Commentary

Western Swing finale at Sonoma can't come soon enough

You'll hear a collective sigh of relief after this weekend's NHRA POWERade Series event at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. The three-race grind called the Western Swing has been that demanding, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: July 25, 2008, 1:15 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

It has been a true test of survival.

The 2008 NHRA POWERade Western Swing, the three-fer that traditionally makes stops in Denver, Seattle and Sonoma, Calif., will wind down at Infineon Raceway this weekend at the 21st FRAM-Autolite Nationals in the picturesque wine country of Northern California. For the many professional teams that have logged innumerable miles over the past two weeks, the conclusion of this road trip will be a welcomed break amidst one of the most demanding and eventful seasons in the sport's history.

All four POWERade categories will be on the slate in Sonoma, and the theme this weekend will essentially follow the same story lines that set the tone in Denver and Seattle. The adjustment for Top Fuel and Funny Car racers to the 1,000-foot track distance, the continuing scramble for non-top-10 drivers to battle their way into the Countdown to One, and ultimately which teams will emerge from the Swing in a stronger position to challenge for their respective class championships at the end of this three-week marathon.

Here's an overview of what to watch for this weekend:

Top Fuel
The first thing one notices when looking at the Top Fuel entry list for this weekend's race is that 16 cars are officially listed to compete. The Western Swing has typically reflected shorter entry lists due to the great distances and significant costs that lesser-funded teams must confront to participate. But this year, with the increased expenses for both diesel fuel for team transporters and the nitromethane for the racing engines, fewer privateers and part-time racers have chosen to come out.

Should the entry list remain at 16, the usual pressures of qualifying for the Top Fuel field will be erased and teams will have the luxury of dialing in their cars for race day. Tony Schumacher is solidly established as the powerhouse presence in the class following his two straight wins to begin the Swing, giving him five wins out of the last seven races. He is also the defending Sonoma winner and his current 375-point lead over Antron Brown is in no immediate peril. The five-time POWERade champion is setting his own agenda.

Will Morgan Lucas move into the top 10 this weekend? He's 10 points outside of the Countdown to One eligibility, with Doug Kalitta his nearest obstacle. Kalitta might have some emotional airspeed to pick up his pace thanks to his induction into the Infineon Raceway Hall of Fame this weekend. Kalitta has won five times at this facility -- more than any other Top Fuel driver -- including his three-peat between 1998-2000.

Can Bob Vandergriff Jr. make it in, needing some forward motion this weekend with a 76-point deficit to make up to reach the top 10? And what about J.R. Todd -- 103 points behind Kalitta -- who can't afford another first-round loss as he has yet to win a round on this year's Swing?

It's not likely any other drivers will dramatically change the overall direction of the top-10 compass needle this weekend. There's always the chance that some midpack shuffling could shift the order, but with four races remaining in the Countdown to 10, those who still have work to do know what needs to be done.

Funny Car
John Force won this event in 2007. Since then, the 14-time POWERade champion has won a total of two national events. That's a truly shocking statistic for the driver who has defined NHRA Funny Car dominance for so long. It's also a telling indication that the parity in Funny Car might be at an all-time high -- witness Tony Bartone's first pro victory in Seattle last week, the third first-time Funny Car winner this season. In an effort to compensate for the additional weight that Force's Castrol Mustang carries thanks to a new spec chassis and recently added safety equipment, his race car will wear a much simpler and starker paint scheme in Sonoma to shave precious pounds.

Force's team-wide struggles are hard to explain. Force, daughter Ashley, Robert Hight and Mike Neff are all in the top 10, but each has been wrestling with nagging inconsistency all year. Not that their counterparts at Don Schumacher Racing have had it any easier. Out of their four drivers, only Ron Capps and Jack Beckman have top-10 berths, while Gary Scelzi and Jerry Toliver are outsiders. The Pedregon brothers, Tony and Cruz, have had streaky campaigns, while Gary Densham has miraculously avoided a budgetary meltdown despite skyrocketing racing expenses and holds on to eighth place in the points. Densham might, however, be parking his operation following this weekend's race due to a lack of sponsorship dollars.

This all leads to the remarkable season of Tim Wilkerson. He holds a comfortable lead -- 187 points -- over Tony Pedregon and is now within four races of heading into the Countdown to One as the top seed. Much has been said about his current role of overdog in the wake of a career that has up until now cast him as a single-car underdog. He has stolen the Funny Car spotlight and much of the attention to be found in the category is directed at Wilkerson and whether his rags-to-riches performance will have the staying power to bring him his first POWERade championship.

Pro Stock
Greg Anderson couldn't win in Seattle, but his teammate did. Jason Line finally put together four solid rounds on July 20, scoring only his second win of '08 and pulling him to within 10 points of second-place Kurt Johnson in the POWERade rankings. Anderson (the defending event champion) has a sizable lead over Johnson for the top spot, and the Anderson/Line team will be wearing big smiles heading into the Countdown to One if they charge into the playoffs as the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds.

There's a little drama at the other end of the top 10. Dave Connolly continues to nibble away at the real estate between himself and Warren Johnson. There are now only 26 points between No. 11 Connolly and Johnson, who clings to the No. 10 spot. Connolly has had his chances to overhaul the Professor, but hasn't been able to, while Johnson has had several chances to widen the gap between himself and the most serious threat to his Countdown plans. Watching the youngster stalk the six-time champion has become a popular pursuit for Pro Stock fans. And don't overlook Justin Humphreys, who trails Johnson by only 69 points.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
After a one-race break, the bikes will get back after it in Sonoma, where Matt Smith went the distance in 2007 and arrives at Infineon with a victory two weeks ago on "Thunder Mountain" in tow. He trails three-time POWERade champion Andrew Hines by 38 points for the category lead and is poised to move ahead should he sweep the Swing.

Below the top-10 cutoff, Karen Stoffer, Shawn Gann, Junior Pippin and Mike Berry are still in the running, but all need some steady round wins to keep those hopes alive. The four remaining events in the Countdown to 10 include the PSMs so those riders who capitalize most on the 16 remaining rounds of eliminations might have time to perform just enough 11th-hour heroics to advance to the decisive championship tournament.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.