Joliet: Round ten preview

READY OR NOT? NHRA POWERade SERIES DRIVERS ANTICIPATE SUMMER HEAT AS TOUR MOVES ON TO CHICAGO JOLIET, Ill. -- Plenty of drivers stepped up as early-season favorites this year - new names and old. In Top Fuel, Chicago's Tony Schumacher and crew...

READY OR NOT? NHRA POWERade SERIES DRIVERS ANTICIPATE SUMMER HEAT AS TOUR MOVES ON TO CHICAGO

JOLIET, Ill. -- Plenty of drivers stepped up as early-season favorites this year - new names and old.

In Top Fuel, Chicago's Tony Schumacher and crew chief Alan Johnson continue to tighten their grip on Top Fuel while drivers like teammates Antron Brown and Rod Fuller stand in their way. Fan-favorite Ashley Force has proven herself a serious contender for the 2008 NHRA POWERade Series world championship title in Funny Car -- and although the moniker means less to her than the trophy, she would be the first woman to earn it.

But that can change all too fast.

Now that the NHRA POWERade Series has reached the halfway point in its regular season, another challenge for teams and drivers begins: Who will survive the summer heat?

The NHRA POWERade Series comes to Route 66 Raceway for the Torco Racing Fuels Route 66 NHRA Nationals June 5-8. The event is the 10th of 18 in the Countdown to the Championship regular season, making it the beginning of the second half of the scramble to make the playoffs.

The Countdown to the Championship features two tiers -- the first 18 races, where drivers attempt to qualify for the playoffs, and the final six events that determine the world champions.

As crew chiefs will tell you, the difference between preparing for a cool-weather race and a hot one are many and intricate. And there's little time to figure them out with four races in the month of June alone. Soon teams will find out just how prepared they are for the grueling summer months ahead.

Air temperature, altitude and dew point all play factors in preparation for NHRA POWERade Series teams. Some feel prepared for the summer stretch, including Funny Car's Cruz Pedregon, who announced a switch to a Toyota Solara body before Topeka. He's confident that his Advance Auto Parts team will adapt to the new body and make it not only work, but be successful this year.

"With the way (crew chief Rahn Tobler) runs this car and from what we've determined we'll get out of the Solara body, we're really excited about the summer and running on hotter racetracks," Pedregon said. "We just seem to perform better when the track temperatures get above 120 degrees and we won't change our usual strategy this year."

Of the four categories, the Funny Car and Pro Stock categories have produced the most riveting race-to-race competition this year with only one repeat winner in each field: Springfield, Illinois' Tim Wilkerson in Funny Car and Greg Anderson in Pro Stock. The two categories are arguably the most competitive right now -- two drivers who have won events this year, Jack Beckman and Melanie Troxel, aren't even in the Top 10 in the points. Dave Connolly, who earned a trip to the Pro Stock winner's circle in Bristol after missing the first five events of the year, has yet to crack the Top 10, but after a runner-up at St. Louis, the win at Bristol and a No. 1 qualifying performance in Topeka, most expect he will.

Greg Anderson has made his bid to reclaim the NHRA POWERade Series Pro Stock title he held from 2003-'05 a serious one with two wins so far in 2008. Meanwhile Jeg Coughlin, the defending NHRA POWERade Series world champion, would rather hold on to it -- and he's happy that hot-weather racing is coming up.

"I look forward to the summer months for two reasons: One, the schedule tightens up and it seems we are racing almost every week, and two, the air and track conditions change more frequently and I believe that makes the teams think more and take chances," said Coughlin, driver of the JEGS.com Chevy Cobalt. "I have the confidence in my team in these conditions and have had great success through the summer months."

In Top Fuel, Schumacher had already won three of nine events-- and no one believes that the U.S. Army locomotive will be losing any power soon. So, it's up to the rest of the field, like Brown, Fuller, Larry Dixon, Brandon Bernstein, Cory McClenathan, and Topeka winner Hillary Will, to stop him.

"Mike Green and the guys have a great set-up for hot-weather tracks, so I'm actually looking forward to (the warm weather)," said McClenathan, who drove his FRAM dragster to a win in Las Vegas. "The hotter the better right now. We're looking forward to getting away from the cool weather until we can get that figured out."

Said Bernstein, driver of the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster, "During the summer months the tracks are hot and sticky, so as a driver you have to be on your toes and be ready to pedal the car. Our crew chief, Tim Richards, does have a pretty good combination for warm weather and in most cases, he can make the car slip down the track."

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, a battle is brewing between former POWERade Series Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Andrew Hines and reigning world champion Matt Smith -- between Hines' Harley-Davidson and Smith's Buell. It's not yet clear how those camps will do as compared to the Suzukis ridden by Chip Ellis, Karen Stoffer and Shawn Gann, who were all in the Top 10 before Topeka.

* SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2:30 and 6 p.m. on Friday, June 6. Qualifying continues at noon and 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 7 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 8.

* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Torco Racing Fuels Route 66 NHRA Nationals. Call (815) 727-RACE or check ticketmaster.com.

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 7. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, June 8. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 5 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, June 8.

* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Torco Racing Fuels Route 66 NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in seven 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 a.m. on June 5, with eliminations starting on June 6 at 8 a.m. The top 64 sportsman drag racers in the country will compete in the JEGS Allstars event on June 8. Drivers from NHRA's seven divisions will face off in this spotlight race-within-a-race.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , Tony Schumacher , Greg Anderson , Shawn Gann , Cruz Pedregon , Cory McClenathan , Tim Wilkerson , Jack Beckman , Karen Stoffer , Melanie Troxel , Brandon Bernstein , Andrew Hines , Matthew Smith , Tim Richards , Chip Ellis , Rod Fuller , Dave Connolly
Teams CIP