Las Vegas II: Four champions could be crowned at The Strip

LAS VEGAS - With only two races remaining on the schedule, all four of the NHRA POWERade championships are mathematically 'up for grabs', but that could all end at the quarter-mile in the desert known as The Strip. Championship stakes will be...

LAS VEGAS - With only two races remaining on the schedule, all four of the NHRA POWERade championships are mathematically 'up for grabs', but that could all end at the quarter-mile in the desert known as The Strip.

Championship stakes will be high when the NHRA returns to Las Vegas for the second annual ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals, Oct. 24-27, at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The $2 million race is the 22nd of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Four professional categories and four undecided battles for the championship with two races to go, that is what it will all come down to as the 2002 season nears an end. Perennial Funny Car champion John Force leads teammate Tony Pedregon by 13 points heading into Las Vegas. Larry Dixon and Jeg Coughlin lead their respective categories by 108 points while Angelle Savoie leads her closest Pro Stock Bike competitor by 173 points.

Based on those scenarios Dixon, Force, Coughlin and Savoie could all clinch an NHRA POWERade championship at Las Vegas. To clinch the crown, a racer in a professional category must leave the event with at least a 139-point lead to lock up the crown. Based on qualifying, eliminations, and the possibility of establishing a national record for elapsed time, the maximum amount of points available for a professional competitor at an NHRA national event is 138.

While Force is still atop the standings in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, Pedregon recently went on a streak where he won three straight events, thrusting him into championship contention. No driver has been this close to Force in the standings this late in the season since 1992 when another Pedregon, Tony's older brother Cruz, led Force in the standings en route to the crown. Cruz is the only Funny Car driver other than Force to win it all since 1990. Now the younger Pedregon is trying to mimic Cruz and become the first pair of brothers to each win a professional championship, and along the way deny Force his unprecedented 10th straight title and 12th overall.

Technically Force could clinch his 12th career crown at Las Vegas, but it would involve an amazing set of circumstances. First, Pedregon, currently the hottest driver in the category, would need to fail to qualify. After that, Force would need to qualify No. 1, set a national E.T. record and win the race. While that scenario is unlikely to unfold, in drag racing anything can, and usually does, happen.

"I would hate to say we want to put pressure on (Force)," said Pedregon, who has won a career-best six races this season. "John is the type of driver that thrives under pressure. I want to keep it as mild as I can. I'm going to have a talk with Cruz and see if he can give me any tips."

Dixon had an amazing start to the season, winning seven of the first 11 races, and built what seemed like an insurmountable lead. But the veteran Bernstein kept picking away and after defeating Dixon in the second round of the race before the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals, he trimmed Dixon's lead to a 108-point deficit with two races remaining. It was only Bernstein's third round win against Dixon in nine matchups this year, a complete turnaround from last season when Bernstein defeated Dixon in six of their nine head-to-head battles. Bernstein has had great success at The Strip but will need a little luck at the last two events to catch Dixon who has led the standings since the season-opener in February and won the event at The Strip in April.

"Any gain we can make on Dixon is a plus," said the 58-year-old Bernstein. "But we need to make significant gains at the two remaining races. No matter how the championship turns out, we'll be able to look in the mirror at the end of the season and say we gave it every effort we possibly could. We'll be able to walk away and say we were still competitive to the very end."

The Pro Stock championship picture has become clearer as of late with Jeg Coughlin, the 2000 champ, dominating the second half of the season the way Dixon did the first half. Coughlin has won seven of the past 10 events, catapulting him atop the POWERade standings. More importantly, Coughlin has stepped up during eliminations when he has gone head-to-head against his closest competitors in the standings. At Dallas, Coughlin eliminated both Jim Yates (No.2 in the standings) and Greg Anderson (No. 3) to extend his lead.

"To do as well as we have feels just unbelievable given how competitive Pro Stock is this year," said the 32-year-old Coughlin. "The fact that we have won three races in a row and seven of 10 is a great example of how focused our entire program is. But it isn't over until it's over because 108 points doesn't lock it up for us. But we have done well at The Strip in the past and we are going to stay focused as a team and when we get to Vegas we'll try and put the Jeg's Mail Order Chevy Cavalier in the winner's circle once again."

Savoie, the most likely to clinch her series crown in Vegas, already is the most prolific female winner in NHRA history with 27 career victories. Her third straight championship would tie her with the legendary Shirley Muldowney for most championships earned by a female racer in NHRA competition. She enters the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals in position to clinch her third series crown based on her five victories in the first 12 events of the 14-race schedule for the two-wheel category. It would take a major mistake on her part and that of her team, Star Racing, in order for Craig Treble to extend the championship chase on to the season finale in Pomona, Calif.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Greg Anderson , Craig Treble