- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The NHRA heads to Las Vegas this weekend for the Lucas Oil Las Vegas Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It's the penultimate round of the NHRA's Countdown to 1, with the season set to close with the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., on Nov. 12-15.
In the third year of the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship format, championship battles in two of the four classes in the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series are still wide-open, topped by the clash in Funny Car, where seven drivers are still legitimately in title contention.
Robert Hight squeaked into the Countdown in controversial fashion at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis and didn't score an outright event win during the NHRA "regular season." But by winning the first two Countdown rounds at Carolina and Dallas, the driver of one of the John Force Racing Ford Mustangs vaulted into the points lead of the Countdown to 1. He holds a slim 13-marker advantage over his JFR teammate Ashley Force Hood.
Force Hood briefly took the lead after the Mid-South Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park, but Hight regained the top spot three weeks ago at the Virginia Nationals.
"The first two weeks of the Countdown couldn't have been any better for us," Hight said. "We won them and went from worst to first, so it's very exciting for me. It's something I never thought was going to happen. I never lost faith in my team. You dream big, but this is huge."
John Force ranks just ninth in the standings, but drag racing's biggest personality can't be upset with the fact that his drivers are 1-2 with two events left in the 2009 championship. Force pulled out all the stops to lift Hight out of a midseason slump, even temporarily swapping cars with his charge for one round.
"John Force, he's not a tuner, but he definitely knows how to shake things up," Hight said. "Whatever he did, it's worked."
Funny Car has enjoyed the most parity among NHRA's four pro classes in 2009, with the top seven drivers all scoring at least two event victories. Regular-season points leader Tony Pedregon is third, 35 points behind Force Hood, and seventh-ranked Bob Tasca III is only 102 points out of the top spot.
Ron Capps leads all Funny Car drivers with five event wins in 2009, but he's dropped from second to fourth in the standings during the Countdown to 1.
"Robert [Hight] is very strong right now, but he's not untouchable; the same goes for Ashley," Pedregon said.
In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher is gunning for his sixth consecutive -- and record-extending seventh overall -- title, and "The Sarge" has come on strong in the Countdown, amassing 367 points in the past four events compared to 309 for Cory McClenathan and 300 for regular-season leader Antron Brown.
Schumacher leads Larry Dixon by 47 points and McClenathan by 68.
Three drivers dominated the proceedings leading into the Countdown, with Dixon scoring six event wins to Brown's five and Schumacher's four. McClenathan took his only event of the season in the Countdown-opening Carolina Nationals and has vaulted from fifth to third in the standings, while Brown has dropped from first to fourth after notching only 236 points in the four Countdown events to date.
Brown tested at LVMS last week and hopes the time spent will help him and the Matco Tools team regain their regular-season form.
"We're just 81 points out and haven't used all our test days, so we wanted to take advantage of that and get in some track time, which will hopefully put us in position to race for this '09 Top Fuel championship at Pomona in a few weeks," Brown said.
In Pro Stock, Mike Edwards has been utterly dominant in the Countdown, vaulting from third to first with two wins and 454 points scored in the first four events. He's pulled out to a 128-point advantage over Greg Anderson, who has jumped from fourth to second. Meanwhile, regular-season pacesetter Jeg Coughlin has faded to fourth in the standings after a series of terrible results.
Edwards can clinch the Pro Stock title if he leaves Las Vegas with a 151-point cushion. He scored the maximum of 150 points in the most recent round, the Virginia Nationals.
Pro Stock Motorcycle is the scene of the second-closest championship battle, with Hector Arana locked in a tight race with Ed Krawiec.
Arana has jumped from third to first by winning two of the three PSM events in the Countdown, and he leads regular-season chart topper Krawiec by 28 points. Michael Phillips has made a big jump from seventh to third in the points and was the most recent PSM winner in the Mid-South Nationals at Memphis, but he lies 165 points behind Arana.
Earlier this year in the SummitRacing.com Nationals at LVMS, Schumacher triumphed in Top Fuel, Capps was victorious in Funny Car and Coughlin was the winner in Pro Stock. The motorcycles did not race there in the winter.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.
With only two races left, it's getting to be crunch time for the drivers trying to win titles in the NHRA's four pro classes. Vegas is on tap this weekend with plenty on the line.