Cory Mac shakes off career calamities, locks up berth in Countdown to One

He won the first NHRA national event in which he competed. He has survived at least three explosive and potentially deadly accidents in Top Fuel dragsters. He has finished second in the NHRA championship standings four times but has yet to win a POWERade title. He has won the prestigious U.S. Nationals twice, was the first driver in NHRA history to score an elapsed time in the 4.70-second range (a top speed of more than 320 mph) and finished in the top 10 in his rookie Top Fuel campaign. He has driven for no fewer than six team owners -- including his own family.

Cory McClenathan, undaunted, continues to race ahead.

On Sunday at the 27th Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway in Brainerd, Minn., the 45-year-old veteran drag racer came up short to teammate Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel final, just missing the 31st event title of his lengthy career. It would have marked his second victory of 2008, but his runner-up finish did move him from fifth to fourth in the POWERade standings.

What really matters to McClenathan is that he has locked up a berth in the Countdown to One following the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in three weeks in Indianapolis and thereby has earned another shot at that elusive world championship that has evaded his grasp since he made his Top Fuel debut in 1991.

"We've had great years, and we've had not-so-great years," said McClenathan, who won Top Alcohol Dragster honors at his first NHRA national event in 1989. "But you have to accept the ups and the downs in this sport if you're going to devote yourself to it. If I thought for one moment that there was no way I could win the championship, I'd find something else to do.

"But whatever that would be, I wouldn't love it as much as what I'm doing right now."

McClenathan's career has been brilliant but not without its price. A devoted father, his racing duties have required long absences from his daughter, Courtney, now 18. Serious racing accidents in 1993 in Rockingham, N.C., in 1999 in Gainesville, Fla., and in 2006 in Bristol, Tenn., could have been career-ending mishaps, but despite the pitfalls, McClenathan -- whose nickname, "Cory Mac," is one of the NHRA's most familiar sobriquets -- remains determined to win Top Fuel's premier prize.

"Driving as a part of Don Schumacher Racing has really given my team a solid chance at a championship," McClenathan said. "When you're with a major league operation such as this one, you can do things the way every racer wishes they could, and that helps you to bring a confident attitude to the job.

"We still have to do our jobs and keep up our end, but that's a lot easier to do when you have the people at DSR backing you."

Despite all the distractions throughout his career, McClenathan proved Sunday he still is a racer to the core and nearly kept five-time champion Schumacher from locking up his 50th career victory in the Brainerd final.

"Cory is a guy who makes our team better just having him racing as a member of our operation," Schumacher said. "That final round could have just as easily gone his way, and we knew we had to be at our best to get that win. We won the race, but DSR was the big winner today with both Cory and I making it to the final round."

Schumacher and McClenathan's Funny Car teammate Jack Beckman almost added to the DSR festivities.

Beckman fouled out in the final round against reigning POWERade champion Tony Pedregon, giving Pedregon his fourth win of the season and nudging him from third to second in the POWERade points. Pedregon is one of four Funny Car drivers who have clinched Countdown to One berths.

"This is the toughest Funny Car era to be racing in," said Pedregon, who beat veteran Jim Head, Melanie Troxel and 14-time world champ John Force to advance to the final. "This is my first win at Brainerd, and I'm really happy to win here. Every round today was a big challenge to me, and the toughest was racing John Force. He's a great competitor, and it was a tough race, like I thought.

"There's never a dull moment racing him. Our car preformed well today, and we had great conditions. I'm just happy to win a race here today and give great entertainment to all these great fans."

Native Minnesotan Kurt Johnson gave those fans something to rock-and-roll about in Pro Stock.

Johnson picked up his third win of 2008 by outrunning Sonoma, Calif., winner Dave Connolly in the final round, 6.671 seconds at 207.05 mph to 6.696/206.29. The win moved KJ to within 56 points of standings leader Greg Anderson and assured Johnson of a strong seed in the upcoming Countdown to One.

"This was a super great day today," said Johnson, who lived in Minnesota for 18 years before relocating to the Atlanta area. "We were a little behind at first and kept working on it, and the car kept getting faster and faster. We had to make some small changes today, but overall, our Chevrolet was pretty flawless.

"We get pumped up to race here with all of our friends and family that come out, and it does add some pressure, but you just have to perform. Once I get inside the car, it's really easy to focus."

However, it's a little tough to focus -- no matter what kind of race vehicle you're aboard -- when you're fighting the effects of kidney stones. Somehow, reigning POWERade Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith battled through the discomfort of lower back pain all weekend and raced his way to his third event title of '08 when his final-round opponent, Angelle Sampey, lost fire in her Rush Racing Buell while she was staging and couldn't restart.

"To win the race was amazing," said Smith, who beat Jim Underdahl, Craig Treble and David Hope in earlier rounds. "We debuted a brand-new bike this weekend, and it ran great. To be the No. 1 qualifier and win the race, that says it all. It was a really fast bike. We'll get these kidney stones cleared up and be ready for Reading."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.