Grueling Swing has favored elite teams

Originally Published: July 29, 2005
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

The 2005 NHRA POWERade Western Swing will wrap up this weekend in Sonoma, Calif., at the 18th Fram Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway. As has been the case in the past, it appears that the championship points races in all four professional classes will look very similar to the way they looked when the swing began in Denver two weeks ago.

However, with few exceptions, it has been a productive western junket so far for the teams that have shown real strength this season. But regardless, Sonoma will, for many teams, provide the final determination as to just how successful this year's three-race marathon has been.

Here's a class-by-class preview.

Top Fuel
Tony Schumacher came into the Western Swing in second place in the points. His dominant victory in Denver and runner-up finish in Seattle have moved him into the standings lead while closest rival Doug Kalitta has had little to cheer about out west (a Round 2 loss in Denver and a semifinal finish in Seattle). Schumacher's lead is now 43 -- about two rounds of racing, and the top spot in the title hunt could change hands again if Schumacher has a tough outing at Infineon.

Kalitta enters this race with the psychological tailwind that comes from four wins in his last seven visits to Sonoma dating back to 1998 (where he scored his first career Top Fuel win). He and Schumacher are still the pacesetters in Top Fuel with both enjoying essentially three-digit leads over Larry Dixon, David Grubnic and Morgan Lucas -- the third, fourth, and fifth drivers in the points, respectively. Brandon Bernstein's two wins in the last three races have been a big boost for his team, but he has a long way to go to jump back into contender status (he's 201 points out of first).

The upshot is Kalitta or Schumacher will end the swing in the points lead, but who will win is anyone's guess.

Funny Car
Regardless of what happens this weekend, John Force Racing has had a successful swing. The team has collectively won the first two western races -- Robert Hight in Denver and Eric Medlen in Seattle -- and Hight has stretched out to an 85-point margin over Force and a 95-point bulge over Gary Scelzi. Medlen's win in Seattle gave hope to his dad and tuner, John Medlen, that their mechanical misadventures may have been corrected.

But Force has been in a slump which rivals any he has suffered since his 13-year championship run began in 1990. One round win since his victory in Topeka, Kan., in late May scuttled what had been a thunderous win streak for Force. The fact that he has tallied six previous wins at Infineon (he was runner-up to Tim Wilkerson last year) may give hope to the struggling champion.

Scelzi is right on Force's heels, only 11 points out of second. Force believes that he and his team become even tougher to beat when the pressure is on, and this weekend will be the prefect opportunity for Team Castrol to prove it.

Pro Stock
The Johnsons -- Warren and Kurt -- have been the biggest winners in Pro Stock on this year's swing. Each has a victory -- Warren leads the points, and Kurt has suddenly come within range of the points leaders, now in fourth place and only 108 markers out of first.

The Johnson clan has bitter memories of its 2004 trip to Sonoma. Warren failed to qualify for the second time in three years (His DNQ in 2002 ended his 303-race consecutive qualifying streak) while Kurt was a first-round loser to Ron Krisher. Greg Anderson won the race, becoming the fifth driver in NHRA history to sweep the trip out West. Clearly, the Johnson team took that one on the chin.

If you're expecting any big shifts in the Pro Stock hierarchy this weekend, you may be disappointed. The Johnsons, Anderson, Jason Line and Dave Connolly have already proven their race-to-race steadiness this year and hold down the top five spots in the standings. Look for this weekend's winner to come from that group.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
This year's bike picture has been as entertaining and unpredictable as it has ever been. Wins have come from Suzukis, Harleys and Buells and the standings reflect it. Only Ryan Schnitz has scored a repeat win (Columbus, Ohio, and Denver) and you have to go to the seventh spot in the top 10 to find a rider -- Craig Treble -- who has a triple-digit deficit to make up for the points lead. G.T. Tonglet leads the standings by a single point over Antron Brown, who lost to his teammate, Angelle Sampey, in last year's Sonoma final.

Prerace favorites? No such thing in PSB. That has given the two-wheeled category an extra helping of drama this season -- and plenty of brand rivalry -- which drives the engine of production-based drag racing.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.

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