A Countdown free-for-all in Las Vegas
With two races remaining in the NHRA Countdown, both Top Fuel and Funny Car could have first-time champions.
Then again, maybe not.
Both nitro categories are enjoying playoff battles to remember, with several drivers still in contention for the title in each class.
Antron Brown leads the Top Fuel standings, and Jack Beckman is on top in Funny Car heading into this weekend's event on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Brown and Beckman are hoping to earn their first championships, but both crowns are a long way from being decided.
"I've been in this sport for 21 years, but I've never been in a championship battle like this," said Top Fuel contender Del Worsham, who is fourth in the standings but only 51 points behind Brown. "It's exciting to be in my first real championship chase."
The Top Fuel standings had a major shake-up in the last event at Phoenix, when Spencer Massey entered the race as the points leader but failed to qualify.
It was hard to swallow for Massey, but this is one of the great aspects of NHRA racing compared to NASCAR. No one gets a freebie. You take your chances on making the show at each event.
The good news for Massey is he's still in it. He's third, only 25 points behind Brown heading to Las Vegas.
"We're putting it behind us, like it didn't even happen," Massey said of the DNQ. "It was a fluke. It was terrible, but not devastating. We are still less than two rounds from first place.
"In addition, we found the issue that hampered us in Phoenix and fixed it. And we think we have one-upped everyone else for Vegas because we came right here [after Phoenix] and spent last Monday testing. We've got a bunch of extra runs on this track under conditions we believe will be just like race day, so we might just have a slight advantage."
Massey, a 29-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, native, is a teammate of Brown at Don Schumacher Racing. Massey also hopes to become a first-time champ, as does Worsham, who is racing in Top Fuel for the first time in 16 years after spending most of his career in Funny Car.
But all three of them will have to beat the old pro and defending champion, Larry Dixon, who won at Phoenix to pull within 20 points of Brown.
"With the way things fell in Phoenix, we couldn't have picked up any more points than we did," said Dixon, who turned 45 on Sunday. "But there are four other guys that have the same shot we do.
"I think the last two races will be a lot of fun. Being in a position to win a championship is all I've ever asked to have, just a shot at it. We have a shot, and we're going to do everything we can."
Either Dixon or Tony Schumacher has won the past nine Top Fuel championships. Schumacher is fifth in the standings, 91 points behind Brown and probably too far back to have a realistic shot at it.
So it boils down to a four-man fight between two teams -- Brown and Massey at DSR, and Dixon and Worsham at Al Anabi Racing.
"We've been an aggressive team throughout the season," Brown said. "We go after it every race, never letting up on ourselves or the competition. We've got the points lead, but we won't go the rest of the way in a defensive mode. We're going to play to win rather than play not to lose."
Beckman feels the same way. After four consecutive years of finishing in the top five in the standings, he could win his first Funny Car title at age 45.
We go after it every race, never letting up on ourselves or the competition. We've got the points lead, but we won't go the rest of the way in a defensive mode. We're going to play to win rather than play not to lose.” -- Antron Brown
"I've always said I wanted to be able to control our destiny," said Beckman, who won at Phoenix to take over the points lead. "I don't know what we have to do to win the championship. What I do know is we are going to approach these last two races the same way we have done all year. If we have to step it up, we know how to take the steps to do so."
Beckman is only five points ahead of Matt Hagan, the runner-up for the title last year. Hagan had the lead entering the final event of 2010 but lost in the first round and had to watch John Force move ahead of him to earn his 15th championship.
Hagan said he isn't putting any pressure on himself this time.
"I could bite my nails all day long," Hagan said. "But at the end of the day, what do you have? A hand that hurts. It won't do you any good in the race car.
"Every year is different. You learn from your successes and your mistakes. We learned a lot about this sport during last year's Countdown and during this season so far. I think we're a better team for it."
Beckman and Hagan want that first championship. So does Mike Neff, who is third, only 22 points behind Beckman.
But two former champs also have a chance to win the 2011 title -- Cruz Pedregon (48 points back in fourth) and Robert Hight (58 points back in fifth).
"No one over here is hanging their head," said Hight, the 2009 champion. "We have as much of a chance to win this championship as any of the other drivers in front of us."
Winning at Vegas could be the key to winning the Funny Car title. The man who won the fall Vegas event went on to win the championship in the previous four seasons.
Hight and Neff are teammates at John Force Racing. Beckman and Hagan both drive for DSR. How a driver does against a teammate could decide the title.
"You always hear a round win is a round win and they're all equal," Beckman said. "But that's not true in the Countdown. When you race someone you're fighting with [for the title], it's really a potential 40-point swing -- the 20 you get for winning and the 20 you deny him. Those are must-wins."
They're all must-wins now for the nitro contenders. And considering how many drivers still have a chance at a championship, both classes could come down to the final round of the final event at Pomona, Calif., on Nov. 13.
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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