Underdogs steal show in Top Fuel

Updated: July 1, 2005, 4:31 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

As the 9th Sears Craftsman Nationals concluded Sunday evening at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis, the prerace predictions that centered around the four professional categories called for various drag racing scenarios in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Predictions are always a delicate business at best, and many times they fall far short of reality.

This time, they were all fairly close to the bull's-eye.

Heading into the event, the outlook in Top Fuel pointed toward the strong possibility of early round upsets, with underdogs making the overdogs uncomfortable -- a pattern that has been seen several times over the eight-year history of the race.

So what happened on Sunday?

The No. 1 and No. 2 drivers in the points, Doug Kalitta and Tony Schumacher, both lost early to their usually overmatched opponents, with Kalitta -- the No. 1 qualifier --getting upset by Scott Weis in Round 1 and Schumacher getting outrun by David Grubnic in Round 2. Underdog Doug Herbert, who was being tuned by the newly-hired Wayne Dupuy, advanced all the way to the semifinals while Brandon Bernstein, who has been a non-factor through most of the first half of 2005, won for the first time since Topeka 2004.

In Funny Car, the prediction that the 125-degree race track could make a supporting player into a leading man certainly reflected the race results as John Force and Gary Scelzi -- the two top drivers in the POWERade standings -- lost in the first round and watched Ron Capps, who has been winless since Phoenix 2003, go to the winner's circle. Capps defeated Tim Wilkerson in the final, another driver who has suffered through a lackluster '05 prior to St. Louis.

The Pro Stock outlook heading into race day pinpointed the superiority of the Warren Johnson-Greg Anderson-Jason Line-Dave Connolly foursome throughout the season's first half. While Kurt Johnson won the race, he failed to make up a substantial amount of distance on points leader Anderson, who advanced all the way to the final round. Dave Connolly, however, by virtue of his semifinal appearance, moved closer to the top three from his No. 4 slot, and three of the four powerhouse drivers expected to continue their dominance -- Anderson, Line and Connolly -- all comprised the semifinal pairings.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the possibility of yet another rider winning for the first time in 2005 was right on the mark, as Angelle Sampey broke through for her first victory since the Auto Club Finals last November. Her win corroborated the observation that PSB is a wide-open category this year, and fortunately, her celebration was unsullied by the kind of tragedy that besmirched last year's trophy presentations in St. Louis.

It doesn't happen all the time, but every now and then, the pre-race analysis of an NHRA POWERade national event accurately frames the "big picture" before that first pair of cars comes to the line.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.