Drivers not in the Countdown feel the sting, and urge to win

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.

Dave Grubnic

NHRA officials are mum on whether such a prize may be available in future versions of the Countdown, instead opting to highlight the outsiders' chance to wreak havoc down the stretch.

"They can serve as bigger spoilers now," said Jerry Archambeault, NHRA vice president of communications. "Before, maybe two or three guys would be in the running for a championship, now there's eight. The chance of going up against someone [in the hunt] is greater. Our hope is people can focus on those bigger upsets."

Some drivers promise their focus towards winning races hasn't wavered, others have an eye on 2008 already. Gaines put a new motor in his car, a chance he wouldn't have taken while in title contention (the risk failed at Indy as he failed to qualify for Monday's finals). Melanie Troxel had silly-season news this week, announcing a move from Top Fuel to Funny Car, racing with Mike Ashley's new team (and likely going head-to-head at some point with Funny Car-driving husband Tommy Johnson Jr.).

"I've spent two weeks trying to put a positive spin on not making the countdown, I've come up with a few things that make feel a little better about it," said Johnson, 10th in points. "It's six races we're going to get to test before everyone else in the countdown is. We can go out and play around and try stuff for next season.

"It's almost a relief, we were on the edge of making it for three or four races, the pressure was building and building and building, and now it's all done. Now I don't have any pressure, now I can go race, go have fun. These guys got all these points to worry about."

Grubnic doesn't have such worries after losing his eighth-place spot in Top Fuel to Doug Herbert two weeks ago in the Countdown's signature moment to date. The only way Herbert could get into the dance was to win at Maple Grove and he did, leaving Grubnic three points behind in ninth.

That gap may as well be a thousand points now, but at least the season's not over.

"Otherwise you've got all winter to think about it. I definitely wouldn't want that," said Grubnic, who qualified fifth at ORP. "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 johnschwarb@yahoo.com.