What has happened to Doug Kalitta?
Few drag racing fans will ever forget one of the most frequently played pieces of videotape ever shown by ESPN2 from the 2006 Auto Club Finals in Pomona, Calif. It was there in the final round of Top Fuel eliminator where Tony Schumacher pulled off the near impossible by setting a new national record in his final-round victory over Melanie Troxel and slipping past Kalitta by 14 points for the '06 POWERade championship.
The highlight clip catches the face of Kalitta at the moment Schumacher's win light illuminates. The polite, understated racer and nephew of his team owner, NHRA legend Connie Kalitta, looked stunned, resigning himself to the reality that his first career Top Fuel title had just been snatched from his grasp.
Schumacher would again wait until the season's final matchup to win championship No. 5 last year, this time ambushing "Hot Rod" Fuller on the last day of the '07 season. Kalitta's 2007 was a far cry from his 2006 spreadsheet, showing only one win out of two final-round appearances and a 10th-place points finish -- his worst showing since making his T/F debut in 1998.
"We're struggling and we can't deny it," said Kalitta, whose team remained in Gainesville, Fla., at the conclusion of last weekend's AC Delco Gatornationals to conduct a series of test passes after suffering a demoralizing DNQ.
"It's been tough. We know that our Mac Tools car can be one of the most dominating cars on the tour, so it's definitely been frustrating, but I think we've taken the right steps now to get everything figured out and get back to the level of performance we know we're capable of."
Kalitta's stat sheet for 2008 is a train wreck. In this year's first three races, he has qualified 14th, 13th and missed the field. He has two first-round losses (both to Schumacher) and is 14th in the POWERade points. Crew chief Jim Oberhofer is as baffled as anyone as to why there has been so large a performance shortfall in the Mac Tools dragster this year, and the decision to spend Monday testing in Gainesville before the next race in Houston in two weeks was a no-brainer.
"Basically, we decided we needed to go back and take a look at every system and component on the car," Oberhofer said. "We needed to start from scratch and just try to identify where the problem areas are. After testing, we think we've learned what the car needs and what's been keeping us off our game."
Meanwhile, Schumacher has now won two out of the first three races on the schedule and is already in a midseason groove with 21 events remaining.
"Even though Doug and his team are struggling right now, I know what that's like and I know a good team like theirs can turn it around," Schumacher said. "If you begin to take them lightly because of their tough start this year, you're in for trouble because they're still capable of beating you any time they pull up into the other lane. There's a lot of racing left to go this year and all it will take is a couple of wins to put them back into the hunt."
Unless Kalitta and his crew escape their current quagmire and begin to win rounds, find consistency and run up their point total, the 2008 Top Fuel championship could very well be decided much sooner than the concluding pass of the year. And this time, the outcome might not involve them.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.