- Bill Stephens
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Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., has been a veritable Smithsonian of NHRA history for the past 38 years. It is one of the NHRA's longest-running displays of speed and power, and despite having been shuttled around the calendar several times over the years to avoid the searing heat of summer or the fickle frustrations of spring rainstorms, the Lucas Oil SuperNationals continue to be one event every drag racer wants to win at least once in his career.
This weekend, everyone gets another crack at it.
All four POWERade categories will be on stage for this year's annual visit to E-town, and the weather forecasts for the region could definitely influence the proceedings. Typical summertime sunshine, heat with temperatures in the 80s and the risk of some passing thunderstorms could play havoc with tuners having to confront high track temps and with NHRA officials who have pieced together track schedules at the past two events due to wet weather.
Here's a look ahead to the 39th Lucas Oil SuperNationals:
Eight races remain in the Countdown to 10 and the top seven drivers in the Top Fuel class would appear to be solidly in control of their path toward the Countdown to one. Points leader and five-time champion Tony Schumacher continues his ever-familiar dominance thanks to his 190-point gap over Antron Brown. Larry Dixon goes into Englishtown full of confidence due to his six consecutive final-round appearances there and three career E-town victories -- his first during his rookie-of-the-year season in 1995 and his latest last season.
But watch positions 8-11, with four drivers contesting for a top-10 spot between now and the conclusion of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend. Doug Kalitta, Doug Herbert, David Grubnic and Morgan Lucas are separated by only 32 points, which means every qualifying slot and round win takes on increased importance. None of those racers have made it to a national event winner's circle in 2008, and should one of them pick up that first event title of '08 in E-town, it could greatly enhance their chances of locking themselves into the championship playoffs.
Others worth noting: Hillary Will showed real strength in Joliet two weeks ago, barely losing to Schumacher in Round 2 after she beat Cory McClenathan in Round 1; "Hot Rod" Fuller was runner-up in Joliet after two first-round losses in Bristol and Topeka, giving him a win out of two final-round appearances in the last four events; Morgan Lucas advanced to the Joliet semifinals and would love to score a win at the race sponsored by his family-owned company and with rock musician Sebastian Bach attending the event as a guest of Lucas Oil.
Tony Pedregon has been a regular Houdini in 2008, escaping two destructive explosions in Pomona, Calif., in February and in Joliet two weeks ago. He miraculously overcame the Joliet conflagration to win the race, and the reigning POWERade champion has plenty of forward momentum heading for E-town.
Points leader Tim Wilkerson continues to confound the experts by deftly avoiding first-round losses and DNQs -- two stumbling blocks that have beset more than a few of the category's best teams this year. Wilkerson has not won an event since St. Louis, but his strategic partnership with Snake Racing may boost his performance in Englishtown, based on Larry Dixon's impressive runs there for the past 13 years. But leading the points isn't the singular goal it once was before the Countdown format was adopted, so Wilkerson's main focus will be to maintain consistency, not become too aggressive needlessly, and run as strongly in the second half of '08 as he has in the first.
Jack Beckman will be debuting a new in-house built chassis this weekend, constructed in the Schumacher Racing shop, and it will be a car everyone will be keeping tabs on. Beckman has been on the ropes since his win in Phoenix in February and his team is anticipating better results with the new pipe -- especially with only a dozen points between their 12th-place points position and the No. 10 spot held by Bob Tasca III.
Meanwhile, a real scrum is in progress at the lower end of the top 10 between Beckman, teammate Gary Scelzi and Del Worsham, with drivers such as Gary Densham, Ron Capps and Mike Neff not comfortably out of range. Take a look at the top 10 after this weekend's race and don't be too shocked if there are a few changes.
Possible news makers: John Force Racing scored a combined two round wins -- both by Ashley Force -- in Joliet two weeks ago with John Force, Robert Hight and Mike Neff all losing in Round 1, and they will be out to reverse those dismal results at a track where John has won four times; Cruz Pedregon, third in the points, has two wins here, including his emotional victory in 2000 with a new, underfunded team; Mike Ashley will make one final start this weekend aboard his Gotham City Racing F/C before calling it quits for 2008; Jimmy Walsh has resigned as tuner for Kenny Bernstein's Monster Energy Dodge driven by Tommy Johnson Jr. -- the defending event champion -- and will be replaced by Rick Cassell and Danny DeGennaro.
Kurt Johnson has two wins in the past four races and has carved out a 36-point lead over reigning POWERade champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. KJ has a real shot at winning his first career P/S title and he has placed himself squarely in the category hierarchy already inhabited by such powerhouses as Greg Anderson (the 2007 E-town winner), Jason Line, Coughlin, Dave Connolly, etc. This class may provide the most dramatic run to the POWERade championship as any pro category, and this year's list of national event winners is a compelling case for Pro Stock parity.
The Dave Connolly Watch continues as he fights his way back into the top 10 following his five-race absence to begin the season. He is 130 points behind No. 10 Warren Johnson -- a little more than six rounds of racing -- and Connolly's first-round stagger in Joliet two weeks ago didn't help his upward movement. There's lots of work to be done by the young standout in a class that seems to shine the light on a different driver at every race.
Keep Coughlin in your sights this weekend. He was runner-up to KJ at the previous race in Joliet and was the winner of the Jegs U.S. Open Bracket Championships in Indianapolis last weekend. He's on his game, and team owner Vic Cagnazzi is a native of nearby New York City.
Potential players: Ron Krisher's Topeka win was followed by a second-round loss in Joliet, but his program is clearly on the upswing; Warren Johnson needs to stay away from a DNQ or first-round loss to remain in the top 10 with Justin Humphries now 106 points behind him in 11th place; Connolly and Jim Yates are close to getting around Humphries for that 11th spot, needing just slightly more than a round of points to overtake him.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Chip Ellis will have the distinction of racing this weekend on the quickest bike in category history -- the same Don Schumacher-owned Buell that Angelle Sampey rode to a national record 6.871 elapsed time at this event last year. That's big.
Ellis is third in the POWERade points and has had a consistent run so far in 2008. He's a talented rider, we know his bike is quick, and he's hungry for his first win of 2008. But it's Chris Rivas, racing the G-Squared/Drag Specialties Buell owned by George Bryce and George Smith, who may have the upper hand this weekend after his breakthrough victory in Joliet.
Back-to-back winners in PSM have been rare -- not only this year but in the past few seasons -- since the playing field became flooded with Harley-Davidson and Buell teams, so Rivas is by no means a shoo-in for victory No. 2. And Andrew Hines -- the three-time champion, two-time winner this year, and current points leader -- has not failed to advance to the semifinals all season.
Reigning POWERade champion Matt Smith has a controversy brewing with the NHRA and Buell after Smith designed and built his own version of the Buell XB-9 with what he claims was their approval for competition. Both the NHRA and Buell contend approval was not given and now the disagreement will have to be untangled as Smith moves forward with his championship defense.
Others to notice: Craig Treble will be on the hunt to give Suzuki its first win of 2008 at the event he won last year; Angelle Sampey is only four points behind Rivas -- her theoretical teammate (Bryce serves as Sampey's crew chief) -- for fifth place in the standings; Shawn Gann is only two points out of the top 10.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.