Richmond: Saturday qualifying report

COUNTDOWN TO 1 FIELD BEGINNING TO FILL OUT AS FOUR MORE DRIVERS EARN BERTHS Schumacher, Dixon, Fuller and Tony Pedregon all clinch berths in the Countdown to 1 DINWIDDIE, Va. -- On the strength of his 45th career No. 1 qualifier Saturday at the...

COUNTDOWN TO 1 FIELD BEGINNING TO FILL OUT AS FOUR MORE DRIVERS EARN BERTHS
Schumacher, Dixon, Fuller and Tony Pedregon all clinch berths in the Countdown to 1

DINWIDDIE, Va. -- On the strength of his 45th career No. 1 qualifier Saturday at the Second annual Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals, Tony Schumacher joined three other drivers in clinching their berths in the Countdown to 1, the two-race championship that marks the end of the NHRA Playoffs.

The Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals is the fourth and final race in the first round of the NHRA Playoffs, which will halve the field of eligible championship contenders from eight to four. There remains one spot open in the Countdown to 1 in Top Fuel, three in Funny Car and two in Pro Stock and those final berths will be set at the conclusion of Sunday's race, which begins at 11 a.m. ET.

The other drivers to clinch Saturday were Larry Dixon and Rod Fuller in Top Fuel and Tony Pedregon in Funny Car.

The fourth and final berth in Top Fuel will be the subject of a monster first round matchup Sunday between Brandon Bernstein's fourth-place Budweiser team and Bob Vandergriff's fifth-place UPS team. Bernstein enters the race with a 27-point cushion meaning Vandergriff would have to beat him and win another round (each round win is worth 20 points) to move past Bernstein and secure the fourth and final playoff berth.

"It's pretty exciting for our team," said Vandergriff, who qualified 15th with a 4.645 to Bernstein's 4.549. "I wish we could have qualified better but we're here and our destiny is in our hands now. You couldn't ask for more." Bernstein is 6-0 lifetime versus Vandergriff.

Also in play in Top Fuel is Whit Bazemore's Matco Tools teasm. Excluding national records, if Vandergriff beats Bernstein and loses in the second round, the door would be open for Bazemore to bump both Bernstein and Vandergriff by winning the race, but before that happens all eyes will be on the Bernstein-Vandergriff matchup.

"If you could write the script, you would put Vandergriff and Bernstein together in Round 1," Schumacher said. "That's going to be huge. Those two guys need to go to bed early and do their push-ups because this is a round that could define their careers. Me? I'm gonna go smoke a cigar."

Rounding out the top qualifiers Saturday were Funny Car's Tommy Johnson Jr. and Pro Stock's Jeg Coughlin, the latter of whom effectively put another round between himself and his nearest pursuer (fifth-place Jason Line) in the fight to make the fourth and final berth in the Pro Stock Countdown to 1.

In the race to make the Funny Car Countdown to 1, Ron Capps and Gary Scelzi have moved into a tie for the fourth and final berth (Scelzi owns the tiebreaker). As the 15th qualifier with a 4.901, Capps has the toughest first-round draw as he'll face No. 2 qualifier Robert Hight (4.790) in the opening round. Scelzi qualified eighth with a 4.849 and will race non-Countdown racer Del Worsham in Round 1.

Seven points out of fourth place, Mike Ashley qualified third with a 4.797. Currently third in the points, "Fast Jack" Beckman is fifth here with a 4.835.

Intent on holding onto his top-four ranking so he can advance to the final stage of the Countdown, Coughlin did all he could do in qualifying with a Round 2 blast of 6.645 at 207.27 mph in his JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt, the quickest and fastest run of the weekend in the class.

"We'll take every point we can get at this point," Coughlin said. "It's time to slit their throats and lock up one of these spots. We have to go rounds because any of the guys behind us could cause trouble if we don't take care of business. We need to come in here tomorrow and race smart, race aggressive, and turn on some win lights."

The monster match-up of Sunday's opening round in Pro Stock will feature No. 3 points earner Allen Johnson against sixth-place Kurt Johnson. A.J. qualified sixth with a 6.659 in his Mopar Dodge Stratus, while K.J. earned the 11th spot on the grid with a 6.681 in his ACDelco Chevy Cobalt.

Other Countdown to 1 hopefuls include Larry Morgan (eighth with a 6.663) and Jason Line (10th with a 6.671).

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Kurt Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , Larry Morgan , Tommy Johnson , Brandon Bernstein , Allen Johnson , Jason Line , Mike Ashley , Bob Vandergriff , Robert Hight , Rod Fuller