Legendary Force starting to peak at the right time

Too old? Washed up? Fourteen-time Funny Car champ John Force is anything but. Two wins in four weeks -- including Sunday's victory at Sonoma -- have re-energized the unflappable Force, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: July 30, 2007, 5:48 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

For months, the avalanche of questions and nonstop chorus of conjecture surrounding 14-time NHRA POWERade Funny Car champion John Force seemed to be brandishing more horsepower than Force's Castrol GTX Mustang.

"Force has finally dug himself into too big a hole."

"He's never going to make the Countdown and it will be disastrous if he misses it."

"Maybe he's falling behind the other teams and he can't win the big rounds anymore."

Fiddle-faddle.

On Sunday, Force was every bit as fast and formidable as he's ever been, pounding together four unstoppable rounds of eliminations on his way to a convincing victory at the Fram-Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. His second victory of 2007 -- following one of the worst starts in his legendary career -- moved him to No. 7 in the POWERade points and a major step closer to icing a spot in the Countdown to Four, which will showcase the top eight drivers in the category in four weeks.

It was a month ago that the sport's winningest driver was mired in 15th place in the points and had won only two rounds of racing. Now, in the last four races, Force has two wins, a runner-up, and a semifinal finish. On his way to victory in Sonoma, he defeated daughter Ashley in the first round after losing to her in their only previous matchup back in Atlanta in April.

In short, the remarkable champion is peaking at the right time.

"I don't like beating my daughter, but I wanted to beat everybody else," Force said after he used his backpedaling skills to get past Cruz Pedregon in the second round.

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

"Cruz is one of the best and he can pedal," Force said. "But even at my old, worn-out age, you don't forget how. That's what makes it exciting. My old heap just hooked up and trucked right down through there."

Force entered eliminations with some extra motivation, hoping to dedicate the race to his young teammate, Eric Medlen, who lost his life in a testing accident in March.

"We had a team meeting this morning and I said that between me, Ashley and Robert [Hight], one of us had to win this race for Eric," Force said. "I remember how happy he was when he won here last year because he's from this area. He had that goofy smile and was eating ice cream and just having a blast. We wanted to win and dedicate it to Eric."

Ashley Force has now dropped to 12th in the points with only two races remaining for her to move into the top eight. Hight, who lost in the semifinals Sunday, clinched a Countdown berth nonetheless and remains No. 2 in the POWERade standings.

In Top Fuel, four-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher continued his recent resurgence, beating Bob Vandergriff in the Sonoma final for his third win in the past five races and fourth national event win of 2007. For Vandergriff, it was his 10th career final round as he continues to chase his first NHRA winner's circle appearance.

"Bob gave us a great race," Schumacher said. "He was next to us the whole way. We knew he would be, and we had to be prepared for that. He's been to 10 finals, so he knows what he's doing and he'll win his before he's done, trust me. I told him he'll have his day and I believe that."

Pro Stock's most potent twosome, three-time champion Greg Anderson and teammate Jason Line, squared off in the Sonoma finale with Anderson going the distance for his seventh victory of 2007 and the 50th of his career. He is now a perfect 7-0 in final rounds this season.

"It's quite an accomplishment [to reach 50 wins]," Anderson said. "I don't know how to explain it. It's fitting that we had a struggle between No. 49 and No. 50. Fifty should be tough to get. It should be hard. We were cruising right along but then we got slapped in the face this summer. It's a real reminder to never get too cocky."

Matt Smith took both ends of the abbreviated Western Swing in Pro Stock Motorcycle with a solid victory in Sonoma after picking up his second win of the year two weeks ago in Denver. The bikes did not race in Seattle last week.

Smith, the son of Pro Stock and Pro Modified veteran Rickie Smith, outpowered Ed Krawiec in the final round and lengthened his points lead over three-time champion Angelle Sampey, who was the PSM low qualifier but fell in Round 1 to Shawn Gann.

"Dad won his first race here in 1993 and I was in that picture, so it's special to come back and win one for myself," Smith said. "This ended up being our day, I guess. It's mind-blowing the season we're having."

And so the 2007 Western Swing comes to an end after an exhausting six-week stretch of consecutive POWERade national events. Now that the Denver-Seattle-Sonoma triathalon is behind them, in two weeks the NHRA pros will travel to Reading, Pa., and the 16th race of the season: the Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.

But for now, it's time to take a breather.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com