Commentary

Countdown format puts pressure on some of NHRA's biggest names

The mad scramble for NHRA drivers to get in the top four, and thus continue in the playoffs, is almost over. There are some big names on the bubble with one race left to keep their championship hopes alive, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: October 1, 2007, 8:17 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

This weekend, the door leading to the professional NHRA POWERade championships will be closing much tighter. When racing ends at the Torco Race Fuels Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park on Sunday (final eliminations, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in Richmond, Va., the field of title contenders in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock will be whittled down from eight to four in each category.

For some of the sport's most respected and race-ready teams, the door will be shutting altogether.

Of course, this was the motivating factor behind the NHRA's decision to restructure its points system this season. Gradually diminishing the number of drivers eligible to gather in their respective class championships as the 23-race schedule powered its way to a decisive conclusion would undoubtedly mean that past performances or hard-earned reputations wouldn't guarantee overall success.

Take a look at the racers on the verge of missing or who have already been ousted from the Countdown to One, which commences at the ACDelco Nationals in Las Vegas in two weeks, and you'll get the picture.

Last season's rookie sensation, J.R. Todd, is now 92 points out of the fourth and final slot in the Top Fuel Countdown standings. Driving for team owner Dexter Tuttle, Todd survived the shakeup at the beginning of the year that saw his veteran crew chief, Jimmy Walsh, move to Kenny Bernstein's new Funny Car effort one race after Todd opened the season with a victory at the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. Another victory followed in Houston, but heading into Richmond, Todd will need a miraculous comeback to sneak into the top four.

A perennial championship threat, Doug Kalitta has had a dismal 2007. His absence from the Countdown to One is the result of a troubled campaign which has seen him go not only winless this year, but fail to advance to a single final round. A total of nine round wins in the first 20 races of the season is all one needs to know to recognize the degree to which Kalitta has struggled.

Ditto Melanie Troxel, who missed the Countdown to Four after last year's tremendous start to the season which placed her in contention throughout 2006's first half. She might have been the last driver (and the first female) to win the Top Fuel championship under the old points system but a tough stretch down the '06 season's second half ended her potentially historic bid.

Although in the fourth spot in the points, Brandon Bernstein needs to watch his back. Only 21 points behind him is Bob Vandergriff Jr., who is heading for Richmond after a runner-up finish in Dallas last week. Both drivers know what is riding on their Richmond performances and with essentially one round of difference between them, anything can happen.

In Funny Car, the big story is John Force. Although his team announced this past Tuesday that the 14-time POWERade champion would miss the remainder of the season after his frightening crash with Bernstein on Sept. 23, Force was quoted Thursday as saying he intends to return to action before the end of 2007.

Force is currently fourth in the points, but unless he stages a miraculous recovery in the next four days from his broken ankle, lacerated knee, broken fingers and dislocated wrist, he'll most likely be dropped from the Countdown to One. All the three drivers directly behind him in the standings -- Ron Capps, Gary Scelzi and Mike Ashley -- have to do is make a qualifying attempt in Richmond, which is worth 10 points, and Force will be bumped out of the Final Four.

It would mark the first time since Force's first of 14 championships in 1990 that the all-time NHRA victory leader would be out of the title hunt with three races to go.

Pro Stock's all-time win leader Warren Johnson is on the precipitous edge of missing the CtO. The six-time POWERade champion is 86 points out of fourth place and his son, Kurt Johnson, is also teetering on the brink of Countdown elimination, 29 points behind fourth-place Jeg Coughlin Jr.

But perhaps the Pro Stock driver most surprisingly short of CtO eligibility is defending POWERade champion Jason Line, who needs to make up the 18-point difference between Coughlin and himself to remain in place to defend his '06 championship. And he'll have one last shot at that in Richmond.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the list of racers who have been cut from the Countdown would make any roster of the category's most formidable and dominating riders in recent history. Last week's action in Dallas determined the 2007 Countdown to One PSM field and some of the names missing from that field are three-time POWERade champion Angelle Sampey; her teammate, 16-time national event winner Antron Brown; two-time national event winner in '07 Karen Stoffer; 2007 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals winner Craig Treble; and 2003 POWERade champion Geno Scali.

And so the stage is set for Richmond. Those drag racers who end eliminations in one of the coveted top four spots within their own category standings will head to Las Vegas and perhaps eventually to a POWERade championship.

Those who don't will be added to an ever-increasing roster of hopefuls whose hope will have run out.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com

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