Countdown getting tighter
Things move quickly at 320 miles per hour, so it's no surprise that the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series' six-race Countdown to the Championship is already approaching the halfway point.
It seems like yesterday that the Countdown field of 10 drivers for each of the four NHRA professional classes was finalized at the Chevrolet Performance Nationals in Indianapolis. But it was actually three weeks ago, and two of the six Countdown events have already been run, shaking up the pecking order established in the regular season.
Round three is the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals, which take place this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park outside of St. Louis (Eliminations coverage Sunday Sep. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2 and WatchESPN). And with only six rounds to work with, a solid performance at Gateway could make or break a championship campaign.
Three of the four categories feature close championship battles within 11 points. But perhaps the most intriguing potential fight is in Funny Car, where Matt Hagan holds a 51-point lead over Cruz Pedregon, but Robert Hight threatens after backing up his win in the US Nationals with a triumph at the Carolina Nationals to open the Countdown. Hight is 63 points off of Hagan's total, while his boss John Force is just one additional point adrift.
"It's all jammed up and it's all a matter of who gets on a roll," said 15-time Funny Car champion Force.
Hagan led the category with four event wins in 2013, and he realizes that another victory or two will be necessary to prevail in the Countdown.
"Right now we are kind of averaging semifinal finishes and we just have to keep moving forward," the 2011 Funny Car champion said. "We need to have a little luck along the way.
"The biggest thing is you can't worry about points until after Vegas [the penultimate round at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Oct. 24-27]," added Don Schumacher' Racing's top Funny Car pilot. "I know we are, but we can't concentrate on them. At the end of that race, you'll know if you're in it or you're not."
The Top Fuel championship battle couldn't be any closer: Doug Kalitta and regular-season points leader Shawn Langdon are tied, with Spencer Massey just two points behind.
Kalitta and Langon met in the finals at Dallas with Kalitta prevailing for his first event victory in three years.
"It's been way too long," Kalitta said. "We've had such a great hot rod all year long, so I'm glad to see we finally sealed the deal for all my guys.
"Hopefully, this is a good precursor for the rest of the Countdown."
Langdon led Top Fuel with five wins in 2013, but his Countdown got off to a slow start with a first-round exit at Charlotte. He bounced back with the final-round loss in Dallas.
"We've been making good runs since the Countdown began," Langdon said. "We just haven't gotten a win yet, which is not disappointing because we know the Al-Anabi car is capable of winning."
Massey is keeping DSR in the championship hunt after Tony Schumacher suffered a first-round loss in Charlotte and is 88 points back. That was still better than defending Gateway champion Antron Brown, who DNQ'd at Charlotte and lies eighth in the standings.
"It's crunch time and I'm excited," Massey said. "This is what I've dreamed about since I was a little kid. We've got four more chances to get a Wally [trophy] and we're ready."
Another close battle exists in Pro Stock, where Jason Line has ridden a hot start in the Countdown (one win, one final) to the top of the championship standings. But Dallas winner Jeg Coughlin and perennial frontrunner Mike Edwards are within 34 points.
Line, the 2006 and 2011 NHRA Pro Stock champion, wasn't happy with his regular season but has found his form at just the right time.
"Timing is everything." Line said. "To go from where we were two months ago to being here is a small miracle and a testament to all of our KB Racing guys and all the Summit Racing folks. We have worked harder than we have in a long, long time, that's for sure. It's good to see it starting to pay off."
Hector Arana Jr. leads the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings, but he's got his hands full with challenges from his father as well as Matt Smith.
Arana Jr., made the semifinals at Carolina and Dallas, yet Smith has trimmed the 30-point margin he entered the Countdown with to 11 points. Arana Sr. and Dallas winner Eddie Krawiec are within striking distance.
"It's going to be a fight to the finish," Arana Jr. said. "I knew it was going to be a long, hard Countdown, and these first two races have done nothing to change my mind. We've all got to dig deep and keep battling."
There's a chance of rain on Saturday for final qualifications, but the Sunday forecast is ideal for speed with predicted cloud cover and temperatures in the 70s.