MEDLEN LOOKING TO RIDE MOMENTUM AS INTENSE NHRA POWERADE SERIES FUNNY CAR CHASE RACES INTO ULTRA-FAST TEXAS MOTORPLEX ENNIS, Texas -- This isn't Eric Medlen's first rodeo. As a champion calf-roper during his high-school days in Oakdale,...
MEDLEN LOOKING TO RIDE MOMENTUM AS INTENSE NHRA POWERADE SERIES FUNNY CAR CHASE RACES INTO ULTRA-FAST TEXAS MOTORPLEX
ENNIS, Texas -- This isn't Eric Medlen's first rodeo.
As a champion calf-roper during his high-school days in Oakdale, Calif., Medlen was fast on a horse and quick with a rope.
For eight years as a key crew member for John Force's world-class NHRA Funny Car team, Medlen earned multiple world championship accolades for his vital contributions to the team's performance.
So, as the second year driver eyes his first shot at an NHRA POWERade Series world championship ring from the driver's seat of one of Force's Ford Mustangs, he isn't feeling much stress. The high-pressure, high-stakes atmosphere that would make some of the world's most stone-faced poker players break out in a sweat doesn't seem to rattle the energetic young driver.
Not that Medlen is as pompous to say that he's been there, done that. But with a quick glimpse at his resume, you can see that he has.
"Being on a successful team for so long, nothing really numbs you anymore," said Medlen, driver of the Castrol Syntec Mustang. "You know what you have to do, and it's just about getting it done. As a crew member on John's team there were years when we clinched it early and some years when it was long from over and we had to stay after it until the end. For me, I am just focused on winning a couple more races. If I can do that, I think the championship will take care of itself."
Medlen, winner of three of the last six races, hopes to continue his momentum at the 20th annual O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec, Sept. 22-25 at the Texas Motorplex. The $1.5 million race is the 20th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. Tony Schumacher, Del Worsham and Dave Connolly are the defending event winners of the race, which will be televised on ESPN2.
Medlen, who has emerged in the late stages of the season as one of the hottest Funny Car drivers on the circuit, joins team owner Force, teammate Robert Hight, series leader Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps, in what promises to be one of the greatest shootouts for the POWERade Series world championship in NHRA history.
Of the five drivers in contention, Force is the dominator, having won 13 championship crowns since 1990, and although currently third in the standings (31 back of Scelzi), he is still highly regarded as the favorite. Scelzi, who pilots the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Stratus, knows what it takes to win it all, supported by his three NHRA Top Fuel world championship titles and his status as an elite member of the four man group to hold the series points lead in both of NHRA's nitro categories (also Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein and Ed McCulloch). Capps, currently fifth overall in his Brut Stratus (82 points back), has come close to knocking off Force on two occasions (1998 and 2000) for world championship glory, and posted second place points finishes. Like Medlen, Hight, who has nearly locked up the Auto Club Road to the Future award for the series' top rated rookie, also is taking his first shot at the big time from inside the cockpit. Hight, who drives the Auto Club Mustang, is currently second in the series standings, trailing Scelzi by 26.
After a rocky start that included several first round exits, Medlen was as low as ninth in the series standings early in the season. He feels just being in the hunt for the title is a bonus.
"After the first half of the season we had no expectations because the car wasn't very consistent," said Medlen, currently fourth overall, 76 points behind Scelzi. "We were fed up with the car and broke it down to bare bones, reworked a few things and basically developed a new combination in the middle of the year. The car started coming around, and most importantly, it began to respond to the changes that my dad (crew chief John Medlen) and the team were making. That is what is exciting for me about the last few races and the races that are coming up."
Medlen began his charge to the front at Seattle where he defeated Hight in the final. He followed that performance with a top qualifying effort at Brainerd and another victory, this time over his boss. At Memphis, he outran Capps in the final to notch his third victory of the season. He posted second round exits at Sonoma, Indianapolis and Reading.
During that stretch Medlen moved from eighth to fourth in the standings, averaging more world championship points -- more than 85 per race -- than any of his closet challengers.
"To be in the thick of things now is really incredible for this team," Medlen said. "I think the stretch of races coming up is going to be real pivotal. We will be racing on some good tracks and hopefully will have good weather. Whenever you have three races in a row it really puts pressure on all the teams to perform at a high level. Those with the most heart and determination usually prove to get the most out of those situations. It's a lot of work for the team and it can be miserable, but we're up for the challenge."
It's a challenge which could easily not be decided until the last round of the last race of the season.
"At some point you think one car is going to break away from the pack, and we've all been looking for it, but so far no one has been able to do it," Medlen said. "I am pretty sure with the way things have been going that (the championship) might come down to the final at Pomona (Auto Club NHRA Finals)."
But first, Medlen has some business to attend to at the sport's first 'SuperTrack' -- the Texas Motorplex.
"The car has always run good there," Medlen said. "As far as performance goes, it gives you a great opportunity to post some numbers. As a driver you have to be on your game to keep the car in the groove. And as far as history, there have been a lot of great things happen at that track over the years and a lot of championships have been clinched there."
Medlen would like to add his own bit of history to the famed Texas quarter-mile drag strip, the nation's only all-concrete layout.
"Texas is just cool because everything there is big," Medlen said. "The race is big and this year the stakes are big. Plus, that's the one place where you can say ya'll and everyone knows what you mean."
In Top Fuel, the series points chase is also intense. Schumacher, who won Sunday's Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals in Pennsylvania, holds a 100 point lead over Larry Dixon. Doug Kalitta is in third, 105 points back. All three drivers have won at the Motorplex. Other drivers to watch in the category include Texas A&M graduate Brandon Bernstein, "Aussie" Dave Grubnic, Rod Fuller, who drives for Houston-based David Powers Motorsports and Morgan Lucas, who drives for NHRA legend Joe Amato.
Greg Anderson has raced to seven victories this season to continue his stronghold over the Pro Stock category. The two-time and defending POWERade world champion has received a strong challenge this year from Kurt and Warren Johnson, who have each won three races and are currently second and third, respectively, in the points order. Others to watch in the 200 mph category include Connolly, Jason Line and Richie Stevens, who posted a runner-up finish at the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals two weeks ago.
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4:30 and 7 p.m. on Sept. 23. Qualifying continues at noon and 3 p.m. on Sept. 24. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sept. 25.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals. Call Texas Motorplex at (800) 668-6775 or (214) 373-8000 for ticket information, or check online at texasmotorplex.com.
ON TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of qualifying of the O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals at 4 p.m. (ET) on Sept. 24. ESPN2 will televise two hours, 30 minutes of final eliminations coverage beginning at 11 p.m. (ET) on Sept. 25.