Commentary

Schumacher, Wilkerson, Line hoping to protect points leads at Bristol

The last stop on the NHRA POWERade circuit produced milestones galore two weeks ago at Madison, Ill. But Bristol Dragway brings a brand-new set of challenges, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: May 16, 2008, 10:53 AM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Two weeks ago, there was an avalanche of statistical firsts recorded in Madison, Ill., at the NHRA's O'Reilly Midwest Nationals.

[+] EnlargeTim Wilkerson
NHRAFirst-time Funny Car points leader Tim Wilkerson has two wins in seven races so far in 2008.

John Force became the first driver in NHRA history to tally 1,000 round wins; Tim Wilkerson took over the POWERade points lead for the first time in his Funny Car career; and Mike Neff won his first round of eliminations as a driver and advanced to his first career final round in F/C. Plus, Top Fuel's "Hot Rod" Fuller and Pro Stock's Kurt Johnson won for the first time in 2008.

But no driver in the NHRA POWERade Series can live off yesterday. This weekend, the eighth O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee, will give teams in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock their next test of the '08 season at one of the series' most storied and picturesque venues. All three of those professional points races have the potential to go through some juggling this weekend with Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Wilkerson and Jason Line (Pro Stock) guarding vulnerable points leads.

Here's a preview of this weekend's event in Thunder Valley:

Top Fuel
Fuller wasn't exactly put to the test in his Madison victory two weeks ago. He'd be the first to admit that having his first three opponents on the day smoke their tires definitely made his trip to the final round, where he outpowered Schumacher by 6/100 of a second, anything but stressful. But the larger story here is that Fuller ran up near-flawless passes in the 4.50s all day and quite possibly would have charged to the final round regardless what those first three opponents might have done had they not lost traction.

Fuller's win gave him a much-needed boost in confidence and swagger after he had failed to advance further than the semifinals at the season's previous six events. With teammate and rookie phenom Antron Brown already boasting two victories in '08, the David Powers Motorsports team charges into Bristol armed with two pieces of formidable artillery.

Others to watch: Schumacher has stacked up an impressive 18-5 win-loss round record and has two wins in four final-round appearances this year. His points lead over Brown is 68, which could be earned in fewer than four rounds of racing. Brandon Bernstein is the defending event champion but has dropped from third to seventh in points in the past four races; Doug Kalitta has advanced to the semifinals three times in the past four races and has moved into the top 10.

Funny Car
Wilkerson certainly wouldn't have made the list of likely championship contenders in Funny Car when the 2008 season got under way. But all the hardworking veteran has done in the first seven races of the year is win twice, qualify No. 1 four times, and move into the POWERade points lead with a remarkable stretch of consistency and performance. All with a single-car team and without a high-priced, big-name tuner. Wilkerson's natural humility and lack of self-promotion make him fully aware of how fickle this sport can be, but at the same time, he understands that remaining focused, avoiding costly mistakes, and taking nothing or nobody for granted are all keys to racing into a position to win a championship.

As does second-place points holder Ashley Force -- 16 points behind Wilkerson -- who has watched dad John, the defending Bristol champion, lead his team to 14 titles since 1990. Ashley Force has become a certifiable contender in her own right, and despite her first-round loss to Tony Pedregon in Madison, she's bringing a team to Bristol that continues to show more maturity and seasoning with each successive event.

Potential headliners: Mike Ashley once again will be entering a car for him to race alongside his driver, Melanie Troxel, as he did in Madison. Ashley qualified a strong second two weeks ago and has won at Bristol in Pro Modified. Robert Hight fell to teammate Neff in the Madison semifinals but showed that his team might be breaking out of its four-race slump. Gary Scelzi has not won a round of racing since Phoenix in February and suffered a DNQ at Gainesville. This is a team that desperately needs picking up -- ASAP.

Pro Stock
Only 22 points separate the top four drivers in Pro Stock, and the names are ones you'd expect to see high in the standings. Line leads Jeg Coughlin Jr. by seven, Johnson by 19 and Greg Anderson by 22. All have won this year. In fact, teammates Line and Anderson have held a duopoly on final-round appearances as one or the other advanced to the payoff round at the season's first six events. Coughlin was the Bristol winner in '07.

Dave Connolly missed the year's first five races but will be squarely in the mix after scoring a runner-up finish in Madison two weeks ago. V. Gaines and KJ have each broken the Summit Racing-Cagnazzi Racing dominance with wins this year, but no matter how you break down the Pro Stock topography, the Line-Anderson vs. Coughlin-Connolly power pyramid will be difficult to sweep aside at any event this season.

Possible players: Warren Johnson's early-season optimism has not resulted in comparable results, and after a DNQ in Madison, "The Professor" -- who has won here twice -- is looking to advance past the second round for the first time in 2008; Tom Hammonds has released crew chief Jerry Eckman after six DNQs out of seven events and will be regrouping in Bristol; in an astounding turnabout, Kenny Koretsky has failed to qualify at the past two races after his stunning low-qualifier performance three races ago in Las Vegas.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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