- Bill Stephens
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You have to love it when a plan comes together.
This weekend, the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series will draw a power surge of energy from two converging elements at the ideal moment. The Countdown to 1 -- the six-race playoff that will determine the 2008 POWERade champions in all four professional classes -- and the new zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., just outside Charlotte, will join forces to create what many drag racing observers predict will be one of the most exciting and extravagant national events in NHRA history.
That might sound like hyperbole, but after a suspenseful Countdown to 10, which saw the 10-driver Countdown to 1 field finalized in Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis two weeks ago, and with Bruton Smith's zMAX Dragway being touted as the sport's most show-worthy facility, is it any wonder the anticipation heading into this weekend's inaugural Carolinas Nationals is off the charts?
Add to those two factors that each and every team coming to zMAX this weekend has never competed at this brand-new, four-lane venue, and it's obvious that predictability and overall familiarity can be tossed out the window.
Here's a preview of this weekend's debut event in the 2008 NHRA Countdown to 1:
"Maybe we should just hand him the trophy now."
More than a few fans in Drag Racing Nation were heard muttering that tongue-in-cheek suggestion in the wake of Tony Schumacher crushing all comers (again) at the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend. His thunderous cluster of victories and new category records this season have been pointed out numerous times in countless places, so there's no need to allude to them here. But the upshot to Schumacher's dominance in the '08 Countdown to 10 is that he heads into the homestretch with a staggering amount of momentum and confidence.
His crew chief, Alan Johnson, stumbled only momentarily in Indy, needing the final two of five qualifying passes to slip the U.S. Army team into the Top Fuel field. Johnson's surprise announcement prior to the U.S. Nationals that he would be leaving Don Schumacher Racing at year's end to head his own team in 2009 did little to interfere with Schumacher's seventh Indy title. The Schumacher-Johnson duo will be riding a crest of performance perfection into zMAX.
Right now, the other talented teams' best shot at getting around Schumacher for the lead role in Top Fuel will depend squarely on the reigning POWERade champion -- or his tuner -- committing a turnover. And those have been highly infrequent in 2008.
Others with a shot: Doug Kalitta's runner-up showing in Indy went a long way in giving his Mac Tools team a lift after barely making the Countdown to 1; "Hot Rod" Fuller has been a nonfactor since his last win in Chicago in June but can challenge if tuner Rob Flynn hits the setup; Brandon Bernstein now has only six more chances to avoid the first winless season of his pro career.
It would be folly to describe Tim Wilkerson's consistency and steadiness in the season's first 18 national events as flukey. In years past, he has been outrun, outperformed and largely outspent in a class where cubic money equates to POWERade championships. Wilkerson ended the '08 Countdown to 10 with a comfortable points lead, which now is reduced to 30 points, and from here on out he'll need every bit of that same consistency he enjoyed between February and Labor Day if he is to write a happy ending to his Cinderella season.
Was Robert Height's Indy victory a sign that his John Force-owned AAA Mustang has shaken off its temperamental mood swings? If you ask Hight or his tuner Jimmy Prock, they'll be quick to reply that their U.S. Nationals title was more good fortune than airtight expertise. They enter the Countdown to 1 as the No. 2 seed and may pose the biggest threat to Wilkerson's heroic quest for the championship if they can succeed in massaging Hight's race car into a winning groove.
Potential players: "Fast Jack" Beckman has now advanced to three consecutive final rounds and four out of the last six races; John Force, daughter Ashley and teammate Mike Neff have a total of nine round wins combined in the last five races, and John's DNQ in Indy was his second in five events; Melanie Troxel's semifinal finish in Indy was her best race since her Bristol, Tenn., win in May.
There are no favorites in the Countdown to 1.
Plain and simple, the lack of any protracted winning streaks, lengthy low-qualifier juggernauts or massive points leads in Pro Stock this year all indicate the playing field is table-top level heading into the Countdown to 1.
But maybe the subliminal vibe in the category is echoing in four different directions: Greg Anderson, Kurt Johnson, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Dave Connolly.
Granted, Anderson has five wins this year -- and the longest winning streak with three straight in Englishtown, Norwalk and Denver -- and Connolly has now reached four consecutive final rounds, winning two. But the wealth has been spread around fairly evenly among Anderson, Johnson, Coughlin and Connolly in the last 12 national events, with Ron Krisher and Jason Line the only two drivers outside the above group to score victories.
Handicappers may give a slight edge to Johnson when picking a champion, since his dad -- six-time POWERade champion Warren Johnson -- is not in the Countdown to 1 lineup, and the Professor can devote added attention to getting his son his first career category crown.
Possible headliners: Allen Johnson couldn't go the distance in Indy after qualifying No. 1 but may be closing in on his first win since Denver '07; Larry Morgan failed to qualify at the first eight races of the year but in the last 10 events has advanced to three finals; Rob Mansfield will once again be entered in a third KB Racing Pontiac after just missing the 16-car Pro Stock field in Indy in his class debut.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
The Suzukis are still dangerous.
While much of the overall season success in Pro Stock Motorcycle has been falling to the Harley-Davidson/Buell nameplates, Steve Johnson's remarkable win in Indy, which was capped by a stunning come-from-behind victory over Andrew Hines and his Harley V-Rod in the final round, provided vivid testimony that Suzukis are not to be taken lightly.
Statistically, out of 12 PSM events in '08, only two Suzuki riders, Johnson and Chip Ellis, have national event wins, with Harleys or Buells devouring the rest. But there is brand parity and rider parity in the Countdown to 1 ranks based on seven different racers collecting event titles this season. Of course, defending POWERade champion Matt Smith may be tapped with the role of favorite, thanks to his four victories this year, with two of those coming in the last three races.
Riders to watch: Craig Treble's first outing as part of Don Schumacher Racing in Indy ended with his semifinal finish as he remains yet another race-winning threat aboard a Suzuki; Karen Stoffer's late-inning lockdown of a Countdown to 1 berth may revitalize her season, which saw her advance to a single semifinal out of 12 starts; three-time POWERade champion Angelle Sampey enters the Countdown to 1 as the No. 4 seed but is on the brink of suffering her first winless season since joining the class in 1996.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
5dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz