Title championships down to the wire
Four of six events have been run in the NHRA Full Throttle Series' Countdown to 1 playoffs, with the season racing toward its Nov. 14 conclusion at Pomona Raceway.
Now in its fourth year, the NHRA's Countdown system seems to be having the desired effect, with championships in all four professional classes still up for grabs.
Three of the four pro categories appear destined to crown new champions in 2010, with only reigning Pro Stock champion Mike Edwards in position to repeat as the class titlist. Edwards trails points leader Greg Anderson by 36 points in that chase.
Here's a look at the championship scenarios heading into the Las Vegas NHRA Nationals (Oct. 28-31) and the Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals (Nov. 11-14):
There's a new top gun in the Top Fuel division, and for the first time in six years, he doesn't drive a dragster sponsored by the U.S. Army.
Larry Dixon and Al-Anabi Racing have thoroughly dominated Top Fuel in 2010, claiming 12 events wins with a perfect 12-for-12 record in final-round appearances. That has boosted Dixon to a comfortable 89-point advantage over Cory McClenathan with just two stops left.
Meanwhile, six-time defending Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher is an almost-insurmountable 145 points back.
The points reset for the Countdown didn't faze Dixon, who has won three of four playoff events to add to the nine wins (out of 17 events) he scored during the regular season.
"I can't believe the amount of wins we've had and the amount of finals we've been in without losing," Dixon said. "It's hard to imagine when you think about all the great cars that are out here. It's a credit to the team. They are an unbelievable bunch of guys. As a fan of this sport, I realize how hard it is."
Dixon's elimination in the second round of the O'Reilly Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex allowed McClenathan and event winner Schumacher to close within 69 and 94 points, respectively. But a return to the winner's circle this past weekend at the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa., put Dixon back into a more comfortable position.
"With two to go and over a four-round lead with eight rounds left, I'd rather be 90 up than 90 down," he said.
After dominating the regular season, John Force Racing has struggled in the Countdown, with Ashley Force Hood's win at the O'Reilly U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis standing as the iconic team's only event win.
Force Hood has jumped from eighth to fourth in the standings during the Countdown, but her father, 14-time Funny Car champion John Force, has dropped 64 points behind Matt Hagan after leading the standings heading into the playoffs.
Defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight, also running out of the JFR stable, is sixth in the standings, 213 points back, after starting the Countdown P2 behind Force. Hight called his Countdown (with four first-round eliminations) "a disaster."
Team boss Force lost the points lead at Reading with his own first-round exit when he was unable to engage reverse gear after his burnout.
Meanwhile, Hagan claimed a 20-point bonus for setting a national record, making a 4.011-second pass at Maple Grove Raceway and backing it up a day later with a 4.046-second run.
"I'm honored to be able to drive this kind of race car," Hagan said. "Don Schumacher really put a helluva race car beneath me, and all I have to do is go out there and drive it. It's just a real testament of how smart [tuner] Tommy DeLago is and how hardworking the crew is."
Defending Pro Stock champion Mike Edwards hasn't won a Countdown event, but he has managed to remain within 36 points of class leader Greg Anderson, who has claimed two of the four Countdown races to date.
U.S. Nationals champ Greg Stanfield is 85 points back and still has an outside shot at the title.
"I had a big weekend [at Charlotte in September] and got myself back in the Countdown," Anderson said. "Every race you go is sudden death out here. If you have a really bad race, you can knock yourself completely out of it. You just can't make a mistake.
"Mike Edwards is tough, and we're going to have to find a way to take that trophy from him. He's not going to give it up. He's the champion for a reason. He's a great racer, he's got a great team, he's got a great hot rod, and he just doesn't make many mistakes. The good news is we're kind of peaking at the right time. We're a threat to win every race now."
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Pro Stock Motorcycle boasts the most interesting title storyline.
Rookie LE Tonglet has vaulted from seventh to second in the standings during the Countdown on the strength of three consecutive event wins starting at the U.S. Nationals. However, Andrew Hines won the most recent event at Reading and still holds a 72-point cushion over Tonglet in a two-man championship battle.
With his family-run team in dire financial straits, Tonglet barely made it to Indianapolis and did so only thanks to some timely help from his chief rival, Hines, whose Vance & Hines tuning firm supplied Tonglet with a new engine for his Suzuki.
After his U.S. Nationals win, Nitro Fish Racing owner Kenny Koretsky stepped up to provide Tonglet with backing to finish the season.
"We're not even thinking about rookie of the year anymore," Tonglet said. "We've got a bigger thing -- the championship -- on our minds. With Nitro Fish behind us, we have a good shot. I'm still trying to believe that this is all happening, and I owe it all to Kenny. Without him, we wouldn't be here."
Hines wasn't able to claim an event win until Reading, but he maintained the points lead on the strength of making it to four consecutive final-round tilts against Tonglet. The bonus points he gained for setting a national record in qualifying at Indianapolis helped out as well.
"I'm trying to rely on some of the other competitors out there to take LE out early, but we keep matching up in the final round," Hines said. "I haven't had a motorcycle this good for a long time, and I'm happy with the way I'm riding, but it's been tough with that little blue bike beating us the last few races.
"We were wondering what it was going to take to get it done, but now we have a nice cushion," he added. "It could come down to just a few measly points there at the end."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.