After two races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship six-pack, 11 points or fewer separate the top two drivers in three of the four categories.
However, in the class where there’s a sizable lead – Funny Car – the drama seems to just be taking shape. Matt Hagan holds a 51-point lead over Dallas winner Cruz Pedregon, and only 12 back of Pedregon sits red-hot Robert Hight, who won back-to-back races in Indy and Charlotte in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. A mere one point from the 2009 champ in fourth is the 15-time world champ, John Force, who used a runner-up finish in Dallas to get knee-deep into the title mix.
As the Countdown to the Championship heads to the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, Sept. 27-29 at Gateway Motorsports Park, expect the playoff excitement to intensify as teams realize that their time to make a move toward capturing championship glory is evaporating. Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the race that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
That sense of urgency is especially heightened in Funny Car, where the competition has been incredibly close all season.
“Hagan didn’t move on any of us,” Force said. “Now it is all jammed up. Cruz is two, Robert is three, and I am four. It is all a matter of who gets on a roll. Right now, Robert is on a roll. He won the last two races, and [in Dallas], they lost a motor. The ignition was on fire in the second round, and they had to change motors before the semi's. That is like starting all over without qualifying. They smoked the tires, but [crew chief Mike] Neff, I drove for him; he runs it right on the edge. Robert is Cool Hand Luke.”
While Hight may be the odds-on favorite to win another title in Force’s eyes, it has been Virginia cattle rancher Hagan’s amazing turnaround and incredible consistency with veteran crew chief Dickie Venables that has been the surprise story of the year.
Hagan, who has led the series standings since early June at the controls of his 8,000-horsepower Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger, opened the playoffs with a runner-up finish in Charlotte but exited in the second round in Dallas. He saw his lead drop from 82 to 51, and he knows that the sharks are hungry and circling in the water.
“It’s like anything; you can’t get your head down,” Hagan said. “You win as a team, you lose as a team, and you move forward as a team. I’m looking forward to getting to the next race. [Dallas] is behind us now, and we just have to keep digging deep and working hard.”
In Top Fuel, the two drivers who are tied for the series lead met in the final in Dallas, where Doug Kalitta outran Shawn Langdon to grab his first victory in more than three years. The win couldn’t have come at a better time for the Mac Tools dragster driver, who now sets his sights on earning a first world championship title.
“I am glad to get back in the winner’s circle,” said Kalitta, who last scored in 2010 in Denver. “It’s been way too long. I can’t say enough about my Mac Tools team. Those guys are the best in the business and deserve all the credit. We’ve had such a great hot rod all year long, so I’m glad to see we finally sealed the deal for all my guys.
“Hopefully, this is a good precursor for the rest of the Countdown.”
Meanwhile, Langdon entered the playoffs as the top seed but was upset in the first round in Charlotte. His Al-Anabi Racing team rallied to make the final round in Dallas but came up a bit short in the final to Kalitta. The two leaders are two points ahead of Spencer Massey. Charlotte winner Morgan Lucas is 35 points back in fourth place, and seven-time champ Tony Schumacher is still within striking distance in his U.S. Army dragster, 88 off the lead.
Langdon raced to five victories during the regular season and had his brightest moment at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals when he swept the event, winning the prestigious race and the $100,000 Traxxas Nitro Shootout all-star event. Langdon says that in this title hunt, patience is the key.
“We’ve been making good runs since the Countdown began; we just haven’t gotten a win yet, which is not disappointing because we know the Al-Anabi car is capable of winning,” Langdon said. “We are just waiting for our time. We head to St. Louis tied for the points lead, and that’s all we can ask. We just want to be able to have control in our hands; we don’t want to leave it up to anyone else. As long as we feel we have a shot, we have the control. If we win the race, we leave with the points lead, and that’s all we can ask.”
In Pro Stock, only eight points separate the top two drivers, Jason Line and Jeg Coughlin Jr., both multitime world champions. Another former world champion, Mike Edwards, is in third place, 34 points back, and he leads the category in victories this season with six.
Line has been the surprise of the playoffs, powering his Summit Racing Chevy Camaro to the No. 1 qualifying position and runner-up finish in Charlotte and scoring his second victory of the season in Dallas in convincing fashion. Line entered the playoffs with only one win and no top qualifying efforts and very little momentum to speak of. Now his team is showing that it may have the stuff to grab a third world championship title.
“To go from where we were two months ago to being here is a small miracle and a testament to all of our KB Racing guys and all the Summit Racing folks,” Line said. “There has been a lot of effort. We have worked harder than we have in a long, long time, that’s for sure. It’s good to see it starting to pay off.”
Hector Arana Jr.’s lead in Pro Stock Motorcycle has been trimmed to 11 points, and 2007 champ Matt Smith is chipping away at it aboard his Viper Motorcycle Co. Buell. Smith advanced to his fifth final round of the year in Dallas. Dallas winner Krawiec, in fourth place, has also emerged as a late-season title contender on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, along with third-place Hector Arana Sr., the No. 1 qualifier in Dallas.
Arana Jr., who has posted a pair of semifinal finishes in the playoffs on his Lucas Oil Buell, realizes that the road to winning his first world championship title is going to be filled with tough challengers.
Hector Arana Jr.
“It’s going to be a fight to the finish,” Arana Jr. said. “I knew it was going to be a long, hard Countdown, and these first two races have done nothing to change my mind. We’ve all got to dig deep and keep battling.”
Fans of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series in St. Louis can meet their heroes during the free Fan Fest sponsored by Mid-America Chevy Dealers in downtown St. Louis Sept. 26. The event will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. on Washington Avenue (14th and Tucker) with activities for fans of all ages. A driver autograph session, car show, interactive displays, food, music, and ticket giveaways will be among the featured attractions during the event. Downtown St. Louis will be electric with the excitement of Thursday Night Football, and this will be a way to rev up the action before the game.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. Fans can get autographs and watch the race teams service their high-performance hot rods between each round of racing. No other sport offers fans such an up-close-and personal experience.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food, and fun for the entire family.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series also will thrill the crowds during the weekend with intense competition on the track.
Families can take part in a special ticket offer: Children 12 and younger will be admitted free in general admission and grandstand two with a paid adult. A special 12 and younger rate is also available in the Nitro 2 section.
AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2:45 and 5:15 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27. Qualifying continues at 11:45 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 29.
For tickets for the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, log on to www.gatewaymsp.com or call 855- RACE-TIK (722-3845).