- Bill Stephens
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Last year, Dave Connolly won five consecutive NHRA POWERade national events but missed winning his first Pro Stock championship.
This year, Connolly missed the first five NHRA POWERade national events but now is in position to pick up that breakthrough title.
At the tender age of 25, Connolly has packed a ton of drag-racing experience into his NHRA résumé, and following his impressive victory Sunday in the 21st FRAM-Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Connolly has erased whatever statistical dead weight he has been saddled with since the beginning of the season and has moved into the coveted POWERade top 10.
His team owner, Vic Cagnazzi, spent much of last year's offseason searching for a primary sponsor for Connolly. It wasn't until late March of this year that Charter Communications signed on with Cagnazzi Racing, and it wasn't until five national events had already been completed that Connolly finally joined the action in Atlanta in April.
If Connolly holds onto or improves that No. 10 position over the next three races, he will advance into the Countdown to One, thus having the chance to capture the 2008 Pro Stock championship after letting it slip from his grasp on the final day of the 2007 schedule.
Connolly defeated his teammate, the reigning POWERade Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr., in Sunday's final round -- on a holeshot.
"What a day for Cagnazzi Racing!" Connolly exclaimed minutes after collecting his second national event trophy of the year. "It was a tight race. Both cars are so evenly matched. Everybody involved with our on-track performance did a great job.
"Jeg is the one I looked up to when I was a kid and wasn't racing Pro Stock. He's won championships, and having him as a teammate is definitely a win-win situation. Getting to run him in the final and win on a holeshot is extra special to me. It's good for bragging rights for the Cagnazzi group, but it's a great situation for all the guys back at the shop. Todd Beavis built both cars, and Stevie Johns and Joe Hornek build all the motors. I don't think they really care who won."
Connolly's journey to the top 10 was anything but meteoric. He was a first-round loser in his initial race back but advanced to the next two final rounds, winning in Bristol, Tenn. In the span of those three races, he surged from 25th to 14th, but over the next seven races, he advanced to only one final round, picking up just three hard-fought points positions. By winning this past Sunday, Connolly finally edged Warren Johnson out of the elite 10 and is now within 46 points of Ron Krisher at No. 9.
"We've been playing catch-up all season and now they have to catch us," said Connolly, who fouled out in last year's final event in Pomona, Calif., to end his 2007 title quest. "It's our job to hold them off and keep beating them down as they get close to us."
Connolly's Sonoma win also brought an extra measure of satisfaction to his team owner, whose wife was already about to celebrate a special day on Monday.
"Some days you just get that feeling you're going to win," revealed Connolly in the Sonoma winner's circle. "Tomorrow is Brita Cagnazzi's birthday and she bought a bottle of champagne. I told her after the first round to go ahead and get that thing on ice because we are going to need it."
Despite his five consecutive victories last year, Connolly watched Coughlin salt away his third POWERade Pro Stock crown, and there were many Connolly fans who pointed to the new Countdown to the Championship points system as a major factor in denying Dave the 2007 title.
But this year, it may be the Countdown structure that preserves Connolly's shot at the championship even though he missed the season's first five events. Regardless of the Countdown, Connolly's determined resurrection into the top 10 and potential championship contention is just another clear example of his above-average talent and savvy.
"Since we've come back, I haven't really driven that well until today," he admitted. "I finally got up on the wheel and concentrated. As always, the car was excellent and we were running within thousandths of the guy in the other lane. Now we have to stay on our game and not give back any of the ground we've made up."
And come November, the Cagnazzi team may have yet another reason to ice up one more bottle of champagne.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
1dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders