Brainerd: Round 16 preview

UNCERTAINTY ONLY CONSTANT IN NHRA POWERade SERIES AS MARCH TO PLAYOFFS CONTINUES BRAINERD, Minn. -- When the NHRA POWERade Series Countdown to the Championship was first announced in 2006, the motorsports world was forced to...


BRAINERD, Minn. -- When the NHRA POWERade Series Countdown to the Championship was first announced in 2006, the motorsports world was forced to change its way of thinking about the world's fastest motorsport.

Suddenly, teams that would never have challenged for world championship titles were possible contenders, and the previously solid leads larger, structured teams had stood on for years became a little shifty. In an instant, the hopes of some of the most elite racers in the world depended on something as fragile as a bubble -- and bubbles burst.

The NHRA POWERade Series comes to Brainerd International Raceway Aug. 7-10 for the 27th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. While seven drivers can rest easy knowing their playoff tickets are punched, the event comes at a crucial juncture for the teams that have, including Brainerd, three more events to crack the Top 10 playoff fields in all four professional categories before the end of the regular season.

In Top Fuel, Doug Kalitta, driver of the Mac Tools dragster, is hanging on to playoff contention by a mere nine points entering the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals -- and Morgan Lucas, driver of the Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster, is ready to hunt him down in the comfort of his sponsor's race, with the help of just-hired tuner Jimmy Walsh.

"It kind of goes back to that phrase 'God hates a coward,'" Lucas said. "You know, we know we've got to be aggressive about getting the round wins and trying to make our own destiny, trying to basically block out (team Kalitta drivers) Dave Grubnic or Doug Kalitta. These are priorities for us. But you have to also go a level ahead. You have to compensate, but you've got to know there's still a chance. You just basically have to put the extra work in. And as far as from the driving aspect, you know the team has put the actual work in."

Only two Top Fuel drivers have so far clinched their spots in the Countdown to the Championship: Tony Schumacher, who has dominated the category with an astonishing eight wins so far this year, and Antron Brown, who surprised nearly everyone with his immediate success after crossing over from Pro Stock Motorcycle to Top Fuel just this year. The rest are in limbo.

In Funny Car, independent team owner/driver Tim Wilkerson is the only one to secure his spot in the Countdown. Wilkerson, who has won four events so far in 2008 with an alliance with team owner Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, is trailed by John Force Racing's Robert Hight, who currently sits in the No. 2 spot. What's been a surprise is the lack of success thus far by Don Schumacher Racing's Funny Car teams - currently, DSR's highest-seeded driver is Ron Capps, and he's in the seventh spot. Jack Beckman, driver of the Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge Charger R/T is on the bubble at No. 10.

"I'll give you a perfect example of why NHRA is ruining the drivers' lives with this Countdown format," Beckman said. "Our team, we went into Seattle in 10th place, won one round of racing, left in 10th place. (Under the) Pre-Countdown format, it would have been a completely disappointing weekend. We didn't achieve our goals of making it to the final round and winning the race.

"Now that NHRA has implemented the Countdown and increased the level of excitement, now we're starting to look at crumbs as being more important. In Seattle, we didn't accomplish our goals. By the three cars behind us losing first round, we actually left with a bigger points lead. Then the exact same thing happened in Sonoma. Typically two second-round losses in a row would be a major letdown for any team like ours. But it actually was a small sense of accomplishment for us simply because we stretched our points lead in there. I think that's the excitement that this Countdown generates."

Excitement...or stomach aches, depending who you ask. In Pro Stock, three drivers have clinched their spot in the Countdown to the Championship -- Summit Racing Equipment teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line, and Kurt Johnson, ACDelco's son and protege of Warren "the Professor" Johnson. Lately eyes have been on Dave Connolly, whose remarkable charge from parked to two trips to the winners' circle has truly been astonishing. Connolly sits just 52 points inside of playoff contention entering the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Andrew Hines is the lone rider to claim a spot so far this year. Just behind him are Matt Smith, the defending NHRA POWERade Series world champion, Chip Ellis, Chris Rivas and Matt Guidera, who have each won at least one event in 2008.

* SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2:45 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 8. Qualifying continues at 11:15 and 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 9 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 10.

* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. Call (866) 444-4455 or check for details.

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 8:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 9. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 10. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 10.

* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in six categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA POWERade Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 7, with eliminations starting on Aug. 9 at 9 a.m.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kurt Johnson , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Tim Wilkerson , Jack Beckman , Chris Rivas , Morgan Lucas , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Matthew Smith , Chip Ellis , Robert Hight , Matt Guidera