JOLIET, Ill. -- This weekend, the NHRA POWERade series heads to Route 66 Raceway outside Chicago for the 4th Carquest Auto Parts Nationals. This venue has been a hotspot of performance in the cool, early autumn conditions that racers find here.
And with the Pro Stock POWERade championship having been clinched last week in Dallas by Greg Anderson, all eyes will be on two nitro classes as the points leaders in Top Fuel and Funny Car hope to move closer to wrapping things up on Sunday.
Here's a pre-race rundown on the three professional classes racing this weekend.
Tony Schumacher's 2004 has been his most dazzling as a pro, with eight wins now in his pocket and a 217-point lead over second-place Doug Kalitta. Schumacher's most recent win in Dallas last week was as well-executed as any he has tallied this year and his dominance in the championship struggle has been based on both quickness and consistency.
Although he can't clinch in Joliet, another factor in Schumacher's favor is that Route 66 Raceway is his home track -- located not too far from his Long Grove, Ill., home while his father, Don, operates his huge battery charger conglomerate from his Chicago headquarters. The upshot? The Schumachers and tuner, Alan Johnson, aren't about to let their daunting lead take a hit here if at all possible.
John Force's third redlight of 2004 last week in the Dallas semifinals might have been more disastrous if Gary Scelzi (and to a lesser extent, Whit Bazemore) had not lost in the previous round. Both Scelzi and Bazemore may have kissed away whatever chances they had -- however remote -- to catch Force. Instead, the 12-time champion left Dallas with a bigger points lead than he arrived with: 228.
This weekend represents the first of four more events in the season. All Force must do is what he has been doing since the second half of the season began. Qualify strong, advance to at least the semifinals, and avoid leaving himself vulnerable. Like Schumacher, he can't clinch in Joliet, but he won his record-breaking 86th career national event here in 2000 and his legendary tuner, Austin Coil, is a Chicago native. Look for Force & Coil to set up title No. 13 this weekend.
With the 2004 POWERade crown already on ice, Greg Anderson's only remaining quest for this season is an all-time record 14th national event win -- something he would have already had if his second-half numbers were as overwhelming as his first-half seasonal stats. But with Dave Connolly now able to nearly match Anderson's performance level (three wins out of seven final rounds), there is still some drama surrounding Anderson's push for No. 14.
Also, who finishes the season in the POWERade top 10 is still an open question for several drivers, including six-time champion Warren Johnson. That's where the real battle will be fought in the final four races.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.