- Bill Stephens
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The NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship points system gradually and decisively has whittled down the field of title contenders pursuing this year's four professional POWERade championships.
The process has been at times surprising (14-time Funny Car champion John Force is out of the running), improbable (Dave Connolly has won five consecutive Pro Stock event titles but is now in third place in the points), and dramatic (Pro Stock Motorcycle's Peggy Llewellyn avoided exclusion from the Countdown to One when she picked up an impressive win in Dallas).
This weekend, the 43rd Auto Club Finals at historic Pomona Raceway (Finals Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at the Los Angeles County Fairplex will see the POWERade championships in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle finally close out after a wild, 22-race quarter-mile marathon that began at this same venue in February.
Following last week's AC Delco Nationals in Las Vegas, some of the suspense surrounding those four championships has diminished, but one only need remember Tony Schumacher's miraculous event-winning/record-setting performance in last year's Top Fuel final at this race to appreciate how nothing in NHRA POWERade drag racing can be taken for granted.
Here's a preview of a season finale that is sure to be a thunderous epic:
"Hot Rod" Fuller has racked up a sensational record in the sportsman drag racing ranks and wears the reputation of a cool and collected competitor. Now he is enjoying the role of favorite for the first time as a pro, and his outstanding "double-up" performance in Las Vegas last weekend in which he won the Technicoat Top Fuel Shootout and the AC Delco Nationals is the reason. With over a two-round lead against Larry Dixon in the Countdown standings, Fuller need only qualify and avoid an early-round loss to ice the title.
But that might be an oversimplification.
While Dixon is closest to Fuller in the points (52), the other two eligible drivers -- Brandon Bernstein (61) and Tony Schumacher (67) --could become factors with the right set of circumstances working in their favor. Long shots to be sure, but under such excruciating pressure and the fickle nature of nitro racing entering the equation, Fuller is no more counting his chickens than Dixon, Schumacher or Bernstein are conceding defeat.
Tony Pedregon is on the brink of his second career POWERade championship. In simple terms, it's his to lose.
His 91-point lead over Gary Scelzi essentially means Pedregon need only qualify to clinch the championship that has eluded him since winning it in 2003 as part of John Force Racing, before joining his older brother, Cruz Pedregon, in their two-car startup operation in 2004.
Robert Hight and Ron Capps are further back in the points -- 99 and 113, respectively -- and their fate in the Countdown sweepstakes also rests in the hands of Tony. Only a DNQ on Saturday by the younger Pedregon would breathe life into the chances of Scelzi, Hight and Capps -- a scenario that clearly would defy the odds in the eyes of even the most skeptical observer.
Tony is dealing from a position of power -- the power of his own championship destiny, which he holds in his own hands. And that's the way champions prefer it.
Two weeks ago, Dave Connolly was Pro Stock's biggest power hitter and seemed on track to snap up this year's championship. But in almost uncanny fashion, Connolly dropped to third after a tough outing in Las Vegas last week coupled with the crucial victory by three-time champion Greg Anderson. Even Connolly's teammate, two-time POWERade champion Jeg Coughlin Jr., bounded past Connolly into second by virtue of his runner-up finish at the Strip. The scorecard reads: Anderson, followed by Coughlin (34 points behind Anderson), Connolly (48) and Allen Johnson (103).
Anderson will be on his "A" game in Pomona, and now that he has regained the points lead in the closing stages of the season, he'll be more dangerous than ever. Only Anderson's teammate, Jason Line, has outperformed him in the last four years by claiming last year's P/S crown.
The last non-Summit Racing driver to wear the Pro Stock laurels was Coughlin in 2002, and since then, the power structure in the category has changed little. This one isn't over, but history would dictate that getting past Anderson in the late innings of a campaign isn't a great way to make a living. And it certainly isn't the easiest way to win a title.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Andrew Hines almost can taste No. 4.
The three-time champion ended any questions about his composure and steadiness in the pressure cooker of a championship range war when he dusted all comers last week in Las Vegas. There never really has been much doubt about his family's Vance & Hines race shop to build, tune and prepare the quickest and fastest Harley-Davidsons in the sport. His father, Byron, his brother, Matt, and partner Terry Vance have credentials that speak for themselves.
But Andrew has, at times, made mental errors at the starting line that have led to stunning upsets and untimely round losses when he was unquestionably aboard the best bike on the ladder. But his Las Vegas triumph last week has placed him one sizable step closer to his unprecedented fourth consecutive championship, with Chip Ellis (39 points behind), Matt Smith (51), and Peggy Llewellyn (93) banking on a Hines miscue to rejuvenate their title aspirations.
If last week was any indicator of Hines' mental toughness and solid resolve, there's every chance they may not get what they want while Andrew will.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com