ST. LOUIS – After two races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship six pack, 11 points or less separate the top two drivers in three of the four categories.
However, in the class where there’s a sizeable lead – Funny Car – the drama seems to just be taking shape. Matt Hagan holds a 51-point lead over Dallas winner Cruz Pedregon, and only 12 back of Pedregon sits red-hot Robert Hight, who won back-to-back races at Indy and Charlotte in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. A mere one point away from the 2009 champ in fourth is the 15-time world champ, John Force, who used a runner-up finish in Dallas to get knee-deep into the title mix.
As the Countdown to the Championship heads to the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, Sept. 27-29 at Gateway Motorsports Park, expect the playoff excitement to intensify as teams realize their time to make a move toward capturing championship glory is evaporating. Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the race that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
That sense of urgency is especially heightened in Funny Car, where the competition has been incredibly close all season.
“Hagan didn’t move on any of us,” Force said. “Now it is all jammed up. Cruz is two, Robert is three and I am four. It is all a matter of who gets on a roll. Right now Robert is on a roll. He won the last two races and (at Dallas) they lost a motor. The ignition was on fire in the second round and they had to change motors before the semis. That is like starting all over without qualifying. They smoked the tires, but (crew chief Mike) Neff, I drove for him, he runs it right on the edge. Robert is Cool Hand Luke.”
While Hight may be the odds on favorite to win another title in Force’s eyes, it has been Virginia cattle rancher Hagan’s amazing turnaround and incredible consistency with veteran crew chief Dickie Venables that has been the surprise story of the year.
Hagan, who has led the series standings since early June at the controls of his 8,000-horsepower Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger, opened the playoffs with a runner-up finish in Charlotte, but exited in the second round in Dallas. He saw his lead drop from 82 to 51 and he knows the sharks are hungry and circling in the water.
“It’s like anything; you can’t get your head down,” Hagan said. “You win as a team, you lose as a team and you move forward as a team. I’m looking forward to getting to the next race. (Dallas) is behind us now and we just have to keep digging deep and working hard.”
In Top Fuel, the two drivers who are tied for the series lead met in the final in Dallas and Doug Kalitta outran Shawn Langdon to grab his first victory in more than three years. The win couldn’t come at a better time for the Mac Tools dragster driver as he now sets his sights on earning a first world championship title.
“I am glad to get back in the winner’s circle,” said Kalitta, whose last win came in 2010 at Denver. “It’s been way too long. I can’t say enough about my Mac Tools team. Those guys are the best in the business and deserve all the credit. We’ve had such a great hot rod all year long, so I’m glad to see we finally sealed the deal for all my guys.
“Hopefully, this is a good precursor for the rest of the Countdown.”
Meanwhile, Langdon entered the playoffs as the top seed, but was upset in the first round at Charlotte. His Al-Anabi Racing team rallied to make the final round at Dallas, but came up a bit short in the final to Kalitta. Those two drivers share the lead and are two points ahead of Spencer Massey. Charlotte winner Morgan Lucas is 35 points back in fourth place and the seven-time champ, Tony Schumacher, is still within striking distance in his U.S. Army dragster, 88 off the lead.
Langdon raced to five victories during the regular season and had his brightest moment at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals when he swept the event, winning the prestigious race and the $100,000 Traxxas Nitro Shootout all-star event. Langdon says in this title hunt, patience is the key.
“We’ve been making good runs since the Countdown began; we just haven’t gotten a win yet which is not disappointing because we know the Al-Anabi car is capable of winning,” Langdon said. “We are just waiting for our time. We head to St. Louis tied for the points lead, and that’s all we can ask. We just want to be able to have control in our hands; we don’t want to leave it up to anyone else. As long as we feel we have a shot, we have the control. If we win the race, we leave with the points lead, and that’s all we can ask.”
In Pro Stock, only eight points separate the top two drivers, Jason Line and Jeg Coughlin, both multi-time world champions. Another former world champion, Mike Edwards, is in third place, 34 points back, and he leads the category in victories this season with six.
Line has been the surprise of the playoffs, powering his Summit Racing Chevy Camaro to the No. 1 qualifying position and runner-up finish in Charlotte and then scoring his second victory of the season at Dallas in convincing fashion. Line entered the playoffs with only one win and no top qualifying efforts and very little momentum to speak of. Now his team is showing that it may have the stuff to grab a third world championship title.
“To go from where we were two months ago to being here is a small miracle and a testament to all of our KB Racing guys and all the Summit Racing folks,” Line said. “There has been a lot of effort. We have worked harder than we have in a long, long time, that’s for sure. It’s good to see it starting to pay off.”
Hector Arana Jr.’s lead in Pro Stock Motorcycle has been trimmed to 11 points and 2007 champ Matt Smith is chipping away at it aboard his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell. Smith advanced to his fifth final round of the year at Dallas. Dallas winner Krawiec, in fourth place, has also emerged as a late-season title contender on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, along with third place Hector Arana Sr., the No. 1 qualifier in Dallas.
Arana Jr., who has posted a pair of semifinal finishes in the playoffs on his Lucas Oil Buell, realizes the road to winning his first world championship title is going to be filled with tough challengers.
“It’s going to be a fight to the finish,” Arana said. “I knew it was going to be a long, hard Countdown, and these first two races have done nothing to change my mind. We’ve all got to dig deep and keep battling.”