Western Swing kicks off with Mopar Mile-High Nationals

Last week in Bristol, Tenn., the NHRA POWERade Series made the ground shake in Thunder Valley, beneath the broad-shouldered hills surrounding Bristol Dragway. This weekend, the drag racing will move 5,000 feet higher into the atmosphere and onto the storied quarter-mile of Bandimere Speedway, carved into the bedrock of Thunder Mountain outside Denver for the 28th Mopar Mile-High Nationals.

This will be the fourth of a marathon six races in six weeks while at the same time touching off the 2007 Western Swing -- the annual western march from Denver to Seattle to Sonoma, Calif., in consecutive weeks. Also thrown into this challenging stretch is the fact that only five more national events remain in the first qualifying stint for the new Countdown to the Championship.

With so much energy intensifying this year's Western Swing opener, the action on Thunder Mountain this time around will be driven by an extra shot of adrenaline in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Here's a preview:

Top Fuel

It could be safely stated that Brandon Bernstein's 2007 has been a series of fits and starts. The current No. 2 driver in the POWERade standings has been either unbeatable or thoroughly stoppable throughout the previous 12 events, but last week's victory in Bristol -- his fourth of the year -- couldn't have come at a better time.

Not primarily because of the need to overtake Hot Rod Fuller for the points lead, but rather to have a consistent combination in place as the Countdown to Four looms ahead. Racers who are in an even more critical position when it comes to racking up round wins include Melanie Troxel, Cory McClenathan and Whit Bazemore, who are hovering at or around the No. 8 spot.

Keep in mind the unique nature of Bandimere Speedway on the outskirts of the Rocky Mountains and its flimsy oxygen content. Fuel tuners will be hauling out every trick at their disposal to help restore the lost horsepower suffered by engines operating at 5,000-plus feet above sea level. Denver typically is a showcase of surprises, and predicting this weekend's outcome will be tough.

Funny Car

John Force's win last week in Bristol emphasized the close scramble for Countdown spots among drivers both above and below the No. 8 spot. Force is only 63 points from the 8-hole, despite the fact he's 13th in the standings -- tied with Jeff Arend. Look at the points differences among the top 15 in the Funny Car points and the picture becomes more dramatic. There simply isn't a lock to be found anywhere except at the very top of the standings heading into this weekend's race at a track that has been known to throw curve after curve at every crew chief.

Gary Scelzi returns as the defending event champion but his 2007 has been anything but a career year. Points leader Ron Capps and his closest pursuer, Robert Hight, have been quiet of late, while Ashley Force must now regroup after last week's DNQ and edge her way back into the elite eight. It's Jack Beckman who now defends that No. 8 spot and there's a swarm of opponents who will be out to take that spot away from him in Denver.

Pro Stock

The Swing has traditionally been a mixed bag for this category. Only the heroics of Greg Anderson in 2004 with his Western "Sweep" broke from the usual pattern of various drivers sharing the spotlight at the three consecutive races. The first stop in Denver will, as usual, be the biggest performance hurdle of the three since the rarefied air at Bandimere saps the 500-cubic-inch carbureted engines of precious horsepower.

If the first stage of the Countdown were to end today, such Pro Stock regulars as Warren Johnson, Greg Stanfield, Richie Stevens and Jim Yates would be out of the running. However, should any of those racers pull together a successful run on the mountain this weekend, the current closeness of the points standings practically guarantees they would improve their ranking considerably.

Dave Connolly was last year's Denver winner and his Victor Cagnazzi-owned team has shown that it knows how to win this season as well. Connolly and teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. have now combined for six straight final-round appearances, and although Team Summit, with three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson and his wingman, reigning champion Jason Line, is still on top of its game, the Countdown format this season appears to favor a Ken Black Racing/Cagnazzi Racing showdown.

Watch for a graphic example of that this weekend.

Pro Stock Motorcycle

The "Hogs" love the "Hill."

The big-displacement Harley-Davidson and Buell V-Twin engines have won the last three races at Bandimere. The deep-breathing domestic engines have consistently taken to the mile-high conditions with less of a power drop than the high-winding Suzukis.

After a slow start to '07, three-time PSM champion and defending Denver winner Andrew Hines is the hottest item in the category with two wins out of the last three races wrapped around a runner-up finish in Englishtown, N.J. He'll be riding a crest of momentum this weekend and will be looking to snuggle up a little closer to the two riders ahead of him in the standings: Angelle Sampey and points leader Matt Smith. Half a dozen spots below him, you'll see a serious dogfight for the Countdown brackets still in question between Steve Johnson, Peggy Llewellyn and Antron Brown.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com