Richmond: Round 21 preview

TIGHT POINTS RACES WILL GIVE VIRGINIANS A SNEAK PEAK AT THE COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP EXCITING, MULTI-TEAM CLASHES PROVIDE THE DRAMA IN POWERADE SERIES GLENDORA, Calif. (Oct. 2, 2006) -- Apparently the drivers in the NHRA POWERade ...

TIGHT POINTS RACES WILL GIVE VIRGINIANS A SNEAK PEAK AT THE COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP

EXCITING, MULTI-TEAM CLASHES PROVIDE THE DRAMA IN POWERADE SERIES

GLENDORA, Calif. (Oct. 2, 2006) -- Apparently the drivers in the NHRA POWERade Series couldn't wait for the Countdown to the Championship playoff-format that was announced at the U.S. Nationals and will debut in 2007.

Sensing the all-or-nothing drama that lies ahead in 2007, the NHRA POWERade Series drivers, most notably those in Top Fuel and Funny Car, have laid the groundwork for an intense, playoff-like countdown to this year's championship, which will culminate Sunday, Nov. 12 at Pomona.

Given the current system, this year's points races are about as deep and competitive as would be conceivably possible, and Virginians will get a firsthand look as the NHRA POWERade Series returns to Richmond for the first time since 2000 with the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals, Oct. 6-8 at Virginia Motorsports Park. The $1.5 million race is the 21st of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

The NHRA POWERade Series has historically all but crowned its champions on Labor Day -- 83 percent of the points leaders after Indy have gone on to win championships -- with the final quarter of the season turning in many cases into a victory tour.

But the days of the NHRA victory tour are numbered, if not already a thing of the past.

The drivers exiting Indy with the points lead in 2006 -- Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) -- may well hoist the championship trophy, but the road to Pomona will be anything but a victory tour for them and their respective teams.

And that is particularly true in the nitro classes where the list of contending drivers grew by 50 percent after Indy with the results at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals in Dallas and the Toyo Tires Nationals in Reading.

What appeared to be two-team races in the NHRA POWERade Series nitro classes turned into three-team races as Brandon Bernstein (Top Fuel) and Robert Hight (Funny Car) inserted themselves into championship contention rather emphatically with impressive wins at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals.

"I know no one in the media has asked me about (competing for the POWERade Series championship)," said Bernstein, who now has four wins and a category-best seven final rounds. "But within the (Budweiser/Lucas Oil) team, I kept telling the guys we just needed to stay consistent and keep plugging away. Now I think everyone knows what we already knew: We have a race car that can win the (POWERade Series) championship."

It was Hight's second consecutive win and he almost made it three in a row at Reading but he was stopped in the final there by Phil Burkart. Hight enters the final three events just 35 points back of father-in-law and NHRA icon John Force, who is back in first place; Ron Capps is in second place and trails Force by a point.

Each round achieved in Sunday final eliminations is worth 20 points with a minimum of 20 going to first-round losers and a maximum of 100 going to the winner.

Here are the top contenders with four races remaining (Reading Sept. 29-Oct. 1, Richmond Oct. 6-8, Las Vegas 2 Oct. 26-29 and Pomona 2 Nov. 9-12):

TOP FUEL
1. Doug Kalitta, Ann Arbor, Mich., Mac Tools dragster (5 wins) 1,440
2. Tony Schumacher, Long Grove, Ill., U.S. Army dragster (3) 1,388 (-52)
3. Brandon Bernstein, Lake Forest, Calif., Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster (4) 1,378 (-62)

FUNNY CAR
1. John Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., Castrol GTX Ford Mustang (2) 1,387
2. Ron Capps, Carlsbad, Calif., Brut Dodge Charger R/T (5) 1,386 (-1)
3. Robert Hight, Anaheim Hills, Calif., Auto Club of So. Calif. Ford Mustang (3) 1,352 (-35)

PRO STOCK
1. Jason Line, Terrell, N.C., Summit Racing Pontiac GTO (3) 1,453
2. Greg Anderson, Charlotte, N.C., Summit Racing Pontiac GTO (2) 1,397 (-56)

Bernstein really helped his own cause immensely with a second-round win over Kalitta at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals. The round-win not only propelled Bernstein on to his eventual victory, but just as important it kept Kalitta from gaining any more points. Had he lost to Kalitta, there could have been a 120 point swing in the standings and Bernstein would have been all but eliminated.

The son of six-time POWERade Series champion Kenny Bernstein has flown under the radar most of the season, but he won't be able to sneak up on anyone anymore as he, like Kalitta, seeks his first POWERade Series championship. Schumacher, meanwhile, has won the last two championships and three overall.

Hight, the 2005 Auto Club Road to the Future winner, will no longer be able to play possum either as his back-to-back wins have launched him from afterthought (he was in fifth place, 219 points back of Capps) to legitimate title contender. No sophomore jinx here.

Capps and Hight are looking for their first POWERade Series championships while Force, winner of four of the six previous NHRA events in Richmond, has won an NHRA-record 13 POWERade Series championships.

The Pro Stock class is a bit more clear with teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson setting the pace in their Summit Racing Pontiac GTOs. The only surprise is that it's Line and not Anderson, the latter of whom has won the last three Pro Stock championships, leading the way.

Also of note in the Pro Stock class is the return of two-time POWERade Series world champion Jeg Coughlin. The popular Ohioan will be returning to action for the first time in almost a year, driving the Slammer's Milk Chevy Cobalt for Victor Cagnazzi.

Coughlin won the last NHRA Pro Stock race in Richmond, back in 2000. Before that, the track had been dominated by the second-winningest driver in NHRA history, Warren Johnson (96 wins), who like Force has won four of the six NHRA events held in Richmond.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 6. Qualifying continues at noon and 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 7 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals. Call Virginia Motorsports Park at (804) 862-3174 for ticket information, or check online at ticketmaster.com.

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying of the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals at 10 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, Oct. 7. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA 2Day, a 30-minute weekly news magazine show, at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Oct. 8. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise three hours of final eliminations beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Oct. 8.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Kenny Bernstein , Warren Johnson , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Phil Burkart , Brandon Bernstein , Jason Line , Robert Hight