Commentary

Countdown looming and pressure mounting for bubble drivers

With two events remaining before the Countdown to the Championship begins in the NHRA, the matchups to watch in Minnesota are among those struggling to make the top eight, and thus the playoffs, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: August 10, 2007, 2:09 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

It's all about the Countdown.

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

This weekend, when the 26th Lucas Oil Nationals (ESPN2, Eliminations Sunday, 7-10 p.m. ET) light up Brainerd International Raceway in rural Brainerd, Minn., the NHRA stars competing in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle will approach this event based on two simple criteria.

Whether they're in the elite eight, or whether they're not.

Two races remain in the first leg of the new Countdown to the Championship format and only the top eight drivers will advance into the next bracket of the tournament which leads to the professional titles. That means a wide sweep of drag racers sitting outside the top eight need to make up ground quickly, while those within the boundaries of the top eight who have yet to clinch theirs spot will work on maintaining or improving their positions.

That can't help but lead to an eventful race in Brainerd this weekend.

Top Fuel
If your name is Hot Rod Fuller, Tony Schumacher, Brandon Bernstein, Larry Dixon or J.R. Todd, this weekend will be much less pressure-packed than it might be otherwise, since those drivers have locked up a slot in the Countdown to Four -- the next step in this year's championship process.

Further back, the picture gets significantly more cloudy.

Five drivers who are hovering below the eighth-place cutoff are all within 100 points of moving into title contention -- and all five are aware of what's at stake in Brainerd. Melanie Troxel, Doug Herbert, Hillary Will, Doug Kalitta and Cory McClenathan have the potential to change the complexion of the top eight with strong showings but there will be scant room for mistakes or misadventures when qualifying begins on Friday.

After a grueling six-week, nonstop junket out West which concluded two weeks ago in Sonoma, Calif, the crucible of Top Fuel racing has become only hotter. An early-round loss (or an even more disastrous DNQ) this weekend for the five drivers mathematically within reach of a top-eight spot (and the three drivers just ahead of them -- No. 6 Bob Vandergriff, No. 7 Whit Bazemore and No. 8 David Grubnic) could all but end their Countdown aspirations.

Second chances are now becoming very scarce.

Funny Car
John Force loves this place.

Having won 10 times in Brainerd during his 14-time POWERade championship career, Force will come into BIR with renewed enthusiasm and plenty of forward motion following his win in Sonoma two weeks ago.

His teammate, Robert Hight, has clinched a place in the top eight, as has points leader Ron Capps. Force's daughter, Ashley, is still aiming to regain a top-eight spot after an early-summer slump dropped her from eighth to 12th. She's 135 points out of the Countdown field and only a miraculous turn of fortune at Brainerd and Reading, Pa., next week, will move her back into Countdown eligibility.

But the rookie has plenty of company.

Del Worsham is clinging to whatever hopes he can still summon up, finding himself in ninth place, 85 points behind No. 8 Jim Head. The defending event champion, Tommy Johnson Jr., needs some precious round wins and some early-round losses from drivers ahead of him to move into the coveted top eight from the No. 11 hole as does Cruz Pedregon, who is only three points ahead of Worsham in 10th.

Pro Stock
Five drivers have now guaranteed themselves a spot in the Countdown: Greg Anderson, Jeg Coughlin, defending event champion Dave Connolly, Allen Johnson and reigning POWERade champion Jason Line.

But from position six to position 12, there's a host of determined racers looking at locking up membership in the Countdown fraternity. Kurt and Warren Johnson, Larry Morgan, V. Gaines, Richie Stevens Jr., Jim Yates and Greg Stanfield are all clumped within 200 points of each other in a group that has the potential to shift and shuffle this weekend. Under any circumstances, Pro Stock has an unpredictable nature which leaves the outcome of any race in question, although the presence of three-time champion Greg Anderson often removes some of that doubt.

But this weekend, it's all too possible for one of the category's unheralded hopefuls (such as Tom Hammonds, former forward for the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves who returns to his previous base of operations) to throw in a buzzer-beater and stake a claim on a Countdown berth.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
There's no breathing room in the bikes.

While points leader Matt Smith and three-time POWERade champion Angelle Sampey can cruise into the Countdown to Four, pick any name you like between points position six -- held by Craig Treble -- and position 11's Antron Brown (last year's PSM winner at Brainerd), and you could be looking at a rider on the way in or out of the top eight. Only 80 points separate those two drivers.

The emphasis on this year's championship structure has de-emphasized the brand warfare that has recently been the prevailing story in the class. But there has been genuine parity among the imported and domestic hardware this year with the top teams campaigning Harley-Davidsons, Buells and Suzukis all trading race day glory.

This weekend, it won't be the brand of the winning bike but how the top eight looks at the end of eliminations that will be the center of attention as the Countdown to the Championship -- Chapter 1 -- nears its conclusion.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com

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