Marathon rain delay at Maple Grove doesn't derail Countdown

Six days and three rain delays later, the Countdown field is set in the NHRA POWERade series. Next up for John Force and the gang: the playoff-opening Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Updated: August 24, 2007, 3:03 PM ET
By Bill Stephens |

The Bible says it took the Lord six days to create the earth. It has now taken that long to complete an NHRA national event.

Last Friday, qualifying began for the 23rd Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa. It wasn't until Wednesday that final eliminations were completed, thanks to a stubborn low pressure area of rain and drizzle that lingered over the area for nearly four days. It was an event that the NHRA POWERade series needed to wrap up with no uncertainty, since this was the final race leading up to the Countdown to Four -- the next step in the championship process that begins at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.

It also was the last qualifying event for the Skoal Showdown for Funny Cars and the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle, the two high-stakes bonus races held during U.S. Nationals qualifying.

For several pro drivers, it was do-or-die time to make the eight-racer cutoff for eligibility in the newly introduced Countdown format. The apprehension of who would move on in the Countdown and who would be left on the sidelines was intensified by the relentless rain that forced the NHRA to repeatedly postpone the eliminations program until Wednesday -- at a race that has been wracked by weather issues on an almost annual basis for the past six years.

Doug Herbert pulled off what could only be described as a genuine Hail Mary as he tenaciously barged his way through the weather delays and his side of the Top Fuel ladder to pick up his first win of 2007, and one of the most dramatic of his 16-year NHRA career. By beating points leader "Hot Rod" Fuller in the final round, Herbert clinched the eighth and final spot on the Countdown to Four lineup card.

"Wow, nothing like a little drama, huh?" Herbert said following his victory. "I was ready for this race. It was the biggest round of my life and I didn't want to have any regrets. I was ready, the Snap-on Tools team was ready, and we went out there and got it done. Everyone did a great job and there were no mistakes made. Most of my guys have never won, so it's definitely a huge boost for all of us. The mood is sky-high over here."

The eight Top Fuel racers who have advanced to the upcoming four-race Countdown to Four sweepstakes, in order of finish, are: Fuller, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Brandon Bernstein, J.R. Todd, Bob Vandergriff Jr., Whit Bazemore and Herbert.

In the Funny Car competition, John Force and former teammate Tony Pedregon have a history, and the final at Maple Grove added another chapter to that history with a much-anticipated playoff round. When Pedregon ran as part of John Force Racing from 1996-2003, Force would frequently admit that racing his young wing mate was a challenge, and in many of those encounters, Force would have to turn up his concentration a notch or two to bring his best game to the line.

Wednesday's final round (the 200th of Force's career) may have been additional evidence of the intangible bond that still exists between these two allies turned adversaries when Force fouled out against Pedregon, giving Tony his second national-event win of the year and the fourth seed in the Countdown.

After an ice-cold start to '07, Force leaped to the No. 3 spot in the Countdown field with five final-round appearances in the past six races (he won three).

"It was well worth the wait," Pedregon said of the victory. "Anytime you can beat John Force in the final round, you've had a good race. We know the power is there, and our Q Horsepower sure came in handy today."

"[Crew chiefs Austin] Coil and Bernie [Fedderly] gave me a good hot rod," Force said. "They were on their game and I wasn't on mine. That's the bottom line."

The eight drivers moving ahead in the Funny Car Countdown, in order of finish, are: Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Force, Pedregon, Jack Beckman, Mike Ashley, Gary Scelzi and Jim Head.

In the Pro Stock competition, Dave Connolly has known for several weeks that he already had locked up a Countdown berth, but the young standout from Elyria, Ohio, added a little French pastry to his 2007 performance rankings with his fourth win of the season, taking down Kurt Johnson in the final. The victory pushed Connolly into the No. 2 seed of the Countdown and gave him his 13th career win in only 99 pro races.

"Tommy [Utt, crew chief] said going into this weekend -- make it this week -- that he wanted to gain some momentum going into Indianapolis, and we sure did that," said the 24-year-old Connolly. "Now we want to go back and go through everything to make sure we don't miss anything, and get the cars ready for our return to Indy."

The Pro Stock Countdown players, in order of finish, are: Greg Anderson, Connolly, Jeg Coughlin, Allen Johnson, Jason Line, Kurt Johnson, Warren Johnson and Larry Morgan.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, a first-time national event winner was crowned when Matt Guidera pulled off a stunning upset in the final round after his opponent, three-time POWERade champion Angelle Sampey, was disqualified when she struck a timing block as she neared the finish line.

"My team is unbelievable," Guidera said. "Mohegan Sun brought in [crew chief] Rich Manning, and it's been five races that we've been getting to know each other, and we're finally starting to gel."

The elite eight heading for the next phase of the Countdown in Pro Stock Motorcycle, also in order of finish, are: Matt Smith, Andrew Hines, Sampey, Karen Stoffer, Chip Ellis, Eddie Krawiec, Peggy Llewellyn and Craig Treble.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for