Commentary

Eighteen slots still up for grabs in POWERade Series' Countdown to One

Twenty-two drivers have clinched spots in the NHRA's coveted Countdown to One playoffs. That means only 18 slots remain as the POWERade Series turns to Reading, Pa., writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: August 14, 2008, 6:03 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

This weekend's 24th Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., can be encapsulated by this simple equation:

40-22=18

The NHRA POWERade Countdown to 10 will determine which 10 drivers from each of the four professional categories advance into the Countdown to One playoff for the championship. Twenty-two drivers -- six in Top Fuel, four in Funny Car, five in Pro Stock and three in Pro Stock Motorcycle -- have clinched Countdown to One eligibility. That leaves 18 slots still to be decided with two national events remaining to qualify.

The pressure is now squarely on teams that are fighting to remain in the POWERade top 10 and those that are running out of time to muscle their way in. And that means this weekend's race in Reading will supply more than the usual drama this long-standing NHRA national event has provided.

Here's what's on the line at picturesque Maple Grove Raceway Friday through Sunday.

Top Fuel
Five-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher has elevated his expectations for a sixth Top Fuel championship thanks to his thunderous streak of four consecutive national event wins and seven victories in the past nine races. Schumacher is as tough as he's ever been in his phenomenal career, and his opponents will take little comfort in the knowledge his three previous wins at Maple Grove lead the list of Top Fuel champs in Reading.

A heated battle remains right behind Schumacher in the top 10, with 93 points separating second-place Antron Brown and his teammate, "Hot Rod" Fuller, who is in fifth. Only a single point comes between third-place Larry Dixon and fourth-place Cory McClenathan. All of the above drivers -- along with Brandon Bernstein in sixth -- have nailed down their admission into the Countdown to One, but at the other end of the standings, No. 9 Doug Kalitta, his teammate David Grubnic at No. 10 and 11th-place Morgan Lucas are all within 29 points of each other, and that will give those drivers itchy trigger fingers when qualifying and racing get cranked up this weekend.

Needless to say, strong outings and untimely miscues will be magnified in their importance.

Funny Car
Tim Wilkerson has proved that his 141-point lead in the Funny Car standings is not a statistical fluke. His 30-12 round record would be sufficient to give him the points lead in just about any previous NHRA season, and his four No. 1 qualifying spots add even more proof of his performance superiority in 2008.

Tony and Cruz Pedregon, along with Robert Hight, also have ensured a berth in the Countdown to One, and Tony, the defending event champion, goes to Reading fresh off last week's victory in Brainerd, Minn. But there's plenty of wiggle room at positions nine, 10, 11 and 12 with only 102 points dividing No. 9 Jack Beckman and No. 12 Del Worsham, while 10th place now belongs to rookie Mike Neff and the 11th slot in the hands of Bob Tasca III.

This weekend will be no time to choke for any of those four championship-minded hopefuls who would love to have a place in the Countdown to One salted away in Reading, rather than having to get the job done amidst the heightened energy and built-in distractions of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in two weeks.

Pro Stock
The Pro Stock top 10 may already be locked in.

Warren Johnson remains the major X-factor, now behind the 8-ball by trailing No. 10 Greg Stanfield by 73 points. WJ has been on a performance stretch, having now lost eight first-round matchups in the last 10 races, exacerbated by a DNQ. He'll need a miracle to erase that 73-point deficit in just two races, and short of that, the drivers currently in the top 10 will be the 10 players we'll see graduate into the Countdown to One.

Greg Anderson, Kurt Johnson, Jason Line, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Allen Johnson have already had their tickets punched for the Countdown to One, and the points distances among them are such that some additional shuffling could take place before final seedings for the playoffs are decided. Dave Connolly, the defending Reading champion, has moved to eighth place thanks to his inspired charge from a five-race no-show to begin the season to a genuine title contender with two national event wins, two poles and an exceptional 20-9 round record.

But this weekend, the "WJ Watch" will be the most intriguing scenario in Pro Stock, with Johnson having to play from behind with the game clock gradually ticking down.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
Three-time POWERade champion Matt Hines, reigning PSM champion Matt Smith and Chip Ellis hold the top three spots, respectively, in the POWERade points and all have secured leading roles in the upcoming Countdown to One. Oddsmakers would have a hard time bestowing the label of heavy favorite on any of those three riders when predicting this year's champion. Each has shown he can become 2008's last man standing.

But it's dicey at the back of the top 10. Following the last two races of the Countdown to One, the 10th and final spot will almost assuredly be occupied by Craig Treble (eighth), Steve Johnson (ninth), Hector Arana (10th) or Karen Stoffer (11th), who all fall under a points spread of only 86. And at least for now, the bitter inter-brand feud that has been sizzling between the Harley-Davidsons, Buells and Suzukis in the category trenches has been largely forgotten in the heat of the Countdown to One's stretch drive.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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