- Bill Stephens
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Four is the loneliest number. At least to J.R. Todd, Whit Bazemore, Warren Johnson and John Force.
When the 53rd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals got under way at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis last Thursday, the most celebrated drag race on the planet had taken on an even greater octane rating for sheer drama as it served as the opening step in the NHRA's newly implemented playoff system.
In proceedings dubbed the Countdown to Four, the top eight points earners in the four professional classes from the year's first 17 events arrived at ORP to begin the four-race process of reducing the POWERade championship field to four in each pro category. Notice the number "four" appears four times in the previous sentence.
So to carry the "four" theme to its inevitable conclusion, when U.S. Nationals qualifying ended Sunday, the four aforementioned racers had missed the cut and scored demoralizing DNQs.
Top Fuel's Bazemore and Todd -- who totaled only four (there's that number again) DNQs collectively over the season's first 17 races -- both came up short in their qualifying efforts at Indy, exacerbated by the unique U.S. Nationals qualifying format that offers five qualifying attempts rather than the usual four (that inescapable number) at the other 22 national events on the schedule.
"It was a valiant effort by the team and actually a great run for the conditions," Bazemore said, referring to the oppressive heat in Sunday's final qualifying. "Our backs were against the wall. It was difficult to run quick enough to qualify. We just struggled here all weekend. We struggled here in testing last weekend and it didn't go away.
"This is a race that I live for. It makes it very painful to not qualify, way more so than normal. The highest highs of my career were when we won here, but we've also had some tough times, too. There are positives. The car ran real well on the last run. It ran really well. You have to take it one race at a time. As a team, we can analyze our failures and address them and that's the only way you improve."
Todd was equally dismayed by his unsuccessful qualifying performance.
"This is really disappointing because not only is this the start of the Countdown to Four, but it is a home race for us and we had a lot of people coming out to see us," said Todd, a resident of nearby Brownsburg, Ind. "We'll go back to our shop, regroup and get ready for our next race at Memphis in two weeks."
Following the race in Memphis, the tour travels to Dallas and Richmond, Va., to wrap up the Countdown to Four. At that point, the top four drivers in each pro class will duke it out in the final two races of the year in Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif., to determine this year's POWERade champions.
And in Funny Car, the odds are decidedly slanted away from 14-time champion Force picking up No. 15 after only his third career failure at qualifying for the sport's biggest race.
"I've had plenty of good luck at this race over the years," said Force, who watched as his teammate Robert Hight barely missed taking the event title when he was beaten by Mike Ashley in the Indy final. "But what you did yesterday doesn't mean a whole lot in this sport, especially at this race.
"Everyone becomes even more dangerous here and we just didn't come with our best game. We can't dwell on it or just give up. We've already overcome a lot this year and we still have plenty of fight left in us."
The "Grand Old Man of Pro Stock," Johnson, is another U.S. Nationals success story who ran aground in qualifying. The "Professor" missed the 16-car field by a fraction of a second and may now be out of the running for this year's championship -- which would be his seventh.
"We really never gave the car a setup it liked this weekend," Johnson said. "When you're trying to get the power delivery to agree with things like your clutch and gear ratios, you're dealing with a bunch of variables and it becomes mostly guesswork.
"Sometimes, you try everything you know or think you know is the right thing and the car still decides it doesn't like what you're giving it. That's where we were this weekend and it wasn't from any lack of effort that we didn't get the results we wanted."
So, what does this mean for these four racers who became spectators on Labor Day at ORP?
It means they have given the other seven drivers with whom they are competing for drag racing's Final Four a daunting head start with three races remaining in this stage of the Countdown. Beginning next week in Memphis, every qualifying point, every round win -- and yes, every round loss -- intensifies the tension in this numbers game that will ultimately lead to the crowning of 2007's NHRA POWERade champions.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com
The NHRA's new playoff format got off to a rousing start at Indianapolis, but four of the biggest names in the NHRA started the Countdown to Four in a hole, writes Bill Stephens.