DEFENDING CHAMPION SMITH CRANKING IT UP AS 2008 COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP REGULAR SEASON TURNS FOR HOME INDIANAPOLIS - Matt Smith waited until the last pass of the 2007 to win his first career POWERade Series world championship. If the past...
DEFENDING CHAMPION SMITH CRANKING IT UP AS 2008 COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP REGULAR SEASON TURNS FOR HOME
INDIANAPOLIS - Matt Smith waited until the last pass of the 2007 to win his first career POWERade Series world championship. If the past month or so is any indication, he may not be so patient in 2008.
With wins in three of the last four races, he has moved into first place and leads second-place Andrew Hines by 73 points entering the 18th and final regular season race, the 54th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. The prestigious race will be held Aug. 27-Sept. 1 at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis and televised by ESPN2HD (Qualifying: Aug. 31 at 12:30 a.m.-1:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. ET; Race: Sept. 1 at Noon-2 p.m. and 7-10 p.m. ET).
"Taking over the points lead is huge because you get (the 20-point bonus) for being No. 1," said Smith, who rides the Nitro Fish Buell. "We're peaking at the right time."
A new wrinkle in the playoffs this season is a 20-point bonus for finishing in first place during the regular season. So when the points reset at the conclusion of the regular season, while there will be only a 10-point margin between riders 2-10, there will be a 30-point margin between the first- and second-place riders.
The NHRA playoffs, the Countdown to 1, begin Sept. 11-14 with the
Carolinas NHRA Nationals at Bruton Smith's state-of-the-art zMax dragway
Concord and consist of six races (five in PSM) culminating at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona Nov. 13-16 with the 44th running of the Auto Club NHRA Finals.
Smith had not been lower than third place this season, but he had not led the standings until he passed Hines en route to his win at the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals Aug. 17 in Reading, Pa.
"I'm just glad to be able to run for a championship again. We're going to try and win every race that we can. If we can get far enough ahead of everybody, then it's going to be hard for them to all catch us," Smith said.
Heading into Indy, Smith and Hines are solidly in the Countdown to 1 along with Chip Ellis, Angelle Sampey, Chris Rivas, Eddie Krawiec and Matt Guidera.
That totals seven riders, which means there are three berths left to be clinched and heading into Indy there are four riders looking to stake a claim to those three spots: Craig Treble (554 points), Steve Johnson (541), Karen Stoffer (487) and Hector Arana (475).
The good news for Treble and Johnson is they are past winners of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals so they will have history on their collective side. That, and the fact that they are 79 and 66 points clear of 11th-place Arana.
Which means that barring a DNQ or a perfect storm of events on Monday, Treble and Johnson are locked in and that leaves essentially two riders for one spot.
Arana did collect his first career win this season - at the Summit Racing NHRA Nationals in Norwalk - so he knows how to get there, but he's still four wins behind Stoffer overall. Stoffer has five career wins and at least one for each of the last four years, although she's yet to find the winner's circle this season.
But she is coming off a semifinal run at the Toyo Tires Nationals that moved her around Arana and needing to just keep pace with Arana at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals to secure the 10th and final playoff berth in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
The winningest active rider at O'Reilly Raceway Park is Sampey and she may have an extra incentive to add a third career Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Wally to her trophy case.
While Sampey has clinched her Countdown to 1 playoff berth, the winningest female in NHRA history is running out of time to keep a very significant streak alive.
Sampey has won at least one race per season for 12 consecutive years, dating back to 1996, and that mark is the third longest active streak. John Force's 22 straight years with a win and Kurt Johnson's 14 are the only two that are better.
Hines is next best in Pro Stock Motorcycle with wins in five straight seasons, a streak that began in 2004.
SCHEDULE: The first of five pro qualifying sessions is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 29. Qualifying continues at Noon and 5:05 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30 and concludes at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31. Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle eliminations are at 1:15 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7:10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30. U.S. Smokeless Showdown eliminations are at 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 1.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 54th 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 ESPN2HD will televise more than 10 hours of coverage of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals beginning with a one-hour qualifying show on Sunday, Aug. 31 at 12:30 a.m. (ET). A two-hour and 30 minute qualifying show will be telecast by ESPN2HD at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 31, along with a two-hour qualifying show at 5 p.m. (ET). On Monday, Sept. 1, ESPN2 will telecast two shows, with two hours of early eliminations coverage at noon (ET) followed by a three-hour final eliminations show starting at 7 p.m. (ET). NHRA Race Day, ESPN2's popular pre-race show, will feature one show live from ORP during the event at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 31.