Drivers not in the Countdown feel the sting, and urge to win
What about the NHRA drivers not in the Countdown to the Championship? It hurts, but at least they still have a chance to win, writes John Schwarb.
- CLERMONT, Ind. -- Arriving here at O'Reilly Raceway Park last week for testing in advance of the 53rd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Cory McClenathan searched out fellow Top Fuel driver Dave Grubnic with an idea.Neither qualified for the inaugural NHRA POWERade Countdown to the Championship, but perhaps incentive to perform could come from elsewhere."What do we do? Maybe we should put up some money and have our own little championship," McClenathan said.It was a joke, but with a point.The Countdown field is set, with the top eight drivers in each category earning the opportunity to compete for the title. Unlike years past, when drivers several spots behind the leader would have had no chance for a title, there are now very real hopes for the top eight with points reset at 70 behind first for the eighth-place car, 60 points for the seventh-place car, and so on. But for those sitting ninth or worse following the event two weeks ago at Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania, the Countdown bubble burst. Some were just a few points away from the cut, others had their fates decided weeks before.Today, they're outsiders, stuck in a sort of drag racing Siberia."We had a lot of attention when we were the chaser, we were the one guy that was going to change things around," said Vieri Gaines, who was alive for the final spot in the Pro Stock Countdown at Maple Grove but came up one round short. "Now all of a sudden there's no attention."You'd almost think the season was over for the outsiders, that they were told to pack up their parachutes for good and come back again in February at Pomona, Calif. It almost bears reminding that the week-in, week-out racing format hasn't changed -- the fastest 16 cars in qualifying, regardless of points stature, race in a single-elimination format.The format gives zero special consideration to Countdown contenders. Sunday at Indianapolis, series royalty John Force failed to qualify in Funny Car and Warren Johnson came up short in Pro Stock, creating even more pressure for themselves in the next month to make it to the Countdown's cutoff to four. At the opposite end of the spectrum Sunday sat Max Naylor in Pro Stock and Jeff Arend in Funny Car -- two outsiders -- on the pole position at the U.S. Nationals, proving that life can go on."This is not just another race. This is a very, very special race to every drag racer that has ever come out," said Naylor, who failed to qualify in his first U.S. Nationals last year. "I'm going to enjoy the moment, if we do well tomorrow that's icing on the cake."What's difficult for some to grasp is that once you're outside the top eight at this point of the season, you're outside for good. Forget winning at Indy or collecting multiple wins in the last six events in a late push to finish, say, in the top five in the standings."I'm not against the points system, I realize we've got to make some changes. At the same time, I came into [this weekend] thinking, all we're shooting for is ninth or 10th now?" said McClenathan, 11th in Top Fuel points and a four-time series runner-up. "That's kind of a bummer, especially with as many races left as there is."Unlike the original incarnation of the Chase for the Nextel Cup in NASCAR, which awarded a $1 million bonus to the driver finishing the season 11th, one spot away of its title-contending top-10, NHRA has no provision for the best of the rest outside the Countdown. This year NASCAR expanded its Chase to 12 drivers and eliminated the prize for the top driver not in the Chase."Everyone's spirits are kind of down a little bit, there's no chance of finishing higher than ninth, even if you go out and win the next five races," said Del Worsham, who missed the Countdown in Funny Car by 38 points. "I really wish NHRA would have put up some kind of bonus. The guys in the top eight, they're racing for a lot of money. They should have put 100 grand or something like that for ninth and 10th and gave us all something to race for."We all want to win races, but we're just going race-to-race now, it really doesn't mean anything other than winning the race."
We want to win the U.S. Nationals, then after we leave here we want to win Memphis. I'm not looking at myself as being a spoiler, we're going to be a competitor.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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