Commentary

Countdown to Four makes Big Go a bigger deal

The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals is already the most important and storied event on the NHRA POWERade circuit. Add the start to the Countdown to Four and this weekend's competition is even bigger, writes Bill Stephens in his preview.

Updated: August 30, 2007, 4:05 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

It's time for the "Big Go."

Every year as Labor Day weekend approaches, drag racing nation begins to feel a new pulse coursing through the sport because the ultimate event for any G-force junkie will soon be racing into view.

Big Race Weekend

This race weekend is one of the biggest of the year, with every major series except for Fomula One on the track. Here's what to watch, all times Eastern.

Friday

1 p.m. Busch Series practice -- SPEED
2:30 p.m. Nextel Cup practice -- SPEED
6 p.m. Nextel Cup qualifying -- SPEED
11 p.m. Busch Series qualifying -- SPEED

Saturday

2 p.m. NHRA qualifying -- ESPN2
5:30 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series -- SPEED
8 p.m. Nextel Cup practice -- SPEED
10 p.m. Busch Series race -- ESPN2

Sunday

7 a.m. Champ Car race -- ESPN Classic
2 p.m. NHRA qualifying -- ESPN2
3:30 p.m. IndyCar Series race -- ABC
8 p.m. Nextel Cup race -- ESPN

Monday

7 p.m. NHRA finals -- ESPN2

-- Staff and wire reports

This year's 53rd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at historic O'Reilly Raceway Park outside Indianapolis will command even greater attention in 2007 than in any other edition of the most storied stop on the NHRA POWERade schedule. The Countdown to Four commences in Indy in all four professional categories and over the next four national events (three for the Pro Stock Motorcycles) the championship sweepstakes will reduce the number of contending drivers down to four.

Heading into this next phase of the tournament, the points have been reset among the top eight with 10-point increments separating each driver. The same number of points will be awarded for round wins (20), No. 1 qualifier status (8), at least one qualifying attempt (10) and setting a new elapsed-time national record (20).

Funny Car teams will, as usual, have a shot at the $100,000 first-place purse in the Skoal Showdown while a $25,000 check awaits the winner of the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle -- both bonus races scheduled to be decided during their respective qualifying programs. And all the drivers -- even those not in the Countdown -- will be gunning for money and wins.

Here's a preview of this weekend's annual Labor Day classic.

Top Fuel
"Hot Rod" Fuller ended the first level of the new Countdown format with the overall points lead and has now established himself as a legitimate title contender. Despite the absence of a permanent primary sponsor, he and tuner Rob Flynn have maximized their available resources from team owner David Powers and put together a strong campaign winning twice out of five final rounds. Fuller is the real thing and he'll be prepared to come out swinging in Indy.

Tony Schumacher has been the biggest Top Fuel success story at Indy in the modern era with his fifth career win at the U.S. Nationals last year. He comes into this year's event with a 2007 track record that defies interpretation. Second in the points, the four-time POWERade champion has the most wins in the category, four, but a total of nine first-round losses, including at the last two national events.

Brandon Bernstein finished third overall heading into the Countdown to Four but his '07 has been a picture of hot and cold. A kidney stone sidelined him from eliminations in Reading, Pa., two weeks ago with Rit Pustari pinch hitting. This followed Brandon's solid victory at the previous race in Brainerd, Minn. One race earlier, he was an opening-round loser in Sonoma, Calif. In fact, in the last seven events, Bernstein has assembled a "first round-final round" game of hopscotch which raises the consistency issue.

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

But when the Top Fuel final comes to the line at ORP on Monday, it would be hard to imagine one of the above drivers not involved in the finale. Throughout the season, it has been that triumvirate which has collectively posted the most wins, final rounds, low-qualifier awards and round victories in the class.

Funny Car
Ron Capps has successfully led the POWERade Funny Car points since his first win of '07 at the AC Delco Gatornationals in March. But following his final-round appearance in Denver to commence the Western Swing, Capps has been struggling -- picking up just a single round win since then. That's not a great confidence builder heading into the biggest race of the season.

Robert Hight has also been spotty in the second half. His John Force-owned team hasn't won a race (nor advanced to a final round) since Atlanta -- 12 races ago. He ended the first stint of the Countdown in second place in the points but that's irrelevant when you consider his record over the last dozen races.

So, who has been the hottest Funny Car entity going into the Countdown to Four?

That's easy. John Force.

Only his unexpected red light against Tony Pedregon in the Reading final two weeks ago prevented him from earning his fourth win of the year out of five consecutive payoff round appearances as the first 17-race chunk of the Countdown came to an end. Force's 14 championships have long proved he's the sport's steadiest money player and after pulling himself out of a tepid start to 2007, it's all going his way as he arrives in Indy. That's the kind of timing every team would love to have working for it.

Pro Stock
Greg Anderson has some genuine competition this year for the Pro Stock POWERade championship. Look at Dave Connolly, who took down Kurt Johnson in the Reading final for his fourth victory of the year. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Connolly's teammate, has rung up three wins in '07 and beat Anderson in the Brainerd final two races ago.

But Anderson heads to Indy with intensified energy, knowing a win this weekend gives him five U.S. Nationals titles, a category record. Anderson has shown throughout his phenomenal career that when there's something extra riding on his performance, he's virtually invincible.

You can't completely count out the other drivers chasing the championship and a coveted U.S. Nationals crown. Allen Johnson, reigning POWERade champion Jason Line, Kurt Johnson, Warren Johnson and Larry Morgan all have the potential to clear out their side of the eliminations ladder and the nature of Pro Stock has always been one of unpredictability. Reaction times, tire shake, humidity and driver error have regularly helped to determine which lane sets off the win light.

But if you play the numbers game and look to the laws of probability to anticipate Monday's winner, Anderson, Connolly and Coughlin Jr. are all tough to disregard.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
Only three national events are slated for the bikes in the next phase of the Countdown, making this year's Big Go bash an even more critical piece of the championship pie. The PSM Elite Eight was tightly bunched all year; Harley-Davidson, Buell and Suzuki all won trips to the winner's circle and it would be hard to bestow favorite status on any one rider, especially in the first five slots in the Countdown field.

Matt Smith has matured beyond his years in 2007 and convincingly led the points with impunity since Atlanta. He already has a U.S. Nationals title to his credit and is as bankable a drag racer as the category can boast. He has three wins in 2007, tied for the PSM lead.

Angelle Sampey is a seasoned champion with three POWERade crowns, two Indy victories and a laundry list of performance milestones. She posted only one national event win so far this season but is as dangerous as ever and finished No. 2 in the points in the opening chapter of the Countdown.

Andrew Hines is a three-time class champion as well, his family-owned team lacks nothing, and he is the only other PSM racer with as many wins as Smith. Always a threat to win, Hines will be on his game in Indy.

But one stat may give the edge to Smith. His 26-8 won-loss round record versus Sampey's 18-10 and Hines' 19-8 is impressive and may be a key to what happens this weekend and beyond.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com

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