COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF PICTURE LOOMS HEAVY FOR MANY DRIVERS AT TOYO TIRES NHRA NATIONALS MOHNTON, Pa. -- Late season drama is nothing new for NHRA Funny Car drivers Robert Hight and Cruz Pedregon -- both of whom have had their...
COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF PICTURE LOOMS HEAVY FOR MANY DRIVERS AT TOYO TIRES NHRA NATIONALS
MOHNTON, Pa. -- Late season drama is nothing new for NHRA Funny Car drivers Robert Hight and Cruz Pedregon -- both of whom have had their share of tussles for world championship superiority over the years. Pedregon has won two world championships, including last season, finished second in 1994 and third four other times, while Hight finished second in 2006 and '07. However the two veteran drivers, along with bright-eyed rookie Matt Hagan, and last year's top rookie, Mike Neff, are facing some late season drama this year just to keep their championship hopes alive.
The four drivers are battling for the final two spots in the top 10 point standings in Funny Car, and are separated by 70 points. Mike Neff and Cruz Pedregon are holding on to the ninth and 10th spots, respectively, entering the final two races of the regular season, while Hagan and Hight are on the outside looking in.
NHRA will set playoff fields in all four pro categories following completion of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil on Labor Day weekend. Any driver outside the top 10 after that race will not be in championship contention. Those who make the cut will have their point totals reset in increments of 10 from 10th to first and the first place driver will get an extra 20 point bonus. A six-race playoff -- the Countdown to 1 -- will then take place, starting in Charlotte, N.C. in September and finishing in Pomona, Calif. in November.
But first things first. These four Funny Car drivers know they need a great showing at the 25th annual Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals, Aug. 20-23 at Maple Grove Raceway in order to secure their position in the Countdown to 1. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel); Jack Beckman (Funny Car); Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock); and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event at the scenic Pennsylvania dragstrip, which will be televised by ESPN2 HD.
Hight, who has had his share of struggles this season, had a major curve ball thrown his way in Brainerd when qualifying was cut to three sessions due to inclement weather and his Auto Club Ford Mustang failed to make the starting 16 car lineup. At Reading, his team is employing a different strategy to try and get Robert into the Countdown to 1. He and team owner John Force will switch cars for the final two races. John will drive Robert's Auto Club Mustang and Robert will drive John's Castrol GTX High-Mileage Mustang. Force currently holds down the eighth position and is 78 points ahead of 10th place Pedregon.
"I said I wouldn't shuffle my crew chiefs for three races," Force said, "but I am moving a driver. (At Brainerd I think) I earned enough to get my Castrol Mustang into the Countdown. It's not secure, but it's close enough. To be safe, I should have gone one more round, but I didn't (so) I'm going with what we've got. I have about a 100 point lead with two races to go. Somebody is going to really have to do some damage to catch me, but we've got to get Robert back in the hunt, so I'm going to move Robert over to my car and I'm gonna drive the Auto Club Mustang."
Hight realizes he has a lot of work left to do over the next two races, starting at Maple Grove.
"We caught a break when Tony beat Cruz (in the second round at Brainerd)," Hight said. "That was big for us. We are only three rounds behind Cruz from the 10th spot. We have two races and I am up for the challenge. I have been in pressure situations before and I am confident in my abilities. Not qualifying was tough. Trust me. I want to be out there racing for Auto Club, Castrol, Ford, Mac Tools and the rest of our sponsors. We are not out of this Countdown by a long shot."
Hight says a premium will be placed on error-free racing. One mistake at this crucial point in the season could mean the end to championship dreams.
"It all boils down to doing everything right no matter what racetrack you are at," Hight said. "If you do that, you put yourself in position to win. We definitely need to go rounds. Winning would be nice, and that is what we are going for. What we need is round-wins, and my prediction is whichever one of us has semifinal finishes over the next two races will be in the Countdown."
Pedregon has one win at Reading (1992) and two runner-up finishes. Hight has never advanced to a final round there and it will be Hagan's second look at the track. He made his debut there last year but failed to qualify. Neff advanced to the semifinals there last year during his rookie season.
The favorites in Funny Car at Maple Grove include defending winner Beckman, the trio of season long dominators -- Ron Capps, Ashley Force Hood and Tony Pedregon -- and Tim Wilkerson, the 2003 winner here, who has made a late season charge in his Levi Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang by winning at Seattle and Sonoma. John Force is the winningest Funny Car driver at the track with six victories, his last coming in 2001.
In Top Fuel, Clay Millican holds down the 10th position, but Joe Hartley is within striking distance and as he has proven this season in Houston, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Sonoma and most recently at Brainerd, he is very capable of grabbing round wins. Millican wants to maintain his position in his LifeLockRacing.com dragster and keep his title chances alive in the Countdown to 1. Following Brainerd, 24 points, or a little more than one round, separated Millican and Hartley.
"We let Hartley get one round closer (at Brainerd) . . . and we can't let him get any closer than that," Millican said. "We know what we need to do. We need to qualify in the top half of the field and win as many rounds on Sunday as we can. And then we need to keep doing the same thing. The points are so close. It's still good for us to be in the lead, but we would like to have more breathing room. We'll be concentrating on each one of our runs ... and checking to see what Hartley does, too."
Red hot Antron Brown is the favorite entering the event. He leads the point standings in his Matco Tools dragster with five wins this season, including a sweep of the Western Swing. Defending winner Schumacher is always a threat to win at Maple Grove, where he's won four times since 2003. Doug Kalitta and Cory McClenathan are the only other active Top Fuel drivers on the circuit who have also won here. Others to watch include Al-Anabi Racing driver Larry Dixon, Brainerd winner Morgan Lucas, Brandon Bernstein and rookie Spencer Massey.
Jeg Coughlin, Mike Edwards, Jason Line and Brainerd winner Greg Anderson are the top contenders in Pro Stock, and Coughlin, Line and Anderson are past winners at this track. Two drivers -- 10th place Warren Johnson and 11th place Johnny Gray -- will be racing hard to secure the final spot in the Pro Stock top 10 for the Countdown to 1 playoffs, as they are separated by 46 points.
Defending world champ Eddie Kraweic has been the rider to beat in Pro Stock Motorcycle competition this year, as he has raced to three victories on his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson. His teammate, three-time world champ Andrew Hines, has won twice on his Harley-Davidson and is second in the points order. Both riders are looking for their first Maple Grove win. Matt Smith, Doug Horne, Craig Treble and Hector Arana are also favorites in the two-wheel category. Five riders will be racing to secure their positions in the top 10 points order and make the Countdown to 1, including Shawn Gann, Steve Johnson, Karen Stoffer, Michael Phillips and first-time finalist at Brainerd, Junior Pippin. Only 39 points separate those four riders in positions eight through 11. Pippin, who is in 12th on his PiranahZ Buell, gained major ground in the points with his runner-up finish at Brainerd, but remains a bit of a longshot to make the Countdown as he trails Stoffer by 68.
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions for the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals are scheduled for 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 21 and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 22. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 23.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals by calling Maple Grove Raceway at (610) 856-7200 or via the Internet at www.maplegroveraceway.com.
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 1 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 23. Later on Sunday, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11:30 a.m. (ET), and three hours of eliminations coverage at 10 p.m. (ET).
LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in six categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 20. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 21.