Indy ORP: Round 18 preview

MOMENTUM STRONG WITH FORCE AS POWERADE COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF SERIES BEGINS AT MAC TOOLS U.S. NATIONALS INDIANAPOLIS -- With seven first round losses, and his first DNQ in more than 20 years listed as the highlights of John...

MOMENTUM STRONG WITH FORCE AS POWERADE COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF SERIES BEGINS AT MAC TOOLS U.S. NATIONALS

INDIANAPOLIS -- With seven first round losses, and his first DNQ in more than 20 years listed as the highlights of John Force's first half of the 2007 season, even he looked like he was ready to throw in the towel and start hoping for a better day.

With the added stresses of watching his rookie daughter Ashley earn her competitive stripes in the 7,000 horsepower Funny Car category, and dealing with the tragic loss of longtime teammate Eric Medlen in a testing accident in March, Force appeared to be destined for his worst points finish since his dominance in the category began in the early 1990s.

But with all that going on, who could blame him?

He was as low as 20th in points early on, and following the season's 11th race -- a first round loss at Norwalk, Ohio -- Force was in 15th place and time was running out on his opportunity to make the Top 8 in the inaugural POWERade Countdown to the Championship.

Everyone -- fellow competitors, fans and the media -- had written off the 14-time world champion's chances of making a miracle run.

But Force has proven over his amazing career that includes an NHRA record 125 career victories, that miracles can happen.

Starting at Bristol in early July, Force began his comeback run that included a five-race stretch with three victories, one runner-up finish and a semifinal appearance. He secured his top-eight spot in the Countdown and has moved up to third in the standings following his runner-up finish in Reading.

Now he's in position to earn another POWERade Series world championship and that run will start this weekend in NHRA's first-ever playoff series, the Countdown to the Championship at the world's most prestigious drag race, the 53rd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Aug. 31-Sept. 3. The event, contested at historic O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, is the 18th of 23 races this season and will be televised by ESPN2 with more than 10 hours of coverage.

"I didn't wake up one morning and not know how to drive," said Force, who pilots the familiar Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang, "and (crew chief Austin) Coil and Bernie (Fedderly, co-crew chief) didn't wake up not knowing how to tune a hot rod. We just had some issues."

Exactly what those issues were is still a mystery to the team. However, he said a chassis change at Bristol seemed to make a huge difference. Since then his car has returned to its high-performing self.

"This season has been something," Force said. "Early on I couldn't beat anyone, including that girl named Force, and I remember a while back telling Coil we were pathetic. Something just had us snake-bit, and we never did find what it was. Heading into Bristol, John Medlen got into me and said I needed to start being the leader of this team. Eric [Medlen's] gone, and it was time to get up and do our job. It was hard to get up for the fight, but then the car came around and we got on a roll."

Force says he's more determined than ever to win this championship. Along the way to earning his three victories this season he's dedicated every trophy to the Medlen family and Eric's memory. He would love to dedicate a POWERade Series world championship trophy to the young racer's memory as well.

"We'll just have to see what happens now that we're in the Countdown," said Force, a four-time winner of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and six-time winner of the Skoal Showdown, a special bonus race for Funny Car drivers held during the running of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.

Other Funny Car racers who have qualified for the Countdown to the Championship include season long points leader Ron Capps, who earned three victories in six final rounds in his Brut Dodge Charger, Force teammate Robert Hight, fast-talking and fast-driving New Yorker Mike Ashley, Jack Beckman, Tony Pedregon, Gary Scelzi and category journeyman Jim Head.

In Top Fuel, five-time U.S. Nationals winner Tony Schumacher hopes to turn his past Indy success into a momentum-builder in the Countdown to the Championship. Brandon Bernstein has had an impressive season racing to five victories in his Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster and may be primed to win his first world championship. Gritty Rod Fuller has kept the points lead for most of the season and veteran Larry Dixon has emerged as a top contender this season in his SkyTel dragster.

Greg Anderson has won the last four U.S. Nationals titles in Pro Stock (five overall) and leads the standings in the Countdown to the Championship. He has won seven times this season in his Summit Racing Pontiac GTO. He'll receive his biggest challenge from three-time season winners Jeg Coughlin and Dave Connolly. Coughlin, who drives the JEGS.com Chevy Cobalt, is a past two-time world champ and two-time Indy winner as well.

Matt Smith will try to keep his season-long momentum going after racing to three victories on his Torco Buell. Smith is the defending winner at Indy and was runner-up at the event in 2005. He will open the Countdown to the Championship as the leader and will be challenged by three-time defending POWERade Series champ Andrew Hines, who is looking for his first Indy win on his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, and two-time Indy winner and three-time world champ Angelle Sampey, who rides the U.S. Army Suzuki.

SCHEDULE: The first of five pro qualifying sessions is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 31. Qualifying continues at 1 p.m. and 6:05 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1 and concludes at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 2. Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle eliminations are at 2:15 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8:10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1. Skoal Showdown eliminations are at 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 2. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 3.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 53rd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Call (800) 884-NHRA (6472) for ticket information, or check online at ticketmaster.com, nhra.com and oreillyracewaypark.com.

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise more than 10 hours of coverage of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals beginning with a one-hour qualifying show on Sunday, Sept. 2 at 12:30 a.m. (ET). A three-hour and 30 minute qualifying show will be telecast by ESPN2 at 2 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Sept. 2, along with a one hour qualifying show at midnight (ET). On Monday, Sept. 3, ESPN2 will telecast two shows, with three hours of early eliminations coverage at noon (ET) followed by another three-hour final eliminations show starting at 7 p.m. (ET). NHRA Race Day, ESPN2's popular magazine show that covers the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, will feature one show live from ORP during the event at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Sept. 2.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Greg Anderson , Jack Beckman , Brandon Bernstein , Andrew Hines , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight , Rod Fuller , Angelle Sampey , Dave Connolly , Matt Smith