NHRA stars roll the dice at Vegas
Time is running out for several drivers trailing in the NHRA Full Throttle Series standings. Two events remain in the 2010 Countdown to 1, beginning this weekend with the Las Vegas Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The points leaders in all four professional categories have reasonably-comfortable cushions, with Greg Anderson's 36-marker advantage over defending champion Mike Edwards in Pro Stock constituting the closest race.
On the heels of two wins and three consecutive final-round appearances, it's the first time in 51 races that Anderson has led the championship. The weekend in Vegas will be made more special because Summit Racing team owner Ken Black will be making his first appearance at the track since suffering a debilitating stroke nearly a year ago.
"With Ken back, it really doesn't matter what else goes on because all will be right with the world," Anderson said. "Obviously it's cool to have the lead, but we still have a long way to go, and we're only ahead by a few points. Still, at this point I would rather be in the lead than coming from behind. If you're trying to catch up, you have to hope someone else has a misstep, which I wouldn't want to wish on anybody.
"If you're in the lead, however, you control your own destiny, knowing that if you do your job and run the table you'll be the champion. It's the spot I like to be in."
Anderson knows that the slightest slip on his part in Vegas could result in him leaving Sin City without the points lead, especially with Edwards and his team in the midst of an uncharacteristic (and untimely) slump. The entire Summit Racing organization plans to step up to aid Anderson in his quest.
"With Greg leading the points coming into Las Vegas, I need to do everything I can to help him stay there, including beating any of the other contenders should we happen to race," said Summit's Jason Line, who ranks fourth in the Pro Stock standings. "However, it's also important for this team that I finish as high in the points as I can, so if Greg doesn't win the race for some reason then I need to step in and get the job done."
In the Funny Car class, Matt Hagan of Don Schumacher Racing has overtaken 14-time category champion John Force for the points lead and heads to Las Vegas 64 points to the good.
Hagan is in his third year of racing Funny Cars, and he backed up his initial event win at Houston with victories at Chicago and Dallas. He earned a crucial 20 bonus points for setting a national time record in the most recent round at Reading, Pa.
"We've had a great year all year, and I can't say enough about my guys and Tommy DeLago tuning the race car," Hagan remarked. "That Force camp over there is a first-class operation, and John is a world champion for a reason.
"So we can't make any mistakes. We have to go out there, do some good, solid racing and go some rounds. I don't feel like we have to set the world on fire, but we need to go some rounds and keep kind of matching John round for round. Hopefully it will fall the way we want it to, but this is drag racing and you never know how it's going to end up."
After enduring a winless 2009 season, Force's 2010 campaign got off to a hot start. But other than his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, winning the Funny Car Wally trophy at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, John Force Racing has suffered down the stretch, with the nadir coming at Reading where all three JFR cars made first-round exits.
"At the end of the day, we can't count on Hagan to make mistakes," Force said. "It's too good of a race car with the tuners they've got and the financial backing that they've got from Schumacher. And the driver's good.
"I have to try to find a way to get my head again. The kid already has me with my back up against the wall. I'm going to have win two races if I'm going to get this guy."
The Top Fuel category is closest to being decided, with Larry Dixon holding an 89-point advantage over Cory McClenathan on the basis of a remarkable 12-win season. The pair of Indianapolis residents are longtime competitors, yet they remain close friends (evidenced by a recent lunch they shared near their respective Brownsburg, Ind., race shops).
Although he trails by a considerable margin, Cory Mac is not giving up hope of stealing the title from his cross-town rival.
"Obviously, we go into every weekend wanting to win every single race, but we need somebody to help us a little bit with Larry," McClenathan said. "That's all there is to it.
"I think we may be a little more aggressive when it comes to Friday night tune-ups, and we need some of those small qualifying bonus points. Those small points can add up to where you can earn a round advantage, and we can't afford to lose any of those going into Pomona [where the NHRA Finals will be staged Nov. 11-14]. If the racing gods are with us and we get a little bit of luck on Sunday and go to the final and Larry doesn't, that will make the difference."
Two-time Funny Car champion Dixon and his Al-Anabi Racing team has vowed to concentrate on their own performance at Las Vegas and Pomona, an approach that has served them well throughout their highly successful 2010 campaign.
"I can't try any harder at these next two than I've been trying every week, every race, every year," Dixon related. "I just try to keep my head down and just worry about the run in front of me.
"It's great to read the stories that everybody is doing, but at the same time I need to just pay attention to what we are doing with our car and our team and just try and make every run as great a run as we can and hope that's enough. Keep it simple."
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Andrew Hines has overcome three consecutive event wins by rookie LE Tonglet to carry a 72-point advantage into Las Vegas. Hines won the most recent PSM event at Reading.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.