Surprises should keep on coming

Last weekend, the Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Denver was an NHRA POWERade event which tossed surprise after surprise at drag racing fans everywhere.

In the nitro classes, the new D2300 Goodyear tire's debut had much to do with the inconsistency suffered by many of the pacesetting teams in Top Fuel and Funny Car, evidenced by some unlikely winners and remarkable performances by relatively unheralded teams.

Now, this weekend, at the 17th CarQuest Auto Parts Nationals at Pacific International Raceway outside Seattle, the nitro classes will be running an 85-percent maximum of nitromethane -- a five-percent decrease -- and that could lead to more surprises as teams will be making more adjustments. Plus, a newly paved racing surface will also throw another curve at the three professional teams taking to the PIR track.

Here's a preview.

Top Fuel
The points battle for the 2004 championship has a long way to go and there are now three different drivers -- Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta and Brandon Bernstein -- who will most likely be the genuine contenders with 10 races remaining in the season.

Schumacher's final round appearance last week gave him the points lead after Doug Kalitta held it for one event while Brandon Bernstein's unfortunate foul in the semi's to eventual race winner Scott Kalitta exacerbates a recent stretch in which early-round losses have been a problem.

As mentioned previously, the new tire and fuel changes will play a huge role in the final outcome of this year's championship run and previous performances -- either this year or in past Seattle appearances -- will most likely be irrelevant. The teams and drivers that can master the new rules will benefit the most and Seattle will be a critical test for those chasing the '04 title.

Funny Car
John Force took the points lead a month ago in St. Louis but his second round loss in Denver prevented him from padding his points lead -- especially in light of early exits by his two closest pursuers, Whit Bazemore and Del Worsham. But again, what will the new tire and new 85-percent rule do to the direction of the 2004 F/C championship saga?

The weather will not present ideal racing conditions, either. Sunny skies and temperatures in the 90's throughout the weekend will make the new track surface even more uncooperative, and as we saw in Denver, the big swingers in the class may watch the teams from the second division take advantage with soft setups.

Funny Car will continue to be a thoroughly wide-open affair if or until one team can string several victories together, which has been rare this season. Nobody envies the crew chiefs this weekend who have to find quick and consistent tuneups on a green racetrack.

Pro Stock
Steve Johns, and to a lesser extent Dave Connolly, have shown signs of getting to within striking distance of the man who has taken charge of Pro Stock, Greg Anderson. But that's as far as Johns and Connolly have come. Anderson's seemingly unstoppable ramble from race to race continues, coming off an absolutely crushing performance in Denver. He won his 10th race out of 13 national events this year and did so with a brand new, practically untested Pontiac Grand Am. That's impressive.

The point has been reached where if Anderson doesn't win a race, it's front-page news. He has solidified his driving skills, rarely beats himself, and still has a racecar that's anywhere from 2/100's to 5/100's of a second quicker than everyone else's.

A new wrinkle in Pro Stock? Other than the game of catchup being played by Johns and Connolly, right now, there isn't any. Anderson's thunderous superiority is stunning to witness.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.