Keeping Pace


Tony Pedregon leads the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car points standings. (Photo courtesy of NHRA) (The Spokesman-Review)
Tony Pedregon leads the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car points standings. (Photo courtesy of NHRA) (The Spokesman-Review)

The top 10 teams in each pro category will begin their quests for world championship glory at the NHRA Carolinas Nationals, Sept. 17-20 at the spectacular zMAX Dragway, Bruton Smith’s “Bellagio of Drag Strips.”

Courtesy: NHRA Media Relations

CONCORD, N.C. – For 18 events, from February through August, NHRA race teams have grinded and gutted it out to identify the top 10 teams in each pro category that will have the opportunity to compete for drag racing’s ultimate prize -- NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series world championships.


            A few teams have dominated. Some have sacrificed. Some barely slipped into the field in the closing seconds. There was passion. Determination. Even controversy.


Now, the real work begins.


The top 10 teams in each pro category will begin their quests for world championship glory at the NHRA Carolinas Nationals, Sept. 17-20 at the spectacular zMAX Dragway, Bruton Smith’s “Bellagio of Drag Strips.”  The race is the first of six championship playoff races to determine the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series world champions. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Justin Humphreys (Pro Stock) and Steve Johnson (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the event, which will be televised by ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.


 Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Tony Pedregon (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) will open the Countdown to 1 at the top of their respective categories, each riding momentum from outstanding performances in the regular season. After the championship point standings were reset by NHRA, each top seed will start the playoffs with a 30-point lead over the second-place driver. Each of the subsequent drivers throughout the top 10 will be separated by 10-point increments. The 10th place competitor in each category will be only 110 points behind the leader.


Last year the format produced three surprise world champions. Schumacher was the only regular season champ to finish the deal. Krawiec strung together four runner-up finishes and came from seventh place in the points to win the bike title. Cruz Pedregon won the Funny Car crown from a fourth-place starting point by winning the last three races. In Pro Stock, Coughlin was third when the Countdown to 1 began.


This year, parity has been a buzz word in each pro category. While Brown, Ron Capps, Coughlin and Krawiec led their categories in regular season victories, many other drivers in each class also claimed wins along the way, which sets the stage for what promises to be a dramatic six-race championship showdown in each category.


“It’s going to be a real tough road to the title,” said six-time world champ Schumacher, who starts his title defense from the No. 3 position, “but I truly believe we’re going to be a serious player throughout.”


Schumacher, who is fresh off his record-tying eighth Mac Tools U.S. Nationals win in Indianapolis in his U.S. Army dragster, is again one of the favorites in Top Fuel. However, Brown, who won five times and swept the Western Swing in his Matco Tools dragster, finished the regular season as the top seed. Two-time world champ Larry Dixon won five times in his new Al-Anabi Racing dragster. Other Countdown qualifiers in Top Fuel are Brandon Bernstein, Cory McClenathan, Spencer Massey, Morgan Lucas, Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta and Clay Millican.


In Funny Car, Tony Pedregon took the top seed with a late season surge in his Q-Horsepower Chevy Impala, which he finished off under the direction of a new crew chief. Capps jumped out to a hot start in his NAPA Dodge Charger and led the standings for much of the season, winning five times. However, Capps’ charge cooled in the final two regular season events as the veteran driver suffered back-to-back first round losses. He is ready to see his team put their winning ways back in overdrive in the playoffs.


“Right now a lot of teams are waking up a little bit before the Countdown starts, and just in time,” Capps said. “And it’s time for us to get back the form that we had earlier in the year.”


The real Funny Car drama was for the final playoff spot. Tensions ran high at Indy as Robert Hight claimed the 10th position over defending series champ Cruz Pedregon and rookie Matt Hagan. 


“At the beginning of every season your biggest fear is to not make this Countdown,” Hight said. “When you look at the class and the field of these Funny Cars and how good the cars are that are out there it is not that easy to make this top ten. Cruz Pedregon is a great racer, reigning world champ. He is an awesome driver. They have a great team over there. It just shows you how tough this is. We just pulled this out.”


Other Funny Car Countdown qualifiers are Indy winner Ashley Force Hood, Bob Tasca III, Jack Beckman, Tim Wilkerson, John Force, Del Worsham and Mike Neff.


Coughlin ended his dominating regular season performance in Pro Stock with a win at Indy and seems poised to earn his fifth world championship crown. He has proven to be a master of the Countdown format, winning the last two championship titles.


“Keeping that No. 1 ranking was a big goal and it’s great to get it done because we worked darn hard for it,” said Coughlin, who raced to seven regular season victories in his Chevy Cobalt. “Now we start over, for all intents, and we need to reset and get set for the playoffs. It's going to be a thrill. It’s a six-race dash for the Full Throttle championship. Let me tell you, it’s going to be one interesting battle in Pro Stock.”


Coughlin’s Countdown competition will come from Summit Racing Pontiac teammates and past world champs Jason Line and Greg Anderson, and red-hot Mike Edwards, who claimed 10 No. 1 qualifying positions and three victories during the regular season in his ART/Young Life Pontiac GXP. Others in the 200-mph category who are in the championship mix include Allen Johnson, Greg Stanfield, Ron Krisher, Kurt Johnson, Rickie Jones and Johnny Gray.


Krawiec, who won his ’08 title without winning a race, cleared that obstacle this season by visiting winner’s circle four times on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson. At one point in the season he built a seven-race final round streak. With the consistency he displays on the bike, he certainly has to be considered a heavy favorite to repeat.


If Krawiec is the favorite, then the darkhorse is veteran rider Hector Arana, who won regular season races at Gainesville, Brainerd and Indy on his Lucas Oil Buell. With some engine-building help from veteran Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan, Arana is enjoying the best season of his 19-year racing career and starts the playoffs with a lot of confidence.


“A while back, Larry Morgan told me that he didn’t know if he could help our engine program, but he wanted to take a look at it just to see,” Arana said. “I didn’t waste any time. I took one of our engines, and I didn’t ship it to (Morgan’s shop in) Ohio, I drove it there, and he told me, ‘I think I can make it better.’ That’s when we started to turn the corner. With the Countdown [to 1] coming up, I can assure you that my engines are coming apart, and they are going back to Larry’s before we get to Charlotte.”


Other two-wheel Countdown qualifiers are three-time world champ Andrew Hines, Matt Smith, rookie Doug Horne, Craig Treble, Michael Phillips, Matt Guidera, Shawn Gann and Karen Stoffer.


SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions for the NHRA Carolinas Nationals are scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18 and 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 19. Final eliminations begin at noon on Sunday, Sept. 20.

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 11:30 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, Sept. 19. On Sunday, Sept. 20, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET), and three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET).

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.




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