COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP CHALLENGERS MAKING A CHARGE AS FULL THROTTLE SERIES HEADS TO PENNSYLVANIA MOHNTON, Pa. - With three races to go in the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, the regular season leaders remain at the top of the...
COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP CHALLENGERS MAKING A CHARGE AS FULL THROTTLE SERIES HEADS TO PENNSYLVANIA
MOHNTON, Pa. - With three races to go in the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, the regular season leaders remain at the top of the standings, however in each of the four categories a bit of momentum seems to have been picked up by a few drivers who started the playoffs back in the pack.
With less than a few rounds of racing separating first, second, third and in some cases fourth place in each category, expect the intensity level to be at an all-time high at the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals at scenic Maple Grove Raceway, Oct. 7-10. Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event, which will be televised on ESPN2 HD.
In Top Fuel, a trio of rivals will decide the championship. Series leader Dixon won for the first time at Maple Grove last year and hopes to defend his crown in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster. The two-time world champ has won 11 times this year and hasn't lost in a final round meeting. A rare second-round exit at Dallas two weeks ago opened the door for second place Cory McClenathan and third place Tony Schumacher, the seven time defending world champ in the 7,000 horsepower category.
While much of the season the main Top Fuel storyline has put the spotlight on the Schumacher-Dixon rivalry, McClenathan, who trails Dixon by 69 points, hopes to finish off the season with the story shifting to "veteran driver wins first championship title." He says he and his FRAM dragster team are ready for a tough fight until the end.
"It's that time of year," said McClenathan, who has finished second in the point standings four times in his 20-year career. "Everybody is trying to win a championship. Now each race seems to get more and more important. It is certainly exciting for the fans, but really hard on the drivers."
A win in Dallas propelled U.S. Army dragster driver Schumacher back into the hunt. He did trail by 148 points before the timely victory. Now only 94 points back of Dixon, and with vivid memories of two last-second buzzer-beaters in recent seasons, he's confident that he can move his championship record to seven in a row and eight overall.
"We're not out of championship contention by any means," Schumacher said. "We've got three more races to go and anything can happen. If we can have another couple of races like we did in Texas, the season finale will suddenly become very interesting."
In Funny Car, 14-time world champ John Force has led the way all season in his Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang, but DSR teammates Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman have crashed the 61-year-old driver's championship comeback party in recent weeks. Hagan trails by 25 in his DieHard Dodge Charger and Beckman sits 45 points back in his Valvoline/MTS Charger. Force's daughter, Ashley Force Hood, also is very much in contention, only 68 points back in her Castrol GTX Mustang.
Second-year driver Hagan, a cattle rancher from Virginia, was on an emotional high after beating Force head-to-head in the final round at Dallas. He says the key for him is to ignore the stress of the situation and fight like crazy for every possible point.
"You can see that the pressure of the playoffs is starting to eat at some people," Hagan said. "I think that the biggest thing we can do for ourselves is just take a deep breath and let it all out and just go racing and have fun. Whether you admit that it weighs on you or not, it's going to weigh on you to some extent, so we just want to do the best job we can and not leave anything on the table. We're still here, we're still head-hunters out there and we're trying to get it done."
Beckman, who has been on a hot streak of late and advanced to three finals in the last six races, had a bit of a setback at Dallas when he lost in the second round and his car suffered a nasty fire. The veteran racer recognizes that his team needs a victory soon if he's going to be able to give Force and his teammate a run for the $500,000 title money.
"If we can get back into the winner's circle in Reading we're right back in the fight," said Beckman, a winner at Maple Grove in 2008. "But we're not out of it by a long shot."
Back-to-back victories at Charlotte and Dallas have put three-time Pro Stock world champ Greg Anderson within range of reeling in series leader and defending world champ Mike Edwards. The driver of the Summit Racing Pontiac GXP trails Edwards by 16 points.
"Right now, I am extremely happy and feeling very positive," said Anderson who used a horsepower advantage to drive around Edwards' GXP in the final to win in Dallas. "I have a great shot at winning my fourth championship, so we're going to go in with guns blazing at the next race in Reading trying to do it all over again, doing what we can to get in the points lead, putting pressure on the rest of the boys to try and get around this Summit Racing team."
Anderson is not the only driver from within the pack that has some momentum. Greg Stanfield, who won at Indy and was runner-up to Anderson in Charlotte, is also anchored in the Pro Stock mix in third place in his NitroFish/Indicom Electric GXP.
"We are in a good position and we want to continue running like we have been," said Stanfield, who trails Edwards by 62 points. "We have to get after it so we can keep up with the other guys."
The Pro Stock Motorcycle championship battle has come down to two riders. Red-hot rookie LE Tonglet has won the first three races in the playoffs, beating series leader Andrew Hines in all three final rounds. The NitroFish Gear Suzuki rider trails three-time world champ Hines, who rides the Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, by 44 points.
"My dad (Gary, team owner) said he's hungry for the championship and that we were going for it," the 20-year-old Tonglet said. "We want to keep the momentum. We are the underdogs and we aren't feeling the pressure."
SCHEDULE: Two qualifying sessions will be held Friday, Oct. 8 at 1:45 and 4:45 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will be held Saturday, Oct. 9, at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Sunday's final eliminations start at 11 a.m.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals by calling (610) 856-7200 or online at www.maplegroveraceway.com.
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 10:30 p.m. NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute news magazine show, will air at 10 a.m. (ET), and two hours and 30 minutes of eliminations coverage will air at 9 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Oct. 10. The race also will air live on ESPN3.com starting at 11 a.m. (ET) on Oct. 10.
LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in several categories of the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8:45 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 7 and eliminations begin at 8:45 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 8 and continue through Sunday, Oct. 10.