- Bill Stephens
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In one of the oldest traditions in contemporary history, numbers are what power the city of Las Vegas. Many times, those numbers are preceded by a dollar sign. Sometimes the numbers reflect the odds that rule winning or losing bets, and occasionally they mean something entirely different.
Such is the case this weekend when the NHRA POWERade Series arrives at The Strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the ninth SummitRacing.com Nationals. The numbers 8-11-3 represent the slim distance between the points leaders and their closest pursuers in the Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock standings, respectively. They are three very tight points races as the fifth national event of the season is about to throttle up, and despite the de-emphasis of the importance of holding onto the points lead in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship structure, any driver will admit that there's nothing better for boosting team morale than seeing his or her name at the top of the charts.
After confronting the hottest racing surface yet to be conquered this season two weeks ago in Houston, the three professional classes taking the field in Las Vegas this weekend will be faced with sunny and warm weather again, which will surely lead to 110- to 120-degree track temperatures throughout qualifying and eliminations. That kind of atmospheric wild card usually results in some surprising upsets and unlikely names adorning the winner's circle late Sunday afternoon. This could be a race that will defy predictions.
Here's an overview of the first of two visits to The Strip in 2008 for the POWERade brigade:
Tony Schumacher has won twice in '08. Larry Dixon and Antron Brown each have a win and thus, the top three spots on the Top Fuel standings spotlight those three drivers. The margin between Schumacher, a five-time POWERade champion, and Dixon, a two-time title holder, is a mere eight points -- less than half a round of points. Whether Schumacher leaves Las Vegas with the points lead or gives it up for the first time this year will fall largely upon the shoulders of his tuner, Alan Johnson, or Dixon's crew chief, Donnie Bender.
Of course, Antron Brown's win in Houston two weeks ago solidifies his championship potential, and his 78-point distance to the No. 1 spot could be erased with another big finish this Sunday, combined with an early exit for the two drivers ahead of him. Brandon Bernstein comes in the defending event champion, and he would like nothing better than to repeat his 2007 success since he has been winless so far this season and his '07 Vegas victory was his first of that campaign.
Others to consider: Cory McClenathan has a 4-4 round record and was nipped by only 2/100 of a second by Brown in Houston's quarterfinals (his losing 4.566 was the third-quickest elapsed time of eliminations); "Hot Rod" Fuller will be at his home track and needs to pull himself out of his lukewarm start to 2008 (his only first-round loss of the year happened in Houston vs. Cory Mac); Doug Kalitta knows he has to rebound soon as he is mired outside the top 10 and can't afford to allow a very competitive Top Fuel category to drop him further behind.
Things are no less dicey in Funny Car. The spread between points leader Cruz Pedregon and Jack Beckman is only 11 points. Both drivers are coming away from tough outings in Houston -- Beckman was a first-round victim to John Force while Cruz fell to the 14-time champion in Round 2 -- and neither of the two points pacesetters would try to convince anyone they have any significant performance advantages over the racers behind them.
This is a category with more questions than answers in the season's early stages. No team is in a solid groove; no driver has instilled the sense of dread into any of his or her opponents; top-echelon teams go from the penthouse to the outhouse and back again without rhyme or reason. Robert Hight (the defending event champion) won in Pomona to open the season, then three races later failed to qualify in Houston. Del Worsham was hopelessly adrift in the year's first three races, then won in Houston. Ron Capps has yet to win a round of racing with a team that has challenged for the POWERade championship annually. And so it goes.
What spells great fun for fans also provides relentless frustration for the teams as they search for consistency and some good fortune. But at the top of the F/C standings, the pervasive opinion is that the status quo is quite likely to change on a race-to-race basis.
Drivers to take note of: reigning POWERade champion Tony Pedregon is in third place, only 27 points behind his brother, and is the only F/C driver to sweep both Vegas races in the same year (2003); John and Ashley Force have generally struggled in '08 but a string of round wins could quickly tighten the gap between themselves and the points leaders; Gary Scelzi has only two round wins in four races and he is determined to reverse his downward spiral.
Greg Anderson's second victory of the season in Houston countered Jeg Coughlin Jr.'s Gainesville win, and the distance between is now only three points. Anderson's points lead over Jeg is more symbolic than significant, and both drivers appear to have programs that match up very closely. Last year, they faced each other in the event final with Anderson coming out on top. This year, Coughlin is without any team backup -- at least until Dave Connolly makes his anticipated return with a new sponsor -- while Anderson's capable teammate, Jason Line, remains a distant third in the standings.
Anderson will be the first to admit the performance gap that he thoroughly exploited in 2003-05, launching him to three straight POWERade championships and a laundry list of class records, has all but disappeared. He and Line find themselves staring Coughlin, Warren and Kurt Johnson, Allen Johnson, and others more squarely in the eye than during their dominant heydays, and regardless of Anderson's impressive win in Houston two weeks ago, there's more parity in Pro Stock than we've seen for several years.
Drivers worth watching: Allen Johnson has had a quick car this year but can't seem to close things out on Sunday (he's deadly on the Tree and could give Mopar their second win of '08);
Ron Krisher qualified third in Houston but has yet to win a round on Sunday (he won here in 2002);
Larry Morgan, Jim Yates, Greg Stanfield and Tom Hammonds have been next to invisible in the first four races of the year. It's time for at least one of them to make a move.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
2dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz