- John Schwarb
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CLERMONT, Ind. -- The Countdown to the Championship has its poster boy.
Yet 10 days after Doug Herbert completed an improbable run at Reading, Pa., to get into the Top Fuel title hunt, the caption on the poster could read: "Now what?"
"What do we do for an encore? We come to Indy and we win the 'Big Go,' that's what we do," Herbert said.
The 53rd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals -- the "Big Go" to those who have been coming to Indianapolis for years -- is the crown jewel of the NHRA POWERade schedule, but it now means something more.
It's the first of four races for the newly minted top eight in each class to collect points toward the Countdown to Four, the next step in the title drive. Those already at the top of the charts, such as Hot Rod Fuller -- the Top Fuel points leader for most of the season -- will hope not to mess up a good thing and maintain their position.
For someone like Doug Herbert, it's a chance to make a new lease on life even better.
The 39-year-old veteran stood at 11th in the standings, 476 points out of first, going into the Countdown cutoff race. In previous years he would have been toast in the title chase. This season didn't look much better, at least in the eyes of NHRA officials. Herbert wasn't even invited to participate in a Countdown news conference leading up to Reading.
"I guess they didn't feel they needed me," Herbert said with a smile, now relishing the snub.
He got the last laugh. Over the four-day, rain-plagued finals at Maple Grove Raceway, he moved from 11th to eighth in the standings, passing then-eighth-ranked Dave Grubnic with a win over Fuller in the title round. It was no fluke, as Herbert's 4.526-second pass was the quickest of the race.
"I have to give them credit, they ran great," Grubnic said. "The initial response for us was disappointment, but then again, for Doug Herbert, they earned that spot. They ran 50s [throughout eliminations], 52 in the final. You bet I called them and congratulated them."
Grubnic's loss was the circuit's gain. The NHRA's bold new format gained credibility for creating suspense, and you can bet in future years officials won't forget to tout any driver with a long-shot chance on the cutoff weekend.
"Anybody that's lower than third place in the points at this point of the season, it really gives them an opportunity to win a championship you would never have a shot at," said Larry Dixon, third in Top Fuel and a longtime friend of Herbert. "It's obviously good for whoever that team is, for publicity -- Doug got a lot, Grubnic got a lot. It gave them media exposure there's absolutely no way they would have gotten unless they crashed or won an event."
As for Herbert, he did more than keep a title hope alive and reap a media bounty. Winning at Reading ended a 65-race winless streak dating to 2004, during which he gave serious consideration to walking away from driving and concentrating full time on his performance-parts business in Lincolnton, N.C.
"Last year was especially frustrating -- nothing went right," Herbert said of a 2006 season that ended with him 13th in points, 816 back of champion Tony Schumacher. "Everything that could fall apart fell apart, bad luck, everything that could mess up happened."
He thought his Snap-on team made progress over the winter, only to start this season with the same poor results. With three opening-round losses and a pair of DNQs quickly dropping Herbert to 16th in points after five races, he was again on a path to nowhere.
"We left Las Vegas not qualifying, there were serious meetings after that," Herbert said. "I said, 'Guys, what are we missing? What are we doing wrong? We've still got a shot, we can get in the top eight.' We were thinking about that, even after three DNQs. Then we got momentum."
In the season's sixth race at Atlanta, Herbert made it to the final round only to lose to Brandon Bernstein. Four races later, at Englishtown, N.J., he again went to a final round, losing to Dixon. Through the summer his results remained balky, but a pole-qualifying effort at the end of July in Sonoma, Calif., showed the performance was still there.
Then came Reading.
"When we went into Reading, the attitude of everyone on the team changed," Herbert said. "We knew what we had to do, everybody was focused, everybody was into it. It just came together for us."
Now at O'Reilly Raceway Park just west of Indianapolis, Herbert sits eighth in points, 70 behind Fuller. It's almost a footnote, given how he got to this point. But come Labor Day, it's going to be time to add to the story.
Herbert hasn't been a major factor at the U.S. Nationals since 1992-93, when he made the finals twice in his first two years in Top Fuel.
"Are we happy with winning and getting in? Absolutely," Herbert said. "But we're not satisfied. Now we're even more fired up and hungrier. We want more."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.