- Bill Stephens
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BAYTOWN, Texas -- The 2008 NHRA drag racing season is only four races old. With 20 more POWERade national events to go, it's still extremely early in the schedule to identify any clear-cut patterns or reach any tangible conclusions that will remain airtight for the next eight months.
But one story line has emerged over the course of the '08 season which has surprised and puzzled more than a few members of Drag Racing Nation.
How long can Ron Capps struggle so desperately?
The likable veteran, who is in his 12th year in the Funny Car category, is mired in an early-season slump which is haunting both Capps and his Hall of Fame crew chief, Ed "Ace" McCulloch. Following this weekend's 21st O'Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway Park -- an event Capps had won the past two years -- the NAPA Auto Parts team has yet to score a single round win in '08, and Capps' first-round defeat to Tim Wilkerson was an especially bitter pill to swallow.
McCulloch had completely revised the clutch setup in Capps' machine prior to the first round of eliminations and felt confident that the changes would pay off. Capps snapped off a 4.953-second/309.27 mph pass against Wilkerson -- a pass which would have been good enough to win the majority of first-round matchups -- but Wilkerson's 4.870 elapsed time at 319.37 mph was not only the low elapsed time of the first round, but the second round as well.
"John Force for years has put up with the fact that guys go up there and treat you like you're the San Antonio basketball team," said Capps. "They are the champs and everybody is wanting to beat them. And they're going to have their 'A' game, so you have to go to bat every time with your 'A' game. And people are really getting up to race us. It's a great thing, but when you looked at the ladder it hurt to see that guys were winning with six-second runs and smoking the tires, and here we ran 4.95 and the car was very safe.
"We know that Tim Wilkerson can run well and he has. And we expected him to run that well, but we thought we could beat him."
Capps and his team remained in Houston on Monday to conduct a series of test passes in preparation for the SummitRacing.com Nationals in Las Vegas in two weeks. With the entire four-car Funny Car squad of Don Schumacher Racing, which includes Capps, Gary Scelzi, Jack Beckman, and Jerry Toliver, all losing in the first round on Sunday, hopes are that the test sessions will unravel the performance snafus which all four teams suffered. And while his first round win of 2008 has stubbornly eluded his grasp, Capps remains his typical optimistic and upbeat self.
"There's a very big light at the end of the tunnel," said Capps. "We're going to stay here and test on Monday. Ace was really happy with that first run. Even though we lost the round there's a lot of racing left. It's still early in the year. I feel bad because obviously NAPA Auto Parts' reputation off the track is number one, and we feel like we need to get the performance up to match that on the track for them.
"They're very good people to work with, and they know it's coming. They believe in us. We're excited to go to Vegas."
Another Funny Car team that had been hopelessly pinned on the ropes this year is the Del Worsham CSK outfit, but on Sunday, Worsham denied Ashley Force from becoming the first woman in NHRA history to win the Funny Car title at a national event when he raced past her in the Houston final.
Worsham, who came into the event with a single round win and two DNQ's in the previous three races, rang up a 4.933-second/316.60 mph shot to Force's 4.971/302.62.
"It finally happened," said Worsham, who was sporting a K&N Filters paint scheme over the traditional Checker Schuck's Kragen decal on his Chevy Impala. "Everything came together. I won't say it wasn't without a problem, but my dad [crew chief Chuck Worsham] made some great calls on the starting line. Great day."
In Top Fuel, Antron Brown continued his amazing ascent from Pro Stock Motorcycle standout to Top Fuel phenom when he not only advanced to his first career T/F final, but won it, defeating two-time champion Larry Dixon, 4.605/320.28 to 4.621/309.06. The victory came in only the fourth start of Brown's Top Fuel career after picking up 16 national events in the bike class.
"We've been plagued by the second round all season. The second round's been biting us, but today we bit back," said Brown, who is the second African-American driver to win a race in Top Fuel (J.R. Todd was the first two seasons ago). "I had all the confidence in the world in my team but I wasn't sure I had as much confidence in myself. That first win is always the biggest and I have to thank my team, Lee Beard my crew chief, and Matco Tools for giving me the chance to do what we did today."
Greg Anderson went the distance in Pro Stock, upending No.1 qualifier Kurt Johnson in the final round, 6.692/207.37 to KJ's tire-shaking 13.425/64.01. The victory gave the three-time champion 53 career national event wins, moving him past five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato for fifth place on the all-time list.
"We were flawless at Pomona, winning the race from the No.1 qualifying spot," said Anderson. "This was different -- we qualified No. 6, I don't know how it looked [from the stands], but it was a struggle [on the track]. The good Lord was looking after me today and I don't care what anyone says, there's no such thing as an ugly win, so we'll take it."
Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith chalked up his first win of 2008 with his final round win over Gainesville winner Matt Guidera, 7.060/187.76 to 7.140/185.03. Smith was less than impressive two weeks ago at the Gatornationals where the '08 bike season got under way and made mention of it when accepting his Spring Nationals trophy.
"It's an awesome experience," said Smith. "We were embarrassed the way we raced at Gainesville. We went home and went to work and it showed [with the win Sunday]."
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
It's too early to say a trend has emerged in the NHRA this season, but one question is readily apparent: What's the matter with Funny Car ace Ron Capps? Bill Stephens takes a look.