Commentary

Hold on to your hats: POWERade Series turns into Gainesville

Add the AC Delco Gatornationals to the list of "gotta win it" events in the NHRA POWERade Series. The 39th edition of this late-winter classic takes center stage this week on one of the quickest tracks in the sport, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: March 14, 2008, 11:42 AM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

The MAC Tools U.S. Nationals. The CARQUEST Winternationals. The Automobile Club Finals. Three of the NHRA POWERade Series' most coveted titles. No drag racer -- professional or sportsman -- would dream of calling his racing resume complete without a trophy from each of these revered national events.

Add one more to that "gotta win it" list: the AC Delco Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Gainesville, Fla.

This weekend, the 39th edition of this late-winter classic will come to order at one of the quickest facilities in the sport. With two 2008 races already completed, there has been no shortage of surprises in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock. And with the Pro Stock Motorcycles making their '08 debut this weekend, fans will have to pay close attention because there have been numerous changes.

The list of active drivers who have yet to pick up Gatornationals laurels is a noteworthy one, including such names as Top Fuel's Cory McClenathan, Funny Car's Tommy Johnson Jr., Pro Stock's Larry Morgan and Pro Stock Motorcycle's reigning POWERade champion, Matt Smith (who made his first PSM start at this race in 2004).

Everyone wants a Gatornationals championship, but only one racer in each class will get one this weekend. Here's a class-by-class preview:

Top Fuel
Larry Dixon isn't listening to the media swirl. He's been here before.

The two-time POWERade champion, who drives for longtime mentor and team owner Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, remembers 2002 and 2003, when he won his two titles back-to-back. At the time, the buzz being tossed around by drag racing observers hailed Dixon and then-crew chief Dick LaHaie as a dynasty in the making.

In 2004, Dixon finished sixth in points. He hasn't won another championship.

But after his hole-shot semifinal win over Tony Schumacher (the reigning and five-time POWERade champion) and his rock-steady final win in Phoenix three weeks ago, many are declaring him the category's best driver (which is not entirely farfetched) and the new pacesetter in Top Fuel.

However, as Dixon is quick to point out, "We haven't won anything yet," and despite his victory at the preceding race, he and tuner Donnie Bender aren't quite ready to assume the role of Top Fuel's new favorite heading into Gainesville.

Schumacher, last year's Gainsville winner, will be on the hunt to re-establish his dominance, but weather predictions call for very warm and humid conditions, at least on Friday and Saturday, and that might force Schumacher's ubertuner, Alan Johnson, to soften his engine and clutch setup. Will that leave an opening for others such as McClenathan, Brandon Bernstein, "Hot Rod" Fuller and David Grubnic (the Phoenix runner-up) to step up?

Other racers to keep an eye on: Doug Kalitta, a two-time Gatornationals winner, who continues to search for consistency; Antron Brown, who never has raced at Gainesville on anything other than a motorcycle; and Hillary Will, who set the top speed of the race in both Pomona and Phoenix to begin the year.

Funny Car
This will be an emotionally challenging weekend for John Force Racing. It will be the team's first visit to Gainesville since last year's testing accident that claimed the life of Eric Medlen. It's inevitable that extra effort will be needed by Force and his team drivers -- daughter Ashley, Robert Hight and Mike Neff -- to remain mentally dialed in.

Jack Beckman comes in with a hot hand after his win in Phoenix, but another story to watch will be whether the remarkable qualifying success of Tim Wilkerson continues. He iced the No. 1 qualifying spot at each of the season's first two races but has yet to win a round in eliminations.

Ron Capps won here the past two years, and after suffering a dismal start to '08 with spotty qualifying and no luck in eliminations, a three-peat this weekend would be the best medicine for a team hoping to keep within distance of points leader Hight.

Other racers to track: Cruz Pedregon, the Pomona runner-up who needs to maintain his fast start; Tony Pedregon, the reigning POWERade champion, who stumbled in Phoenix after his horrendous explosion in Pomona and has fallen to 16th in the points; and Gary Densham, who is in jeopardy of having to park his team unless it receives some financial CPR, which could be forthcoming with a strong outing.

Pro Stock
V. Gaines won't be the center of attention in Pro Stock this weekend, despite his inspiring win in Phoenix three weeks ago. And neither Greg Anderson nor Jeg Coughlin, who have combined for five of the past six POWERade championships, will be hogging the Gainesville spotlight. The man everyone will be obsessed with -- at least early on -- will be Kurt Johnson.

He failed to qualify at this race the past two years, and to make matters worse, his sponsor, AC Delco, is the event sponsor.

But Johnson has a fast car this year and qualified well (third and fourth) in his first two '08 events. His only two round defeats were his hole-shot loss to Coughlin in the Pomona semis and his aborted run versus Jason Line in the second round in Phoenix. Count on Johnson being a factor at this year's race, since he might be the most motivated Pro Stock driver in Gainesville.

The power structure in Pro Stock has shifted little. Gaines was an assassin on the Christmas Tree in Phoenix, and it made for a great story to see him pick up career win No. 3, but reality might set back in this weekend. The category's perennial musclemen will be tough to take down again.

Other Pro Stock possibilities: Warren Johnson is off to a steady start, and his combined losing margins this year total a scant 4/100 of a second; Greg Anderson (last year's Gatornationals champ) leads the points and has his new Pontiac G6 in formidable fighting form; and Allen Johnson won low qualifier honors in Phoenix and wants to string together some round wins after bagging only three so far in '08.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
Harleys, Buells, Suzukis. New team alignments, and a roster of familiar faces creating intriguing lineup cards. This year's opening event for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class will be a free-for-all and provide enough unpredictability to satisfy the most jaded bike fan.

Three-time champions Angelle Sampey and Andrew Hines have each other squarely in their sights, especially after the spectacular sub-6.90 test runs both riders laid down this past week in Valdosta, Ga. Sampey will be reuniting with George Bryce, who was most responsible for the string of lightning-quick Suzukis that powered her to three consecutive POWERade championships.

However, Angelle is switching to a Buell for the first time in her racing career, supported by Karl Klement's Rush Racing, with Bryce bringing his enormous technical and competitive expertise to the effort. Hines will be aboard his ever-powerful "Screamin' Eagle" Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson and brings a large upgrade in horsepower to the table -- no doubt the result of many hours of engine development and dyno testing over the winter at the V&H race shop.

Reigning category champion Smith will be back for his title defense, while Chris Rivas has landed with Bryce's G-Squared racing operation and Chip Ellis has jumped over to Don Schumacher's single-bike outfit.

Other potential performers: Ed Krawiec, teammate to Andrew Hines, is banking on a breakout year after signing a new contract extension with Vance & Hines; Craig Treble, the 2002 winner here, is launching his 11th season in the class and wants a better points finish than last year's sixth place; and Karen Stoffer has developed into a genuine threat at every race in which she has appeared over the past two seasons and could be a dark horse this weekend -- lest we forget she returns as the defending event champion.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.

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