Drivers on Countdown bubble can't afford Sonoma stumble

They're running out of time in the Countdown to the Championship. Drivers on the playoff bubble can't afford to stumble as the NHRA POWERade tour caps the rough-and-tumble Western Swing in Sonoma, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: July 26, 2007, 3:47 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

Tomorrow is here.

With this weekend's 20th Fram-Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. -- the final race of the 2007 Western Swing and a much-anticipated payoff to the six-consecutive-week road trip for the NHRA POWERade tour -- it is plainly apparent that the new Countdown to the Championship points system will be the center of attention.

Three races now remain, and they'll decide which eight racers from each professional class move on to the Countdown to Four, which cranks up at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.

Countdown in a nutshell
The NHRA's new playoff system is an elimination process. That's the biggest difference between the Countdown to the Championship and NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup.

It starts with the NHRA's biggest event -- the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis. In the 18th of 23 annual events, the top eight racers in each pro category will begin competing for the championship.

It means the 17th event, the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals at Reading, Pa., on Aug. 16-19, is the last chance to make it to the playoffs.

Starting at Indy, the standings are reset, with points awarded in 10-point intervals from the first- to last-place finishers for the eight contenders in each class: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Indy begins the Countdown to Four over the next four events. The drivers who rank in the top four in each class after the Richmond race on Oct. 7 will compete for the title in the last two events: Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.

Points are reset again at Las Vegas with a 10-point margin between the four competitors in each category.

"The one thing most of the drivers wanted was to keep the top eight in it until the end,'' said six-time NHRA champion Kenny Bernstein. "No one was complaining about going to the top-eight playoff. But a lot of teams and crew chiefs don't like cutting it down to four in the last two races.

"It's a brutal way to end it, but this always has been a brutal sport. You line up at 23 events and can lose in the first round each time."

-- Terry Blount

As predicted, the previous swing event in Seattle last weekend saw some shuffling among the top eight in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock, and this week, Pro Stock Motorcycle will be back on the lineup card with a dramatically close cluster of drivers still scrapping for Countdown spots as the national events dwindle.

Here's a look ahead to the 14th race in the 17-race Countdown to the Championship format:

Top Fuel
Five Top Fuel drivers who are in desperate need of a hot streak are Melanie Troxel, Cory McClenathan, Hillary Will, Doug Kalitta and Doug Herbert. They represent spots nine through 13 in the POWERade points and it would appear they have the best shot at edging into the final eight.

Up at the top, Hot Rod Fuller maintains a comfortable lead over Brandon Bernstein, while Fuller's team owner, David Powers, announced this week that Peterson Caterpillar will ride along as a corporate sponsor for this weekend's race. It was a year ago that J.R. Todd won his second of two races on the Swing, nearly sweeping the three-race series, and all but nailing down 2007 Rookie of the Year honors. Todd has suffered through frustrating inconsistency of late (losing to Tony Schumacher in three of the last four races) but could be poised to rebound at Infineon.

Funny Car
Things continue to bob and weave in the bottom regions of the top eight. Prior to the Western Swing, Cruz Pedregon held the No. 7 spot, Jack Beckman No. 8, Ashley Force No. 9, and Tommy Johnson Jr. No. 10. John Force was wallowing back in the No. 15 spot.

As of today, Jim Head is now No. 7, John Force is eighth, Cruz Pedregon is ninth and Ashley Force is 10th. Tommy Johnson Jr. has slipped to No. 12.

The spread between John Force and Pedregon is 44 points, a little more than two rounds of racing. Pedregon is vulnerable to a rear attack from Ashley Force, Del Worsham, Johnson Jr., Jeff Arend and a determined Kenny Bernstein.

Meanwhile, a tribute is planned to honor the late Eric Medlen during opening ceremonies on Sunday, one year after Medlen raced to victory at the '06 Fram-Autolite Nationals.

Pro Stock
Positions seven, eight, nine and 10 are this category's most volatile battleground as the Countdown cutoff nears. Warren Johnson, Larry Morgan, V. Gaines and Richie Stevens Jr. now fill those slots, respectively, and the total spread from "The Professor" to Stevens Jr. is 19 points -- less than a round of racing.

None of the top six drivers is feeling any pressure to defend his Countdown status, especially the top three -- Greg Anderson, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Dave Connolly -- who have clinched a berth in the Countdown to Four. At Sonoma this weekend, they'll be concentrating on maintaining their superior performances and giving their competition a little something to worry about when the points get reset at Indy in about five weeks.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
The math doesn't get any tighter than what you'll find in PSM. The difference between No. 7 Chris Rivas and No. 12 Ed Krawiec is only 68 points. Steve Johnson sits in the No. 8 spot and right below him in No. 9 is hard-luck Antron Brown ( last year's Sonoma runner-up), whose 2007 has been a surprising disappointment for such an accomplished racer supported by a title-contending operation.

Also in that scramble for the eighth spot is No. 10 Peggy Llewellyn, who trails Johnson by just 10 points. Eleventh-place Geno Scali and Vance & Hines newcomer Krawiec need some valuable round wins this weekend to make a serious run at the next step in the Countdown process.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com