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More nitro, more excitement in '08 POWERade championship chases

2/6/2008
AP Photo/NHRA

There are no more days off, no more family getaways, no more testing days and no more "wait a minutes" or "do it laters."
The 2008 NHRA POWERade season has arrived.

For nitro fanatics, G-force junkies and drag racing diehards, the 48th CARQUEST Winternationals this weekend at historic Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., brings renewal and rejuvenation to a quarter-mile landscape that has been relatively stagnant and inactive since the 2007 season came to a close at this same venue four months ago.

There will be changes awaiting Drag Racing Nation when all eyes are focused on Pomona this weekend, and those changes will run the gamut from team alignments, sponsorship commitments (or lack thereof) and rules revisions to nearly every facet of the NHRA POWERade personality.

Here's the first preview of what is expected to be a wild and wide-open 2008 season of professional action in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock:

Top Fuel
More nitro. That's music to the ears of any nitro tuner, and the NHRA's decision to allow a maximum of 90 percent nitromethane to be burned in Top Fuel (and Funny Car) this year will surely have every T/F engine-builder and tune-up artist conspiring in their engine shops to take the fullest advantage of the 5 percent increase. Some things never change.

Four-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher will retain his man-to-beat status as he begins his charge into NHRA history for a possible fourth consecutive Top Fuel championship. Once again, Schumacher will be tuned by the sport's elite crew chief, Alan Johnson. But you can expect such drivers as "Hot Rod" Fuller, Brandon Bernstein and Larry Dixon to be serious opposition in Schumacher's quest for another title. Those three racers return in 2008 with team structures nearly identical last year's, when they surged into the Countdown to One to end the season.

J.R. Todd may be a strong pick to harass Schumacher this year and fulfill the promises launched by his rookie successes in 2006. He'll race alongside new teammate Morgan Lucas, and both drivers showed genuine potential in preseason testing. Todd comes in as the CARQUEST Winternationals' defending champion and is looking to rebound from an off-pace '07 in which he finished seventh in the points.

Doug Herbert will be an emotional favorite for the entire season following the tragic death of his two young sons in January. His team has dubbed their 2008 effort the "For My Boys Tour," and one of the sport's true gentlemen will have many old and new fans pulling for him with even greater fervor.

More changes? Following an impressive career in Top Alcohol Dragster and a protracted absence from the NHRA, Troy Buff will be the man at the wheel for longtime owner Bill Miller. Alan Bradshaw, another former T/AD hitter, will be driving for Dexter Tuttle in 2008, while former Pro Stock Motorcycle pacesetter Antron Brown joins "Hot Rod" Fuller at David Powers' two-car race shop.
Cory McClenathan returns this year with Scott Griffin -- a former minority co-owner of Carrier Boyz Racing -- who is now in sole possession of the Fram-sponsored operation. After buying out Mark and Andy Carrier last year, Griffin will now try to provide McClenathan the personnel and equipment he'll need to win his first career POWERade championship.

Doug Kalitta will be flanked by David Grubnic and Hillary Will as he looks to bounce back from a disheartening campaign last year. Kalitta needs to re-establish himself as a category muscleman, and if he can find the same kind of performance that nearly won him his first title in 2006, he will be yet another threat to Schumacher's domination.

Funny Car
In the most highly anticipated return to action since Shirley Muldowney's inspiring comeback after her near-fatal crash in her Top Fuel Dragster in Montreal in 1984, John Force will indeed be back aboard his Castrol Mustang this weekend after his disastrous accident in Dallas in September. Force still suffers some residual pain from his ankle injury, but his ability to drive his race car appears to be unhampered based on his scorching performance in Phoenix testing this past weekend.

Daughter Ashley Force, son-in-law Robert Hight and new addition Mike Neff round out the John Force Racing lineup for 2008, and their unswerving focus will be to recapture the POWERade championship after a punishing season of drag racing -- both physically and emotionally -- in 2007. The team also will continue to direct its energies toward increasing driver safety in the class.

Defending POWERade champion Tony Pedregon will be back with tuner Dickie Venables and his older brother, Cruz, next-door. Team Schumacher will roll out four cars this year driven by 2005 POWERade champion (and defending event champ) Gary Scelzi, Ron Capps, Jack Beckman and veteran Jerry Toliver. This is a very strong operation and the team have its sights set on getting off to a fast start, especially with the new Countdown structure that allows the top 10 -- rather than the top eight drivers that advanced under the previous format -- to advance to the second rung of the championship format.

Melanie Troxel will make her Funny Car debut as part of Mike Ashley's team. Her husband, Tommy Johnson Jr., will assume the driving job in Kenny Bernstein's Monster Energy Dodge. Elsewhere in the class, there's plenty of talent. Names like Worsham, Wilkerson, Kalitta, Bartone and Densham will, as usual, make things interesting with the ever-present potential to figure in the title chase. 2008 will be a real F/C horse race, and it darts from the starting gate this weekend.

Pro Stock
Last year, three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson won six of the first 10 NHRA national events, including the CARQUEST Winternationals. Late in the season, Dave Connolly won five national events in a row, while Jeg Coughlin didn't win a race until the ninth event of the schedule in Chicago. Jeggie added only one more victory to end the year, but he emerged as the 2007 POWERade champion. So using this race as a crystal ball to predict the '08 Pro Stock championship outcome is dicey at best.

The perennial "big players" in the class are all back, except for Connolly, who is out of action until team owner Vic Cagnazzi secures sponsorship for his Chevy Cobalt. Richie Stevens Jr. is also shopping his services to interested owners after Don Schumacher closed out his Mopar Pro Stock team.

New faces include Billy Glidden, the son of 10-time NHRA champion Bob Glidden and a multi-time champion in his own right, competing in the NMRA and other street-legal drag racing series. The elder Glidden will be returning with master engine-builder Richard Maskin to field a Pontiac GTO driven by impressive youngster Justin Humphreys.

GM will be rolling out its new Pontiac G6 GXP for factory-backed drivers like Anderson, Jason Line, Warren Johnson, Greg Stanfield and Jim Yates, while Mopar's race-winning hopes will be riding with veterans Allen Johnson, Larry Morgan and V. Gaines.

Whoever leaves Pomona Sunday evening with Winternationals Pro Stock honors will have a long way to go before assuming the role of favorite for the 2008 POWERade crown. But they will, at least for the time being, enjoy the psychological lift that comes from winning the first event of the year.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com