anderson will be gunning for their third straight victories when the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series invades Gateway International Raceway, writes Bill Stephens.