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Championship contenders chasing consistency and momentum at Gateway

5/2/2008

Certain laws of mathematical dynamics govern the eventual outcome of the four professional POWERade championships in any given NHRA season. Most are very familiar to drag racing fans, such as round wins and race wins, quick elapsed times, good reaction times and favorable qualifying positions. But two others may be even more crucial to a successful title quest, and they are quality of consistency and maintenance of momentum.

As the seventh national event of the 2008 NHRA schedule gets set to go this weekend at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., just outside St. Louis, there has been little in the way of consistency or maintained momentum in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle since the opening race in Pomona, Calif., three months ago.

Repeat winners have been a rare commodity thus far this year, and even the list of final-round opponents includes a rather wide swath of names. So for the teams representing the four pro classes preparing for combat this weekend, momentum -- usually a byproduct of consistency -- will be a major part of their game plans.

Here's a look ahead to the 12th O'Reilly Midwest Nationals:

Top Fuel
While both five-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher and rookie sensation Antron Brown have each won two races this year -- and both occupy the top two spots in the Top Fuel standings -- the class as a whole has yet to spread the wealth around. Only two other drivers in the top 10, Larry Dixon and Cory McClenathan, have a .500-or-better round record in eliminations.

Dixon had a solid showing in the first four races of the year but has now fallen in the first round in the past two events. Cory Mac has a win and a runner-up to his credit this year but hasn't advanced past the second round in the other four events. In fact, this "Chutes and Ladders" scenario can be applied to most every driver in the class, which is why Brown's three consecutive final-round appearances heading into this weekend look even more immense than they would otherwise.

A smart bet would be to look for Schumacher to wash away the frustrations of last weekend's holeshot loss to Brown in the final round in Atlanta with a backbreaking performance near the Gateway City. The weather is expected to be cloudy and cool through Sunday, and those conditions will make the U.S. Army Top Fuel team all the more dangerous.

Others to watch: Brown's teammate "Hot Rod" Fuller, who qualified second, just missed advancing to the Atlanta final when he was beaten by Schumacher in the semifinal by two-hundredths of a second; Brandon Bernstein will be doubly motivated to have a strong outing because numerous VIPs from his primary sponsor, Anheuser-Busch and Budweiser, will attend the race not far from A-B's corporate headquarters; Alan Bradshaw's Dexter Tuttle-owned Top Fuel car will wear a special commemorative paint scheme in honor of his friend Darrell Russell, who lost his life at this event in 2004.

Funny Car
This category wouldn't be a great place to look for consistency or momentum, unless Ashley Force's three straight final-round appearances might pass for either. There are no repeat winners, a host of teams blowing hot and cold (Ron Capps, Tony Pedregon, Robert Hight, etc.) and Tim Wilkerson's three No. 1 qualifying starts bamboozling the much larger multi-car teams.

The left lane in Atlanta last weekend was a sore topic with many of the Funny Car drivers and tuners who suffered a sudden loss of traction in almost the exact same place in the early elimination rounds. The hope is that the traditionally flat and smooth track surface at Gateway will give the teams a two-lane playing field and diminish the importance of lane choice.

Capps won here last year and now has been able to tuck a few round wins under his belt after a tough start. This is also the event that gave him his first Funny Car event title in 1997 before he added another one in 2005, which made him the winningest F/C driver in the 11-year history of this race.

But points leader Ashley Force may high-step into Madison this weekend, enjoying what is surely the biggest portion of consistency and momentum this category has to offer. Another victory or final-round finish this weekend would go a long way to establish her as a genuine championship heavyweight.

Also keep an eye on: Del Worsham, the 2003 winner, who will be anxious to rebound after an oil leak at the starting line in Atlanta ended his day almost before it began; Bob Tasca Jr., who keeps improving with each race in his rookie season and just barely lost to John Force in the Atlanta semis by three-thousandths of a second; John Force, who looked more consistent in Atlanta than he has all year and may be finding his rhythm.

Pro Stock
Jason Line has been to two straight final rounds, four overall this year. He's won one of them, making him the king of Pro Stock consistency.

His teammate and three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson has two wins, but in a category that is so equally construed, taking charge of the proceedings requires consecutive wins and a steady stream of late-round successes. Nobody in the P/S ranks has claimed that high ground just yet. Line does lead the points, but is only 24 ahead of Jeg Coughlin and 61 over Anderson. Line must remain in his current final-round groove and avoid the fits and starts that have befallen other national event winners in '08.

Mike Edwards came out of nowhere for his win in Atlanta last weekend, tripping Line in the final with a typical Edwards trump card -- the holeshot. It was Edwards who won in Madison two years ago. What do we know about Pro Stock in '08? Anyone is beatable, and every driver has been racing in feast-or-famine mode in the season's early stages.

Others to consider: Ron Krisher was a low qualifier last weekend, and his Vic Cagnazzi-built race engine may be the magic bullet the two-time Madison winner has been looking for to regain his race-winning edge; Justin Humphreys also shone in Atlanta, qualifying No. 3 and advancing to the semifinals, where he fouled out versus Line; Dave Connolly needs a little more seat time after returning to action in Atlanta with a new sponsor. (He lost to Kurt Johnson in last week's first round and wants a better showing for Charter Communications.)

Pro Stock Motorcycle
If there's any consistency in this class, it may be that the Suzukis can't beat the domestic runners. In the first three PSM events of the year, it has been a clean sweep for Harley-Davidsons and Buells. The two Matts -- Guidera and Smith -- took their 2005 Buells to the winner's circle in Gainesville, Fla., and Houston before three-time POWERade champion Andrew Hines gave Harley-Davidson its first '08 victory in Atlanta.

The category's best-running Suzuki, the Don Schumacher Racing-owned bike ridden by Chip Ellis, was Hines' final-round victim, and it's the closest a Suzuki has come to going the distance this year. It's been nothing but Harley-Davidson/Buell final rounds until last weekend.

Angelle Sampey has won here three times, but on Suzukis, not the Buell she now rides for Rush Racing. She is winless so far this year and is coming off a semifinal loss last weekend against Chip Ellis, which was caused when her carburetor malfunctioned at the starting line and she couldn't fire her machine. That will give her an extra measure of motivation.

Perhaps the only individual riding any consistency that can be connected to the Pro Stock Motorcycle class may be former bike racer Antron Brown, now Top Fuel's steadiest player. Otherwise, Harleys and Buells would appear to be in the middle of the class's most unshakable hot streak.

Other names to note: The team of Craig Treble and Harry Lartigue comprises one of the best hopes that Suzuki fans can grasp after their semifinal finish in Atlanta. Chris Rivas was another hard-luck racer in Atlanta thanks to a blown engine right at the starting line in Round 2 as he was about to face Treble. Karen Stoffer was another victim of misfortune in Atlanta -- especially for the Suzuki supporters -- after she lost in Round 1 to Matt Guidera with identical elapsed times of 6.991 seconds. (Guidera's three-hundredths of a second quicker reaction time gave him the win.)

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.