Prior to the Carolinas Nationals and the start of the NHRA Countdown to 1, point totals were reset for the top 10 drivers in each class.
Sunday, it was time to reset the order of those drivers.
In a wild day at zMAX Dragway — not even taking into account the jaw-dropping, ear-bruising four-wide exhibition of Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars — the playoff picture completely changed right from the start of eliminations.
Cory McClenathan (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won their classes and got major boosts in the standings, while three of the four points leaders coming into the playoff surrendered their advantages earned after 18 regular-season races.
In the first round Sunday, Top Fuel leader Antron Brown's Matco Tools dragster went up in tire smoke right off the line and lost in shocking fashion to part-time racer Terry McMillen. McMillen had never won a round of NHRA Top Fuel racing coming into North Carolina, and set the tone for a day of upsets.
Also in the first round, Funny Car points leader Tony Pedregon and Pro Stock points leader Jeg Coughlin Jr. lost. For Coughlin and the Jegs.com Chevy Cobalt, it was the first early exit of the year.
“That's drag racing; you go from hero to zero quick,” Brown said.
Six Countdown cars in each nitro class were bounced in the first round. In addition to the upsets of the points leaders, second-in-points Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also lost early.
All of those first- and second-place points leaders dropped in the standings except Pedregon, but his 30-point cushion on second place all but vanished. Ashley Force Hood, a semifinalist one race after her triumphant U.S. Nationals win, raced into the semifinals and leapfrogged Capps for second in points at just one precarious point behind Pedregon.
“The pressure's on the guys that have been leading all year and doing such a great job,” Hight said.
Hight had been off all season in his John Force Racing Ford, but picked the right race to collect a first 2009 win. He soared from 10th to third in points, 28 back of Pedregon.
McClenathan, 46, also won for the first time all year in his Don Schumacher Racing Fram dragster, beating Shawn Langdon in an improbable Top Fuel final, 3.857 seconds at 312.64 mph to 3.890/280.49. He moved from fifth to first in points, 10 ahead of Brown and DSR teammate and five-time defending champion Tony Schumacher.
“That's the moment I cherish the most. You want that win light to come on so bad, when we did it today, I was just overcome with, ‘Oh my God, it's been so long,” said McClenathan, who is atop the points for the first time in 11 years.
It was a day of moments and moves. Johnny Gray, 10th in Pro Stock, jumped two spots in points over Ron Krisher and Rickie Jones, who failed to qualify for eliminations. Karen Stoffer, who squeaked into the 10th Countdown spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle, vaulted into fifth on the strength of a final-round performance at zMAX Dragway.
She turned a red light in the final against Arana, who collected back-to-back wins for the first time in his career. Arana, 51, moved from third to first in PSM points in his Lucas Oil Buell, nine points ahead of Eddie Krawiec, who surrendered his top spot in points.
“It's the best time of my life,” said Arana, who had won once in 19 previous years of racing. “I've put in many years, I struggled, I was doubting myself. Now, actually, this is my moment.”
The points picture should remain volatile through the next five playoff races after the addition of qualifying-session bonus points. Edwards is the favorite to clean up in that department, as his A.R.T/Young Life Pontiac GXP has owned Pro Stock qualifying all year. He picked up 10 of 12 possible bonus points in qualifying at the Carolinas Nationals in a car that was nearly four-hundredths of a second clear of the field.
Even better, he finally brought home one of his pole-position cars, breezing through the bracket with some of his best driving of the year. In the final against Greg Stanfield he cut a .022-second light, his best of the day, in winning in 6.618 seconds at 209.39 mph to Stanfield's 6.650/207.75.
Edwards had won just three times despite 10 previous pole positions.
“It does feel a little bit better. I've been the weak link all year long,” Edwards said. “We've got five more to go, I like our position. We're battling every race, every qualifying run with the new points system—that's huge, you never know what that could be. It could be one or two points here and there that might win the thing.”