- Bill Stephens
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With eight national events on the 2008 NHRA POWERade schedule behind us, this weekend's 20th O'Reilly Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka in Kansas marks the first of 10 remaining races in which drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock can earn their way into the Countdown to the Championship.
That title-determining six-race championship finale begins at the brand-new Bruton Smith-owned facility in Charlotte, N.C., in September, and only the top 10 teams in each professional category at that point in the season will be eligible for their respective POWERade crowns. And that means that each of the next 10 events will increase in importance and power up in intensity right through the summer months.
Here's a look ahead to this weekend's horsepower shindig in America's heartland:
There's not a whole lot to say about the top four drivers in the Top Fuel standings other than they don't have too much to complain about regarding their 2008 season to date. Tony Schumacher leads the points, with Antron Brown, Larry Dixon and "Hot Rod" Fuller sitting in the next three spots. All of the above have been national event winners this season; all are capable of making a formidable run for the '08 championship; and, if the 18-race lead-up to the Countdown were to end today, all would be solidly in the hunt for the big prize.
But there are several drivers back in the standings with some unfinished business to wrap up, such as No. 5 Hillary Will, still hungry for her first national event win in what is surely her best career year in the class. Cory McClenathan has picked up a victory this season but would like to get into a steadier groove heading into the hot-weather months, and Brandon Bernstein (last year's Topeka champ) continues to strive for his first '08 winner's circle.
But the two drivers who must continue to fight their way into contention are teammates Morgan Lucas and J.R. Todd, sitting just outside the top 10 and dealing with the frustrations that come from qualifying inconsistency and early-round losses. Unless both their cars are dialed in, both young drivers are winning rounds and both Lucas Oil dragsters advance to the Countdown, it will be difficult for them to label 2008 as a genuine success.
Others to watch: David Grubnic has been hot and cold this season, scoring a runner-up finish in Phoenix and a No. 1 qualifying start in St. Louis, but also suffering six first-round losses; Doug Herbert needs to reverse his recent string of early-round defeats to avoid slipping out of the top 10; Doug Kalitta has a 7-5 round record in the past five races and won at Topeka in 2006.
The ongoing unpredictability of Funny Car in 2008 shows no signs of tapering off. At each stop on this season's tour, at least one surprise has leaped off the F/C storyboard, including Tim Wilkerson's sudden rise to prominence; the nearly back-to-back wins of the class' only women, Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel; and the consecutive final-round showings by rookie Mike Neff after he failed to win a single round of eliminations in the first six races of the season.
John Force has the clear historical advantage at HPT, having won here eight times, dating back to those years in which there were two national events per season on the track's schedule. In 1993, Funny Car history received a double whammy on this quarter-mile when Chuck Etchells ran the very first 4-second pass in a fuel coupe and Jim Epler broke the 300 mph F/C barrier. Last year, Mike Ashley established some history of his own at Heartland Park when he rang up his first career Funny Car victory.
If there's to be another category surprise waiting to happen in '08, this weekend and this racetrack could provide the proper backdrop.
Potential headliners: Ron Capps has yet to advance to a final round this season, and that's a trend that is long overdue to be broken; Cruz Pedregon hasn't reached a final since the opening race at Pomona, but he has avoided costly first-round losses (only one) and has remained in third place in the points for most of the season; after recent unfounded rumors that tuner Jimmy Walsh had been released by Kenny Bernstein, Tommy Johnson Jr. needs a strong outing to quiet the scuttlebutt.
Thirty-one points, roughly a round and a half worth, separate the top four drivers in the Pro Stock standings -- a definite sign that parity is alive and well in the class that popularized the concept. Greg Anderson (the defending event champion), teammate Jason Line, Kurt Johnson and defending POWERade champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. are all bunched together -- in the top 10 and on the racetrack. As for performance, that top group is where most of the muscle can be found in the class, although Bristol winner Dave Connolly is still playing catch-up after missing the first five races of the season and is back in 14th place.
A recent development might bring yet another driver into the Pro Stock elite after a dicey start to the season. Jim Yates, who won POWERade championships in 1996 and 1997 alongside partner and engine builder Richard Maskin, will be reuniting with his former crew chief effective immediately. Yates and Maskin went their separate ways after the second race of the 1998 season in Phoenix and their renewed collaboration could be a mutually beneficial scenario for both. Yates has extensive driving experience and solid knowledge of race car setups, and Maskin is one of drag racing's most renowned engine builders.
The move comes at the expense of young Justin Humphreys, who had been using Maskin-supplied engines. Humphreys was informed by Maskin last week that he was ending the arrangement and that Humphreys' team needed to return the race engines Maskin had provided for it. On Tuesday, Don Schumacher Racing offered Humphreys a ride for this weekend aboard a Dodge Stratus prepared by Allen Johnson.
Others possibly on the move in the standings: Ron Krisher was fast at Bristol and could have advanced to the final round had he not lost to Connolly in the semifinals on a holeshot; Greg Stanfield was also a player at Bristol but joined Krisher as a Connolly holeshot victim -- in the final; Warren Johnson is the all-time leader in Pro Stock wins in Topeka with five victories, but in eight races this season, he has only five round wins and a DNQ.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Brace yourselves, drag racing fans. The stretch run to the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship begins this week at Heartland Park Topeka, writes Bill Stephens.