- Bill Stephens
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When an event like the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals is considered the defining race of any NHRA POWERade season, it's easy to go a little bit overboard on the superlatives when describing it. But in all truth, the annual classic at Indianapolis Raceway Park, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, seems to increase in overall stature as the decades go by.
This year will be a perfect example of that trend.
The four professional categories will head into Indy this weekend with points races that are as scorching hot as the stifling weather much of the country has endured this summer. Rarely is there that kind of across-the-board theatrics for the POWERade titles at this stage of the season, but because of them, the 51st edition of the NHRA's Labor Day slugfest will take on even bigger dimensions than this great race typically possesses.
Here's a preview.
Doug Kalitta, the current points leader, is facing a double-edged sword. He has never won the U.S. Nationals -- in fact, the entire Kalitta family has but a single Indy win (the 1994 victory scored by patriarch Connie Kalitta). Plus, the man who now trails him by only four points for the standings lead, Tony Schumacher, has won four of the last five Indy Top Fuel trophies. Adding the 1970 Funny Car win by his father, Don, and the numbers speak for themselves -- Schumacher family: 5; Kalitta family: 1.
It would be foolhardy to use that piece of statistical minutiae to give Tony the role of favorite this weekend, but you can't overlook the results of the previous race in Memphis, which is an indication that the Schumacher team will have some momentum on their side. Tony was runner-up to "Hot Rod" Fuller two weeks ago as Kalitta was being beaten in Round 1 by Tony's teammate, Melanie Troxel. That pulled Tony to within reach of Kalitta, a deficit that could literally be overcome during Indy qualifying.
Larry Dixon has steadily climbed into the outskirts of contention, trimming what was once a daunting shortfall to a manageable 99 points with six races remaining this year. Whoever wins this year's race will enjoy all of the accolades which an Indy victory provides, but the fiery nucleus of the 2005 championship battle will continue to center on Kalitta, Schumacher, and Dixon. By Monday evening, the possibility exists that the standings could have a much different look at those top three positions.
Tradition will have little to do with the 2005 U.S. Nationals Funny Car champion. Five drivers have slipped away from the rest of the pack in the top 10, and how they fare this weekend will have major significance in the title outcome.
Robert Hight, Ron Capps, Gary Scelzi, John Force, and Eric Medlen comprise the marquee stars of the sport's biggest and most dominant teams. Hight, the rookie phenom, Force, the 13-time champion, and Medlen, the sophomore standout, have been in a pitched battle with Schumacher Racing's Capps and Scelzi since the opening gun in February. Whit Bazemore, another Schumacher veteran, fell off the pace as the summer began and appears to be out of contention. A minuscule 71 points separate the top five racers.
So with the $100,000 Skoal Showdown on the table, a prestigious U.S. Nationals title in the mix, and a sizzling points race getting more unpredictable by the minute, expect the FC category to be the most bitterly contested class at Indy this weekend, by far.
Is Greg Anderson about to make his late-season move? The two-time POWERade champion and three-time Indy winner has won two of the last three races and has retained the points lead for three consecutive events -- the longest stretch in which he's been No. 1 all season. What is intriguing is that in the last three races, Anderson has faced Kurt Johnson, who has made a massive upward move in the points since the Western Swing, and beaten him twice. Reverse those results, and KJ could very well be leading the points heading for Indy.
Kurt's father Warren is certainly not out of the picture, trailing Anderson by 132 points and having six U.S. Nationals victories to his credit. This weekend would be a predictable time for "The Professor" to move back among the front-runners, and his opponents know it. If WJ watches Anderson and/or his son take the bit and dominate Monday, his chances of tracking them down will be measurably reduced.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Emotionally, Angelle Sampey and GT Tonglet will have the heaviest crosses to bear this weekend as their hometown of New Orleans continues to suffer the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina. While Sampey, a two-time Indy champ, is 11 rounds of racing out of first place, Tonglet and his Vance & Hines teammate, Andrew Hines, are but 15 points apart in the championship chase with Hines up top. The two Harley V-Rods are very close to making the title stretch a teammate vs. teammate affair, with third place Antron Brown a distant 104 points behind with four bike races remaining in '05.
The $15,000 Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle Saturday could be a bellwether for whoever the U.S. Nationals victor will be Monday, and until very recently, PSB has been the "anyone can win" class this season. Plus, past Indy's have shown that underdogs frequently have their day at Indianapolis Raceway Park (such as Reggie Showers' "double-up" win in 2003). If Hines and Tonglet stumble early and Brown goes deep into eliminations, the points race will suddenly take on a different complexion. But both V-Rods will have to falter for that to happen, and after watching the V&H team win the last three races, a double-Harley meltdown would seem unlikely.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
The action will be scorching hot this weekend at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.