- Bill Stephens
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The POWERade Series points leaders in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock all romped to their respective category victories last weekend in Denver. The track might have been shortened to 1,000 feet (for Top Fuel and Funny Car), but the size of the points leads being enjoyed by the No. 1 drivers in the two nitro classes and Pro Stock all were lengthened at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals.
Tony Schumacher has been beyond reach for much of the season, sitting on the top spot in the Top Fuel standings since opening day. Tim Wilkerson took the Funny Car points lead seven races ago in St. Louis and has steadily added to it, while Greg Anderson has a 96-point lead over Kurt Johnson in Pro Stock and has won the past three national events.
This weekend's second race of the 2008 Western Swing, the 21st Schuck's Auto Supply Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash. -- just a short drive from downtown Seattle -- will be particularly important to the racers hovering around the 10th position in their category standings. Five races remain in the Countdown to 10, and only the top 10 drivers in each pro class at the conclusion of this stage of the championship process will advance to the Countdown to One.
Schumacher (the defending Seattle champion) has iced a Countdown berth, while Wilkerson and Anderson could follow suit this weekend. But further back in all three classes, the fighting is expected to intensify throughout the remainder of the Swing for a precious chunk of real estate in the POWERade top 10.
Here's what to look for this weekend in Seattle:
Morgan Lucas must feel like he's on a treadmill. As he tries to pick up his pace and move closer to his destination, he must sense that he's running in place. Lucas is No. 11 in the standings, only 30 points behind No. 10 David Grubnic. Those two drivers will be keeping a wary eye on each other this weekend as Lucas could drop Grubnic out of the top 10 by advancing two rounds further on Sunday. But Grubnic's teammate, Doug Kalitta, is also fair game for Lucas, holding onto ninth place by only an additional two points. If any shuffling happens on Sunday, odds are better than even that it will take place among those three drivers.
Bob Vandergriff Jr. needs a big race to restore some life into his Countdown aspirations, now 93 points out of the top 10, and Lucas' teammate, J.R. Todd, will have to start heaving some Hail Marys, with 102 points between him and 10th place.
Other scenarios to keep in mind: Only 37 points separate No. 2 Antron Brown and No. 3 Larry Dixon, and Brown is coming off his runner-up finish in Denver last week; sixth-place Brandon Bernstein is 40 points behind No. 5 "Hot Rod." Fuller is only 18 points ahead of seventh-place Hillary Will; only 11 dragsters out of the 15 entered ran in Denver's final qualifying session Saturday, reportedly to bring attention to the unacceptably high cost of nitromethane, and Rumors persist that the same situation could occur in Seattle.
Five racers in Funny Car will be paying very close attention to each other this weekend as their likelihood of advancing to the Countdown to One could be enhanced or diminished by how well or poorly they perform.
Jack Beckman (the defending Seattle champ) vaulted into the 10th spot last week with his runner-up showing in Denver, putting Bob Tasca Jr., teammate Gary Scelzi and Del Worsham behind him. Beckman began his weekend in Denver back in 13th place, but his current position could still be described as perilous with only 39 points covering the spread between Beckman and those three drivers, who are now just outside the top 10.
Mike Neff will have to watch his back as well, with only 72 points -- just over 3½ rounds of racing -- separating him from 11th-place Tasca Jr. We could see big changes in the lower reaches of the top 10 standings Sunday at a track that will be providing dramatic differences in elevation and air density than what was encountered last week on Thunder Mountain.
Others who could make a move: Robert Hight slid past defending POWERade champion Tony Pedregon from third to second in the points but begins this weekend with only a 13-point advantage to protect; Ron Capps (who won here in Top Fuel in 1995 and Funny Car in 1998) and Gary Densham are tied for seventh place, a remarkable accomplishment for Densham, who has been on the verge of parking his team throughout the season due to a sketchy budget; since her win in Bristol, Tenn., Melanie Troxel has only two round wins. She qualified a strong second in Denver but was beaten by Densham in Round 1.
Other than three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson, the heavy artillery in Pro Stock has been silenced -- at least over the past three races. Anderson has put together a typically Andersonian winning streak while big dogs like reigning Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr., defending Seattle champion Dave Connolly and No. 2 points holder Kurt Johnson haven't offered effective resistance.
But down near the top 10 cutoff, Warren Johnson -- a four-time Seattle winner -- is vulnerable to his rear flank with Connolly trailing him for 10th place by only 53 points and rookie youngster Justin Humphreys 70 points back. Connolly has made measurable headway in his quest to reach the top 10 after missing the first five races on '08, but he has leveled off recently and needs to start making up more ground with only five more events remaining to do it.
Others to keep an eye on: Several A-list drivers are still looking for their first career Seattle victory, including Jason Line, Ron Krisher and Jim Yates; Warren Johnson will be trying to track down Greg Stanfield, who is only 62 points ahead of WJ in ninth place; Coughlin Jr. has been winless since Gainesville, Fla., in March and has one round win in the past three events.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Points leaders in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock will take a back seat to the drivers scrambling to make the Countdown to 10 this weekend at Pacific Raceways near Seattle, writes Bill Stephens.