- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Forty-four weeks of sound and fury will come to a head this weekend in Pomona, Calif. when the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series concludes its 2009 season with the Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.
Most eyes will be fixed on the neck-and-neck battle in Top Fuel, where in search of a record-extending sixth consecutive title, Tony Schumacher leads Larry Dixon by just one point and Cory McClenathan by 48. The Pro Stock Motorcycle fight is also far from decided, with Hector Arana enjoying a 54-point cushion over Eddie Krawiec.
Less excitement surrounds the battle in Funny Car, where Robert Hight has a comfortable 105-point edge on Ashley Force Hood, and Pro Stock is all but decided with Mike Edwards a solid 139 points up on Greg Anderson.
But as anyone who witnessed Schumacher's dramatic, record-setting performance at Pomona (which allowed him to come from behind to claim the championship in 2006) knows, anything can happen on any given drag racing weekend. Especially since the NHRA introduced the "Countdown to 1" playoff system three years ago; since then, the average margin of championship victory in the NHRA's four pro classes has shrunk dramatically and created additional excitement for Pomona's fall event.
Conditions are expected to be ideal this weekend, which could result in a national record -- and a potentially crucial 20-point bonus for whoever achieves it.
Here's a look at the championship permutations for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Given the quality of the battle being waged between Schumacher and Dixon, it's easy to forget that Cory Mac is still within striking distance. With the bonus point system implemented for the Countdown, Dixon has made qualifying a priority and has taken the No. 1 seed for all five Countdown events this year.
"We have stepped up our game for sure," Dixon said. "When you have those bonus points for each session, it forced us to raise our game, and we've picked up points on everybody."
Dixon has not scored an outright event win during the Countdown, but he's been fast and generally consistent. However, he failed to qualify for the spring race at Pomona in the debut of Al-Anabi Racing.
Schumacher has made championship history at Pomona in 2006 and '07 and is expecting a hard fight this weekend. He's been the fall event winner at Auto Club Raceway four of the last five years.
"We have to perform flawlessly starting with the first qualifying session on Thursday and go out and grab every point possible," said "The Sarge." "We can't let Larry and Cory breathe for a second."
McClenathan said he plans to keep the pressure on.
"We've seen a lot of different things happen this year," he noted. "We've seen a lot of top people go out in the first or second round. If that happens to either or both of the guys, and we go on to the final and win this thing, then we can put ourselves in a position to win the championship."
Hight barely squeaked into the top 10 of the standings for the Countdown to 1, but with three wins in five events, he's more than made up for a comparatively poor regular season. Hight and Force Hood will be fighting to bring home honors to John Force Racing and will be keen to keep archrival (and former JFR driver) Cruz Pedregon from leapfrogging them in a surprise title bid.
"It's all about timing with this Countdown system and getting everything together at the right time," said Hight, who obviously picked the right time to peak. "The Countdown just changes things, and you can do a little testing and try new things. That's, I think, kind of what bit us this year but [tuner] Jimmy Prock definitely got our car turned around at the right time."
Edwards pretty much needs to just show up to clinch his first Pro Stock crown. He needs to score just 12 points at Pomona to wrap up the title.
"These have been a nerve-wracking couple weeks, just waiting to finish this off so we can maybe enjoy the rest of the race weekend," said Edwards. "This is high-level stress. The nice part is we only have just a bit more work to do to finish this off and go out and just race the rest of the event."
Edwards has dominated the 2009 season in his Pontiac G6, taking low ET or top speed honors at 21 of 23 events.
"It didn't really matter to me how the points system worked this year because the strongest car is going to win it," said top challenger Anderson.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Arana is one of drag racing's best stories. The 51-year-old broke through to his first event win aboard his Buell in 2008 and this year he's scored five event wins and seized the championship lead.
"I'm close; but you cannot take it for granted until it's all over," Arana said. "I need to not think about my emotions and concentrate on what I need to do."
Krawiec overcame a 19-point deficit to win the 2008 PSM title despite not winning any events. He's matched Arana with five event wins in '09.
"No question we are going to need Hector to stumble -- it's his race to lose," Krawiec said. "But if he makes a mistake, I'm going to be there to take advantage. We are not out of this championship chase yet. This is drag racing and a lot can happen."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.