- Bill Stephens
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Similar scenarios -- different solutions.
That short but descriptive phrase encapsulates the contrast that divides last year's Torco Race Fuels Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park outside Richmond and this year's second annual edition of the NHRA's newest national event.
Heading into this race in 2006 -- while Jason Line was in firm control of the soon-to-be-awarded Pro Stock champion's POWERade paycheck -- the battles for the NHRA's Top Fuel and Funny Car titles were being bitterly contested among a host of drivers in each category. But those battles were being waged under the previous points system, with the driver accumulating the most points over the 23-race schedule earning his or her respective championship.
This year, the Countdown to the Championship has altered the way the professional crowns will be determined, and this weekend's Torco Race Fuels Nationals (eliminations Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) is the final step in singling out the four racers from Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock who will settle this year's championships at the last two events of '07.
Here's a preview:
It has been very difficult to latch onto a clear-cut favorite for this year's Top Fuel championship. Hot streaks for any one team have been rare and the Countdown format has reset the points as each stage of it concludes, eliminating the opportunity for any driver to scamper away from the pack.
Last year's Richmond winner was Cory McClenathan -- a non-Countdown contender -- so the popular veteran will be looking to play merely the spoiler's role while attempting to defend his event title. The big stakes will be riding on the drivers now in place to finish the event in the top four and advance to the Countdown to One. The smart money will be somewhere in the vicinity of Larry Dixon (who won in Dallas two weeks ago and has now clinched a Countdown to One slot), "Hot Rod" Fuller, Tony Schumacher and Brandon Bernstein, who are all national event winners this year and have stout programs shoring them up.
Bob Vandergriff (the runner-up in Dallas) and Whit Bazemore are mathematically within striking distance of climbing into the top four, while Doug Herbert and J.R. Todd are confronting much longer odds. With sunshine and temperatures in the mid-80s forecast for the weekend, track temperatures will be as significant a factor this time around as they were at the past two races in Memphis and Dallas.
First-round upsets could be a given and that could drastically change the Countdown to One picture in a haze of tire smoke.
What will the John Force Racing presence be this weekend?
Force reluctantly announced on Tuesday that he's abandoning any hopes of racing again this year after the realities of his healing process (and his doctor's insistence) convinced him his injuries will need at least 60 more days to mend properly. His accident in Dallas has raised questions about the structural durability of the team's race chassis, and with Robert Hight in the thick of the championship scramble, any doubts about the safety of the JFR Mustangs become an even more pressing issue.
The fact that the late Eric Medlen would have been this year's defending event champion adds an even greater dimension to that quest for answers as Hight and Force's daughter, funny car rookie Ashley, look ahead to this weekend's action.
Hight hasn't quite clinched a spot in the Countdown to One, while former JFR champion Tony Pedregon leads the standings following his Dallas victory. Force will relinquish his No. 4 position as soon as No. 5 Ron Capps and No. 6 Gary Scelzi earn their 10 points for making a qualifying attempt on Friday.
But the points disparity between leader Pedregon and No. 7 Mike Ashley is smaller than the potential tally that's up for grabs for the entire event this weekend, and all it would take is a bad outing by a front-runner combined with a breakout race by a determined pursuer to shuffle the results leading into the Countdown to One.
Nothing has been rubber-stamped just yet.
Dave Connolly and three-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson already have seats in the Countdown to One arena and unquestionably enjoy co-favorite status heading into the sweet spot of the Countdown race-off. But the drama is anything but intangible in the remaining six slots that will be carved down to two by the end of the day Sunday. Do the math.
Only 102 points separate No. 3 Allen Johnson and No. 8 Warren Johnson, and with 138 potential points in the pipeline this weekend, that's not an insurmountable spread. The points breakdown shows qualifying position could be worth as much as 8 points, while a round win is worth 20 and a new national elapsed time record pays 20 points. The category's first sub-6.60-second pass was made by Anderson at this race last year, and teammate Jason Line set the then-national elapsed time record at 6.558.
Connolly and Anderson both would be prerace picks, especially Connolly, who is gunning for his fifth consecutive national event win -- an achievement that not too long ago might have been expected only from a Greg Anderson. The two points-leading drivers can run their own races on Sunday and fine-tune their setups for the first race of the Countdown to One in Las Vegas on the last weekend of October. For the other six P/S candidates in the hunt for the 2007 championship, the "Battle for Richmond" will be intense.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com