Commentary

Countdown to 1 field is set, but not before some drama at Richmond

Top Fuel was a mess, Funny Car saw two big efforts to get in the Countdown to 1 and one late fall. Pro Stock? It's Dave Connolly's world and everyone else is just driving in it as the NHRA POWERade Series heads for the stretch run, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: October 8, 2007, 4:17 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

The first two rounds of Top Fuel were a massacre.

On Sunday, the top four drivers in Top Fuel's Countdown to the Championship standings were looking to hold off the handful of rivals needing to come up big in eliminations at the 2nd Torco Race Fuels Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park outside Richmond, Va. to bump themselves into the Countdown to 1 -- and bump someone else out.

But by the end of Round 2, all four of the category's leading drivers were spectators.

Morgan Lucas upset No. 3 seed Tony Schumacher in the opening round. No. 2 Rod Fuller was also stopped in Round 1 by the tough but unheralded Doug Foley. In the quarterfinals, fourth-place Brandon Bernstein was covered by Foley just after points leader Larry Dixon was dumped by Doug Kalitta.

Doug Kalitta?

Not only did Kalitta hang around long enough on race day to have an impact on the final results, he finally picked up his first win of the season. And although his victory over Dixon had no direct influence on Top Fuel's final four -- which will consist of the same contenders who occupied the top four coming into the event -- Kalitta can now take solace in finishing out the 2007 campaign with at least one national event win. In the final round, he barely outran Melanie Troxel by 2/1000ths of a second.

"This Mac Tools team needed this win in a very bad way," Kalitta said. "We never lost faith that we could get it done, but we've struggled so much this season. This win will take away a lot of frustration in our team and our entire Kalitta Motorsports team.

"Thanks to everyone that has stuck by us throughout this year …"

But perhaps the real story of the day centered on the four drivers outside the first four slots in the points who needed to capitalize on the misfortune of the four teams ahead of them. Bob Vandergriff Jr., Whit Bazemore, J.R. Todd, and Doug Herbert might have helped themselves with strong showings in eliminations but all four missed the Countdown to 1 with Vandergriff and Bazemore falling in Round 1, Todd losing in Round 2, and Herbert getting upended in the semifinals.

In Funny Car, "Fast Jack" Beckman took the most disheartening hit of the day when both his Don Schumacher Racing teammates, Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps, iced their spots in the Countdown to 1 as Beckman was being bumped out. His championship hopes ended when both Scelzi and Capps advanced to the Richmond final round, which Scelzi won, thus catapulting the 2005 POWERade champion from outside Countdown eligibility to the No. 2 spot.

"It was a great day," said Scelzi, who now has a career 37 wins in 58 final rounds. "[Crew chief] Todd [Okuhara] made all the right calls. Okuhara has just been incredible.

"Before the final I told Todd, I said, 'You know, we're in the Countdown now, so it doesn't really do any good to be fourth, so we might as well try to be second. So let's hop this thing up a little bit and let's see what it will do, you little coward.'" Scelzi said. "He started laughing.

"And, I tell you what, when I hit the gas that thing was so out of control, it was the worst job of driving I think you could possibly have. I don't know how I didn't run over everything. And it's spinning the tire and I'm driving it out of the groove and going back and forth. Looked like a windshield wiper. Anyway, we lucked out, we got the win light."

As euphoric as it was for Scelzi, it was disheartening for Beckman.

"We came in here; it was like a storybook," said Beckman, who was living his dream in his first full season of Funny Car competition. "We qualified well, Capps and Scelzi both got in [the 16-car field], which is exactly what we wanted. We really would have liked to have seen all three cars in [the Countdown], so you're not rooting against your teammates … unless they're in the other lane."

The Countdown to 1 Funny Car lineup will see Tony Pedregon, Scelzi, Robert Hight, and Capps slugging it out in the season's final two events for the 2007 championship.

Dave Connolly continues to roll over the entire NHRA Pro Stock category. His final-round victory on Sunday against V. Gaines gave the youngster from Elyria, Ohio, his fifth consecutive NHRA national event win and a tidal wave of momentum as the series races into the next round in three weeks in Las Vegas.

Only 10-time NHRA champion Bob Glidden, the legendary Ronnie Sox, and three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson have ever stacked up five straight Pro Stock national event titles.

"To pick up our fifth win and put us in that elite group with those guys is incredible," said Connolly, who now has a career-best seven victories this season. "It is something I never even dreamed of. I just wanted to race Pro Stock and here we are getting put on a list that is only four people long. It was definitely a big win for us. Things are just clicking right now. It was nice to sweep four races but there are still two races left and [winning those] are our main goal right now."

The four Pro Stock drivers now moving forward into the championship-deciding Countdown to 1 are Connolly, Anderson, Jeg Coughlin Jr., and Allen Johnson. Defending POWERade champion Jason Line failed to advance by virtue of his fifth-place points standing.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com

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