Topeka: Round nine preview

TROXEL, CONNOLLY REACH HEIGHTS ONCE AGAIN AS REGULAR SEASON REACHES HALFWAY POINT TOPEKA, Kan. -- It must have felt a bit like proving themselves all over again. In 2006, Melanie Troxel reached a stunning nine final rounds with two wins in her...


TOPEKA, Kan. -- It must have felt a bit like proving themselves all over again.

In 2006, Melanie Troxel reached a stunning nine final rounds with two wins in her first year of fulltime competition in Top Fuel, good enough for a fourth-place finish on the year. Then she followed that with another two-win season in 2007, firmly establishing herself as a contender in Top Fuel.

Meanwhile Dave Connolly, one of the youngest drivers on the NHRA POWERade Series Pro Stock circuit, quickly picked up a good reputation as one of the fastest leavers at the starting line -- drawing comparisons to established starting-line dominator Jeg Coughlin. After finishing 18th in the points his first season on the road, Connolly turned in four consecutive top 5 finishes -- three of which were third-place seasons.

But after having established themselves, Troxel and Connolly found themselves literally at the starting line all over again a quarter of the way into the 2008 season -- Troxel slowed by the transition to Funny Car and Connolly by sponsorship woes.

The two had combined for only three round wins through the first seven races of 2008 and were afterthoughts in the championship race, but that all changed May 16 at the O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals as Troxel and Connolly raced back to the winners' circle to re-establish themselves as drivers to be reckoned with.

But they still have work to do if they hope to secure one of the 10 playoff spots in each class -- Troxel is in 15th place; Connolly is in 14th place -- and that work begins May 30-June 1 as the NHRA POWERade Series tour comes to Heartland Park Topeka for the 20th annual O'Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals, the ninth of 24 events and the halfway point of the regular season. After Topeka, drivers have nine more races to crack the top 10 before the Countdown to the Championship playoff season begins.

Both Troxel and Connolly come to Topeka fresh off of their first wins of the season. For Troxel, the victory was a landmark.

After struggling through the first half of the regular season, Troxel became the second female to win a race in Funny Car, and the first female and the 14th driver overall to reach the winner's circle in the sport's two fastest categories, Top Fuel and Funny Car.

In 2008, Troxel made the move she'd only speculated about before and one her husband anticipated with more anxiety than joy -- from Top Fuel to Funny Car. It was a move that made competing against her husband almost a certainty. Headlines predicted what would happen when the two halves of motorsports' fastest couple stared each other down on the track. Johnson Jr. quipped it was "every man for himself."

But it would be Troxel who would win first -- not against Johnson Jr., but instead against fellow Funny Car rookie Mike Neff. Neff tuned Gary Scelzi to a Funny Car world championship title in 2005 before replacing the late Eric Medlen as pilot of John Force Racing's fourth entry in 2007.

She beat another John Force Racing driver to do it with a second-round win over Ashley Force to become the seventh Funny Car driver to win in eight races -- none of whom are John Force.

Before the season started speculation centered on which female, Troxel or Ashley Force, would become the first to win a race in that category. Ashley earned that mark in Atlanta, and both Ashley and Troxel won out of the 11th qualifying spot. Troxel preferred not to look at it that way, a battle between females for all-women records in a sport where being female isn't a novelty. Instead, Troxel had her sites on a gradual learning curve she hoped would produce a win. Eight races into her first season isn't bad, she said.

"If you had asked me at the beginning of the season how the season would be coming along if we went out and won the eighth race of the season, I would've said 'that's great,'" Troxel said. "For me to make the switch to Funny Car and go out and win the eighth race, that's definitely a very good beginning to the season.

"I didn't expect all of the struggling we had in the early part of the year. It's been kind of a mixed bag of results. I'm definitely happy we won a race in the first third of the season, but that didn't come without challenges and without struggling. We finally turned a corner and we're starting to see the results of that."

Unlike Troxel's low-to-high learning curve, Connolly's rebound came all at once. He returned to the Series in Atlanta with Charter Communications as a backer and in three races had his first win of the year, making 2008 the fifth straight season in which Connolly won at least one race. At the same event, his teammate Jeg Coughlin failed to make the field for the first time in 70 events.

"It makes you appreciate everything that much more," Connolly said. "We got pretty lucky last weekend to go to the final round (in St. Louis) and then to come out (to Bristol) and I'm taking cones out (at Bristol Dragway) in qualifying and I would've never thought we would've made it to the winners circle, but we did."

In Top Fuel, Brandon Bernstein looks to defend his title at Heartland Park Topeka in a season that has yet to yield a win for the Budweiser prince. Tony Schumacher enters the race with a sizeable lead on Antron Brown, the former Pro Stock Motorcycle rider who's already earned two victories this season.

Leading the point standings in Funny Car and Pro Stock are Tim Wilkerson and Greg Anderson, who have two wins each heading into Topeka.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4 and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 30. Qualifying continues at 11:30 and 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 31 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 1.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the O'Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX. Call NHRA at (800) 43-RACES. Tickets are also available at

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours and 30 minutes of qualifying highlights at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 31. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, June 1. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 4 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, June 1.

LUCAS OIL SERIES: The O'Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX

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 8 a.m. on May 30 and eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on May 31.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Greg Anderson , Tim Wilkerson , Ashley Force , Melanie Troxel , Brandon Bernstein , Eric Medlen , Dave Connolly , Mike Neff