- Bill Stephens
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Until the NHRA POWERade schedule underwent a reshuffling in 2004, the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway in Brainerd, Minn., served as the final national event before the hallowed Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. The Brainerd race enjoyed amplified significance as racers in all four professional categories used that event to fine-tune their programs in preparation for the sport's most important stop.
Brainerd is no longer the pre-Indy setup race, since the Toyo Tires Nationals in Reading, Pa., has now been slipped into the schedule between the two. However, the Lucas Oil Nationals may now possess an even greater status than it did in seasons past. It has become one of the final three races in the Countdown to 10, and thus will be a key element of shaping the Countdown to One field of contenders who will compete for this year's four POWERade titles.
Several teams have already clinched Countdown to One berths, but there are still sizzling battles at the bottom of the top 10 in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle for the few points positions in question. Points are now even more precious commodities than they have been over the course of the first 15 races of 2008, and for those hoping to lock up a spot in the top 10, the margin for error has become razor thin.
Here's a preview of what's ahead this weekend in Brainerd:
Perhaps the only question in this class yet to be answered this year is, "Who can possibly outpunch Tony Schumacher's U.S. Army team?" As it stands now, Schumacher -- the only driver in the Top Fuel to have clinched a Countdown to One invitation -- appears to be the best driver racing the best car tuned by the best crew chief employed by the best team. He has won more than half of his 15 races (eight), and was runner-up at two more. Throw in four No. 1 qualifiers, a hefty collection of low elapsed time, top speed honors, and several critical round wins via holeshots, and it's an open-and-shut case. A sixth career POWERade championship is squarely in his sights.
Down at the other end of the top 10, Morgan Lucas heads into this weekend's event (which is sponsored by his family-owned company) needing to make a move on Doug Kalitta. Lucas is in the 11th spot, only nine points behind Kalitta, but has been unable to string together enough round wins so far this year to lock himself into the top 10. Kalitta has been vulnerable all season with an uncharacteristically subpar 8-14 round record. Lucas' round record? 8-14.
Further back are Bob Vandergriff Jr. and Lucas' teammate J.R. Todd. Each of those racers is looking at having to advance to at least the final round at all of the next three events to have a legitimate shot at the Countdown to One. Brandon Bernstein, the defending event champion, is within a point of moving past Cory McClenathan for a top-five slot, while Kalitta could create some breathing room for himself by advancing two rounds past his teammate David Grubnic, who is ninth.
An early-round loss this weekend will lay some real hurt any of the drivers hovering near the tail end of the top 10.
Bob Tasca III knows how Morgan Lucas feels. Tasca has been flirting with a top-10 spot since February, briefly muscling his way to the No. 10 position before slipping back to 11th, handing that coveted 10 spot to Jack Beckman. The distance between them is 42 points, a whisker over two rounds of racing.
Beckman trails ninth-place Mike Neff by only 54 points and "Fast Jack" could do himself a lot of good by capitalizing on any performance shortfalls encountered by John Force's rookie driver. Beckman appeared to be on his way to a resurgent Western Swing following his runner-up finish in Denver, but he failed to survive the second round in either Seattle or Sonoma. Neff has to be kicking himself for only putting together two round wins total out west, thus failing to fatten the distance between himself and Beckman.
Of course, Tasca missed a golden opportunity to gain some ground on the two drivers ahead of him by going winless on the swing, and he is fortunate that both Beckman and Neff didn't take better advantage of his disappointing 0-3 road trip.
Meanwhile, points leader Tim Wilkerson has clinched his Countdown to One eligibility and shows no signs of fading. In fact, at a non points-earning event at Summit Raceway in Norwalk, Ohio, last weekend, Wilkerson won the Funny Car honors against a stout field of NHRA regulars.
Right now, life is good for this year's most unlikely star.
Three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson has nailed down his playoff spot, as have 2006 champion and teammate Jason Line and perennial title contender Kurt Johnson. Every driver in the current Pro Stock top 10 -- except Warren Johnson -- has either won a national event this year or advanced to at least one final round. There would appear to be order in the P/S universe.
Warren--caught in the stubborn stranglehold of a 10-race stretch in which he has tallied only two round wins and suffered a DNQ--is in the precarious position of having been bumped from the top 10 by Dave Connolly. The "Professor" is not only in danger of falling farther back from Connolly and the top 10, but getting overtaken from behind by young Justin Humphreys, who is just under four rounds away from WJ.
Defending POWERade and event champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. would certainly like to move into the Countdown to One higher than the No. 4 seed, where he stands now. But his 2007 championship wasn't iced until the last day of the season, so his title hopes are anything but flimsy. This is a race he's won three times, so expect him to be on his best game on Sunday. And don't count out his teammate, Connolly, who looks to build on the momentum he has been steadily gathering all year since missing the first five races of '08. His Sonoma win two weeks ago could be just the start of a hot streak -- right when it matters most.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Only one active rider in PSM has won this race more than once; in fact, only three active racers overall have ever won in Brainerd. Craig Treble has two Brainerd wins, points leader Andrew Hines is the defending event champion (who has also pinned down his Countdown to One inclusion) and Gino Scali was the 2002 event winner. But among them, it's Treble, now in eighth place, who has the most riding on his performance this time around, as he is one of five racers in a late-inning tussle for top-10 distinction.
Three-time POWERade champion Angelle Sampey (seventh), Steve Johnson (ninth), Hector Arana (10th) and Karen Stoffer (11th) are all within 95 points of each other -- less than four rounds of racing -- and have been buzzing around the No. 10 slot during much of the summer.
Unpredictability has been the operative word in the category this year with few bike racers showing consistent dominance or a steady edge on race day. Hines does boast a 22-7 round record, which leads the class, but he has only two national event wins -- as does Matt Smith. They are the only repeat winners in '08. By extension, there's still plenty of mystery surrounding how the PSM top 10 will ultimately look by the time the Countdown to 10 concludes in Indy, regardless of the results in Brainerd this weekend.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
7dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz