BUNYANESQUE OPPORTUNITIES AWAIT IN BRAINERD BRAINERD, Minn. (August 9, 2010) -- Just to the west of downtown Brainerd, in the strip mall-centric town of Baxter, Minn., stands a forlorn reminder of days gone by in this beautiful part of the Land...
BUNYANESQUE OPPORTUNITIES AWAIT IN BRAINERD
BRAINERD, Minn. (August 9, 2010) -- Just to the west of downtown Brainerd, in the strip mall-centric town of Baxter, Minn., stands a forlorn reminder of days gone by in this beautiful part of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The giant statue of mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, which was for many years the central icon of a former Baxter amusement park, now stands guard over the front entrance of a nearby bowling alley, with his axe unceremoniously replaced by a bowling ball. Even if the legend of Bunyan and his sidekick Babe the Blue Ox is therefore somewhat sullied in this vacation mecca, the reality of this weekend's NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway provides its own large-scale set of focal points as the Full Throttle "regular season" portion of the schedule comes to a close. The racing this weekend may not be literally "larger than life" but it is apt be thrilling, in a super-sized way.
With all but one of the Countdown positions in the Funny Car class clinched, much of the drama will center on the three-way battle between Tony Pedregon, Jeff Arend, and Cruz Pedregon as they settle the ownership of the 10th and final playoff spot this weekend. What will also be up for grabs, however, for Tim Wilkerson and the rest of the playoff field, is the final order of the Top 10, and the seedings that order will provide when the Countdown commences over the Labor Day weekend at the Mac Tools US Nationals in Indianapolis. The only inescapable fates that will be decided this weekend will belong to the three aforementioned drivers fighting for the final spot, but all of the Countdown drivers can have their championship odds impacted in Brainerd.
Wilkerson, the driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang, currently sits in the No. 6 spot in the points, and he might just be the driver with the chance to move the most in the standings, whether that be up if things go well, or down if they do not. With a microscopic 4-point lead over Bob Tasca, and just a 25-point lead over Ashley Force Hood, Wilk could slide as far as 8th place with any kind of stumble. In addition, Del Worsham, who currently sits in the 9th position, could catch and pass Wilkerson with a very good day, as he sits 66 points behind the LRS driver.
Looking up the sheet, Wilk has his work cut out for him if a northerly move is the mission, but the 5th spot is clearly not out of the question and the No. 4 position is still mathematically within reach. Wilk would need to gain three rounds on Ron Capps to stake a claim to the 5th slot, while he would need the sort of "perfect weekend" that brought with it a high qualifying spot, a slew of bonus points, and perhaps 4th-place holder Jack Beckman getting lost on the way to race track, for him to move up to 4th. With the possibility of entering the Countdown anywhere from 4th to 9th, Wilkerson's fortunes are clearly in play.
"We got hot earlier by winning two in a row after the final round in Bristol, but we've hit a few speed bumps at the last two races," Wilkerson said. "Every week, you kind of reset your thinking as to how high you can get, or how low you might fall, so at least it's good to know we're in the Countdown and we know we have a shot at the championship. We still want to go into it on the best roll we can be on, and we'd like to finish the regular season as high as we can in the standings, so that's the mission this weekend in Brainerd.
"We were in a tough spot when we started that hot streak, sort of like having our backs against the wall, so I like to think that we thrive under pressure. I know that's a worn-out statement, like 'there's no tomorrow' or something like that, but we did go to Bristol in danger of falling out of the Top 10 altogether, and we immediately went on a run where we went 11-1 over three races. This is that sort of moment again, so I wouldn't count us out when it's crunch time. Someone in the class is going to stand up and chop 'em down like Paul Bunyan, so it might as well be us."
With references to Brainerd's version of Bunyan now presiding over the entrance to a bowling alley aside, the pressure to step up and get after it when the greatest reward is on the line will be with the Funny Car class from this point forward. First, there is the matter of settling the playoff order in Brainerd before the Countdown begins. From that point forward, every lap can have championship implications. It doesn't get any more pressurized than this.
"We've been there, and we know what it's like," Wilkerson said. "Most of this team went through it, as a group, when we went all the way to the last day of the season to settle the championship in 2008. I was proud of them then, when they never let that get to them and they did the work as if it was just another day, and I'm even more confident in them now with all the added experience they have. I wouldn't trade these guys for anyone.
"The key is to do as well as we can in Brainerd. If we move up, that's great. If we slip a few, that's not the end of the world. You can make up a lot of points in just one race during the Countdown, and we have six playoff races to work with. Like I said, the object is to build some confidence and feel good about the race car by the time we leave Minnesota. That's the main goal."
The main goal of many Brainerd/Baxter residents might just be to relieve their iconic Paul Bunyan statue of his current bowling alley gig. For Tim Wilkerson, the main goal is to step up and chop 'em down, just like Paul Bunyan.