Choosing Countdown winners tough
Del Worsham, a man driving a Top Fuel dragster for the first time in 16 seasons, will start the NHRA Countdown on top as one of the Top Fuel favorites, but not the only favorite.
Mike Neff, who wasn't driving any race car a year ago, is the leader in Funny Car to start the six-race playoff.
The Countdown field was set Monday at Indianapolis in the U.S. Nationals. Neff and defending Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson were two of the winners. Anderson is the only 2010 champ who starts the Countdown on top.
Antron Brown defeated Worsham in the Top Fuel final at Indy. Brown starts the playoff No. 2, but he's on a roll and appears ready to challenge Worsham for the title.
And 19-year-old rookie Hector Arana Jr. was the surprise winner in Pro Stock Motorcycle. He starts the Countdown fifth, 60 points behind leader Eddie Krawiec.
Race No. 1 of the playoff is less than two weeks away at Bruton Smith's so-called Bellagio of drag strips, zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C.
So I'll bravely handicap my top five in each pro category (10 drivers in each class make the Countdown), along with listing one dark horse.
Del Worsham (pick-em): Al-Anabi Racing boss Alan Johnson was right about moving Worsham from the Funny Car to go to a two-car dragster team. Worsham has six victories this season in the car that teammate Larry Dixon drove to the championship last year. Top equipment with a great team is all Worsham needed to shine.
Antron Brown (pick-em): Brown sent a clear message to the Al-Anabi boys Monday at Indy, beating Dixon in the semifinals and Worsham in the final. Brown means business. He now has five victories this season, only one less than Worsham. But Brown has won three of the past four events. It's a toss-up between the two of them.
OK, if you ask me to choose, I'll go with Worsham for one reason. He has Alan Johnson, the man who knows more about Top Fuel dragsters than anyone alive.
Larry Dixon (7-to-1): Still dangerous as the defending champ, but he has only one victory all season. A repeat doesn't appear likely.
Tony Schumacher (10-to-1): Almost impossible to believe he is winless this season. The seven-time champion has come close to winning several times, but he's fifth in the standings and third among the three Don Schumacher Racing dragsters.
Spencer Massey (20-to-1): He really stepped up this season in his first year at DSR, winning three events. But I'm not convinced he's ready to challenge for the championship.
Doug Kalitta (dark horse): Only because he's a three-time runner-up to the title, but it's a huge long shot this time. No one outside of the Top Fuel super teams of Al-Anabi or DSR has any shot at the 2011 crown.
Mike Neff (4-to-1): Neff took over the seat of the championship team he tuned last year and made it better. He has five victories in the car that boss John Force drove to the title last year, and Neff continues to work as crew chief for the flopper. He has help with the tuning, but the dual role could wear on him down the stretch in the playoffs.
Robert Hight (7-to-1): Neff's biggest threat comes from his teammate at John Force Racing. Hight is one of the best drivers in the NHRA. He won the title two years ago after barely making it in the Countdown, so he knows how to get it done in the playoff, and he has four victories this season.
Ron Capps (10-to-1): This is a guy I believe could make a big playoff run and surprise a lot of people. The NAPA Dodge team has completely turned things around since adding Tim and Kim Richards as the tuners. Capps won at Sonoma and had one of the best cars at Indy. They are a real contender now and the other teams know it.
Jack Beckman (15-to-1): Fast Jack definitely can wheel a flopper, but his team hasn't won since the Atlanta event in May.
John Force (20-to-1): It hasn't been a great year for the 15-time champ, but you never count the old man out. He's driving the car that daughter Ashley (a new mom now) drove last year to third in the Countdown.
Cruz Pedregon (dark horse): Cruz didn't look like a serious contender in 2008 when he started the Countdown, but he won the last three events to take the title. He started the playoff fourth that year, the same place he starts this one.
Yes, I know. I didn't pick Matt Hagan, the man who lost the championship to Force in the final event last year. But Hagan hasn't won this season.
Greg Anderson (1-to-2): Anderson managed to win the 2010 title after his house burned down and his team owner suffered a stroke. If he could win his fourth championship under that type of adversity, a fifth one should be a cinch.
Jason Line (3-to-1): The man with the best chance to challenge Anderson is his Summit Racing teammate. Line has four victories this season. The 2006 champ also is the tuner on Greg's car, so you know the equipment is equal, but can Line outrun Anderson in the end?
Vincent Nobile (10-to-1): At age 19, Nobile is a rising star in the NHRA and a candidate for rookie of the year honors with his friend Hector Arana Jr., 22. Nobile has two victories this season and is one of the best leavers in the class. Other drivers fear him because of his reaction-time skills at the line. But he stepped on it a little too hard at Indy, red-lighting in the second round.
Mike Edwards (15-to-1): A wily veteran who won the title in 2009. He has a car with huge horsepower, which often makes the difference in Pro Stock.
Allen Johnson (20-to-1): Johnson knows his business. He spent some time earlier this year teaching Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch how to drive a Pro Stock machine. But Johnson probably doesn't have the team to challenge Anderson and Line.
Erica Enders (dark horse): Soon will become the first woman in history to win in Pro Stock. If she figures it out a couple of times in the Countdown, watch out.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
LE Tonglet (2-to-1): Became the youngest NHRA champ in history last year at age 20. No reason to believe he can't do it again at age 21, but he'll start the playoff No. 2, 30 points behind Krawiec.
Eddie Krawiec (3-to-1): Very confident guy who believes this is his year. He won the title in 2008 and has finished in the top three each of the previous three seasons.
Andrew Hines (7-to-1): A three-time champion who has finished in the top four in seven consecutive seasons, but he has one only victory this year.
Karen Stoffer (10-to-1): She won this year at Denver and has raced well all season. Stoffer will start the Countdown in third.
Matt Smith (15-to-1): The 2007 champ won this year at Englishtown and starts the playoff fourth.
Hector Arana Jr. (dark horse): When the first victory of your career comes at the Big Go in Indy, it has to give you confidence. The Purdue student has learned his craft from his dad, Hector Sr., who won the 2009 title. Senior also is in the Countdown, starting seventh.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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