- Bill Stephens
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It's exactly the way the NHRA was hoping the Countdown would come together.
When the 54th Mac Tools U.S. Nationals wrap up at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis on Labor Day, the top 10 drivers in the POWERade standings from each of the four professional categories will move into the Countdown to 1. While the top 10 drivers in the Funny Car class are already locked in, there is still measurable intrigue in Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle churning around that all-important 10th spot.
And the issues of who will advance to the playoffs and who will not will be settled at the most prized, prominent and prestigious event in the entire sport of drag racing.
"Racers understand that a big part of our job is being able to perform under pressure," said Morgan Lucas, who needs to outpoint either Doug Kalitta or David Grubnic by 10 points in the Countdown to 10 finale in Indy to move into Top Fuel's playoff round.
"I think the whole idea of structuring the Countdown to 10 this way is to add even more suspense and drama to the U.S. Nationals. What I have to do is somehow tune out the extra pressure that comes with racing at Indy anyway and stay centered on getting the points we need to move ahead. We missed the Countdown to 1 last year and it was a long offseason. You never forget how that feels and you definitely don't want to go through another offseason like that again."
Kalitta has suffered though an off-pace 2008. A driver who regularly gives the entire Top Fuel class plenty of trouble, he is winless this year and clinging to the No. 10 spot, knowing Lucas is parked on his doorstep.
"The Mac Tools team knows we have to stay focused if we want to advance into the next Countdown," said Kalitta, who has finished second in the points three times in his career.
"We hoped we could have clinched a spot long before heading for Indy, but we'll have to use that as extra motivation to run well. You want to win as many rounds and as many races as you can, and if you can win Indy, and clinch a top-10 spot, the pressure can sometimes work to your advantage."
Perhaps one of 2008's biggest surprises has been the lackluster results turned in by six-time Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson. WJ began the year with confidence and optimism after a downbeat 2007 that saw him finish eighth in the points and winless for the second time in the past four years. He has now lost six consecutive first-round matchups, has dropped out of the top 10 and has slipped 72 points behind 10th-place Greg Stanfield.
"It is what it is," said Johnson, referring to the Countdown point structure now in its second year. "I think there should be some changes made to it, including adding two spots to the Countdown to 10, which I think would add some uncertainty to the whole process. But in the meantime, my job is still the same as it's always been. Win rounds, win races, and try to win championships."
Three racers are huddled around the 10th spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle and the distance between Steve Johnson in ninth, Karen Stoffer in 10th and Hector Arana in 11th is only 66 points. Indy will be presenting an intensified atmosphere for the bike class as along with closing out the Countdown to 10 and the warfare associated with winning the "Big Go," the $25,000 Ringer's Pro Bike Battle revs up during PSM qualifying on Saturday.
"We love the attention and the excitement that we get in the Pro Bike class at Indy," said Johnson, who won the U.S. Nationals in 2005. "It's the one race that we want to show people just how competitive and committed these teams are.
"Karen and Hector are getting some media attention they might not ordinarily get because of the tight points situation for that 10th spot and that's something to be happy about. I'd rather have more pressure on me than no pressure, because if there's pressure, it means the sport is tuning into what we're racing for and what racer wouldn't get psyched for that?"
That is the central question to ponder as we head for the 16th and final chapter of the Countdown to 10. How will the added stakes of the Countdown piled upon the traditional jitters experienced at drag racing's most celebrated event impact the drivers still fighting for a top-10 spot? Will they rise to the occasion and perform with unbreakable poise or crack under the strain and falter at the worst possible moment?
Fans all over the world are considering those possibilities and that's precisely why the NHRA is smiling from ear to ear.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Forgive NHRA officials for wearing the silly grins. Having numerous Countdown playoff spots still available with just one race to go is a dream scenario, writes Bill Stephens.