The 9th Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., a short hop from St. Louis, is the acknowledged halfway point of the 2005 NHRA POWERade season.
Over the first 11 races, it has been a common theme among the title contenders in all four professional categories to de-emphasize the importance of the points standings.
Now, that has changed.
There are genuine cliffhangers in progress in all four pro classes for the '05 POWERade championships, and as the St. Louis Arch symbolizes the gateway to the west, the race this weekend at Gateway International Raceway equally represents the gateway to this year's Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle crowns.
Here's an overview of this weekend's event.
The indelible images of last year's tragic accident at this race, which took the life of Darrell Russell, will weigh heavily on the minds of the NHRA community this weekend. During special ceremonies on Saturday, a section of Gateway's grandstands will be named after the popular Top Fuel standout who was killed in last year's first-round of action.
But when racing gets underway on Sunday, Doug Kalitta (the defending event champion) and Tony Schumacher will feel the heat from Larry Dixon's Miller Lite team dogging them for the first time this year. Schumacher and Kalitta have been inconsistent over the first half and that's prevented them from pulling away in the points.
While the No. 1 and No. 2 drivers in the standings have been exchanging blows, Dixon has won enough rounds and avoided costly premature exits to pull to within 68 points of first-place Kalitta and 62 points of Schumacher thanks to his thoroughly uncanny fifth consecutive victory on Father's Day last weekend in Englishtown, N.J.
The forecast for Madison this weekend is for lots of sunshine and scorching temperatures. Finesse will win this race, not overall power, and there has been more than one major upset in the opening round of this race in the past eight years. Kalitta and Schumacher are great, but not infallible, while Dixon needs another race like Englishtown to solidify his program.
Bottom line? Watch for the underdogs to make the overdogs uncomfortable on Sunday, including Doug Herbert, who will be tuned by Wayne Dupuy, Russell's former crew chief who tuned the Joe Amato-owned dragster for the past three years-plus.
John Force has a real fight on his hands with two other drivers for the Funny Car points lead. The downside is that Gary Scelzi (the 2004 winner at Gateway) is one of them. Scelzi's first half has been filled with highs and lows, but he remains a scant 62 points behind Force. The upside is that the other driver is Force's rookie teammate Robert Hight, who has been as impressive a newcomer to the category as any in recent memory.
The rest of the POWERade top 10 are holding onto triple-digit deficits that they'll be trying to whittle down as the second half of '05 gets underway. Force and Scelzi are the two key players at present, and while any of the other racers in the top 10 could make a big move with a strong outing in Madison, nobody has yet shown the week-to-week strength necessary to rattle the top two drivers. But a 125-degree racetrack on Sunday could make a supporting player into a leading man in a matter of moments.
Warren Johnson, Jason Line, Greg Anderson. The three-way brawl for Pro Stock bragging rights seems to have narrowed with those three drivers holding the face cards. Dave Connolly has slipped to a distant fourth in the standings, and the drivers who sit in positions five through 10 will need miraculous performances from here on out to move into contention.
But in reality, the real firepower in Pro Stock appears to be at the top. Johnson's 2005 has been light years better than his 2004, and he's in this fight to the bitter end. Line has one of the quickest and fastest cars in the class and his teammate, Anderson (last year's winner), has shaken off a sleepy start to '05 and has rebounded impressively.
Can three class-leading drivers all simultaneously go into reverse and allow someone from the second division to leap over them? That's not likely and only Connolly has a decent shot at regaining some ground on the three leaders this weekend. But with only 13 points separating WJ and Anderson, you can expect any meaningful shuffling to potentially happen up there.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Last week in Englishtown, N.J., Antron Brown finally served notice that he'll have a role in this year's championship picture. His win at the Supernationals was the shot in the arm his U.S. Army team has needed after seeing a panoply of riders -- Steve Johnson, GT Tonglet, Karen Stoffer, Chip Ellis and Ryan Schnitz -- bag victories this season.
Only 76 points divide the category's top five riders and the mix of machines heading to the winner's circle since Gainesville has been remarkably equitable between Suzukis and V-Rods: Gainesville/Houston/Englishtown=Suzuki; Atlanta/Columbus/Chicago=V-Rods.
Last year, Steve Johnson scored his first career national event win in the shadow of Darrell Russell's death. In 2005, the PSB class has become as wide-open as any in the pro ranks. Should another rider break through for his first trip to the winner's circle this year, the hope is that tragedy won't taint another Gateway celebration.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.