Lucas and Tasca teetering on wrong side of Countdown cutoff

Morgan Lucas has been locked out of the coveted top 10 for 11 national events in 2008. NHRA

The rules are clearly stated. Try as you might, you won't find much wiggle room or a weasel clause in the NHRA POWERade code of competition that might help you dodge a statistical bullet. There's no room for doubt. Period.

Only the professional drivers who are among the top 10 points earners at the conclusion of the Countdown to 10 will advance to the Countdown to One, thus securing eligibility in the final stage of the championship determination process.

For Top Fuel driver Morgan Lucas and Funny Car pilot Bob Tasca III, the significance of that dictum is taking on greater dimension as the final three races of the Countdown to 10 loom ahead.

Following last weekend's action in Sonoma, Calif., Lucas finds himself in 11th place in the POWERade standings, only nine points behind Doug Kalitta. Tasca holds onto the 11th spot in the Funny Car points, trailing Jack Beckman by 42. With the next three stops on the NHRA schedule coming up in Brainerd, Minn., Reading, Pa., and Indianapolis, time is running out for Lucas and Tasca to shoulder their way into the playoff picture.

Lucas has been stuck in the 11th spot since the fifth race of the year, the April event in Las Vegas. He sat as high as fourth following his semifinal finish to begin the season in Pomona, Calif., but he has now been mired outside the top 10 for 11 national events. For the young owner/driver who is teamed with friend J.R. Todd on his two-car operation, the strategy in place to squeeze into the Countdown to One is a simple one.

"It kind of goes back to that phrase 'God hates a coward,''' said Lucas, who on Tuesday announced he had hired veteran tuner Jimmy Walsh to handle his setup calls for the remainder of the season.

"Jimmy's going to start running my car," Lucas said. "That might add a pretty cool mix to things and hopefully Jimmy can bring a performance advantage over. Maybe even get us further than just 10th or ninth, maybe get us around that ninth spot so we have a little cushion. We know we've got to be aggressive about getting the round wins and trying to make our own destiny, trying to basically block out Dave Grubnic or Doug Kalitta. These are priorities for us."

But reaching those goals will require a much better report card than the one he and Todd recorded on the recently completed Western Swing. Over the course of the Denver-Seattle-Sonoma triathlon, both drivers tallied a total of only two round wins, essentially snuffing any reasonable chance for Todd to climb into the top 10.

"The Western Swing is brutal on us, just like it is for everybody else," said Lucas, who scored the only two round wins the team snapped up out west. "It's a fun set of races. But, you know, it's almost like who's going to last the most to kind of go the rounds. Our main goal and focus right now is just getting one if not both cars in the top 10. I know for J.R., it's almost impossible at this point. But we're going to work our butt off to make sure it happens."

Tasca, whose family has been associated with NHRA drag racing for the past six decades, has seesawed in and out of the top 10 all season. The rookie driver began '08 at No. 5 after a quarterfinal showing at the season-opening event in Pomona, then dropped all the way down to 17th following a DNQ at the next race in Phoenix. Seven events later in Topeka, Kan., he managed to slide back up into the No. 10 slot, but his 0-for-3 scorecard for the just-completed Western Swing tripped him back to 11th.

"We need to be more consistent if we want to get back into the top 10," said Tasca, who moved from Top Alcohol Funny Car to nitro Funny Car this year. "We've had our share of frustrations this season, and it definitely hurt our chances for making the Countdown to One when we struggled on the Western Swing.

"But we still have three races left to make up the distance we need, and all it takes are some round wins to build up our confidence and give us the momentum we need to race the way we know we're capable of."

In hindsight, Tasca recognizes how impressive his qualifying record overall has been in his freshman season. Out of 15 events, he has failed to qualify only once, has six top-half starts and qualified an F/C career-best No.2 in Topeka. But the key to making the Countdown to One is how well he and his team fare on race day.

"We've done very well on Fridays and Saturdays this season," Tasca said. "We just need to get it together on Sunday. It's only a matter of time. You've just got to stick to your game plan. You've got to race the racetrack and forget who is in the other lane."

But in the final analysis, Lucas and Tasca are both only three NHRA POWERade events removed from one of two possibilities: either an invitation to participate in the championship tournament reserved for the top 10 drivers in their respective categories, or a disheartening mathematical snub that will keep them from racing forward for the sport's biggest prize.

There are no other options.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.