With two rounds to go before the NHRA Countdown begins, here's what our drag racing analyst expects to see at Brainerd, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and then that final run of six events. But don't hold him to it…
Since NHRA moved to points-based championships in 1974, drivers haven't just won titles – they've built dynasties. Don Prudhomme and Bob Glidden in the 1970s; Lee Shepherd, Kenny Bernstein, and Glidden in the '80s; Joe Amato, Warren Johnson, and John Force in the '90s; and Greg Anderson and Tony Schumacher in this century – it's usually not just one championship. It's more like three in a row.
Well, not anymore. Four different drivers have won the Top Fuel championship in the past four years, six drivers in six years in Funny Car, four in four years in Pro Stock, and three in four years in Pro Stock Motorcycle, and 2013 is following the same theme of unpredictability. As the regular season winds down and teams gear up for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, just one defending champion, Allen Johnson, is close to first place. Antron Brown was knocked out in the first round at eight of 10 events through the middle of the season and is fifth in the Top Fuel standings. Jack Beckman has yet to win a race and stands sixth in Funny Car. Johnson is more than three rounds behind Mike Edwards in Pro Stock. And Eddie Krawiec is not only winless but fighting just to stay in the Top 10 in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Antron Brown, who edged seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher for the 2012 championship by less than one round, opened this year with a terrifying crash at the Winternationals that set the tone for his season. He rebounded to win a month later in Gainesville and again in Atlanta, but, in diametric opposition to his last several seasons, when reached at least the semis about 70 percent of the time, he's stumbled through the rest of the regular season.
In his place, Shawn Langdon (ABOVE RIGHT) has emerged as the favorite. The former sportsman star, who had won just once in four years as a pro before this season, has appeared in seven finals and has won four (Pomona, Topeka, Englishtown, and Epping). Driving for the Al-Anabi team of Alan Johnson, whose drivers have won seven of the past nine championships – Schumacher (2004-'08), Larry Dixon (2010) and Del Worsham (2011) – Langdon is in line to be the fifth different driver Johnson has guided to a title, including retired Gary Scelzi, who dominated the late '90s.
Schumacher and Spencer Massey have been their usual strong, consistent selves all year and lie second and third in the standings, just as they finished last season. Schumacher, a three-time winner this year (Phoenix, Las Vegas and Chicago), was in contention for the 2012 championship until the last round of the last race of the year and missed it by just 0.008sec. Massey, also a three-time winner (Charlotte, Epping, and Denver), was in the 2011 title chase until the penultimate round of season, where he lost a winner-take-all semifinal match against Worsham by just 0.004sec.
Considering how hard he always runs, it's almost unfathomable that Doug Kalitta (LEFT) hasn't won a race already this season although, truth be told, he hasn't won in more than three years and has just three victories since he lost the 2006 title on the last run of that year. Kalitta has qualified higher than anyone and has four No. 1s to his name, but consistency on Sundays continues to elude him. Even more overdue is Clay Millican who's yet to win an NHRA event and now has more starts than anyone who hasn't scored at least once, but he has the performance and the equipment to break through at any time. Millican has six runner-up finishes, including two this this year (Gainesville and Chicago) and is a bigger threat than at any time in his 16-year career.
Langdon's Al-Anabi teammate, Khalid AlBalooshi, is vastly improved from his 2012 rookie campaign, when he began his nitro career with 12 first-round losses in a row. This year he won Norwalk and has stepped up noticeably, in part because of Johnson's increased involvement.
Morgan Lucas has three final-round appearances in 2013, and with a runner-up in Sonoma two weeks ago and a breakthrough win in Seattle last weekend, there's momentum building here at exactly the right time. Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that his GEICO dragster gains more in cool conditions – like those typically present at season's end during the Countdown – than any of his rivals' machines.
Championship Favorite: Shawn Langdon
Sure to make the Countdown: Khalid AlBalooshi, Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon, Morgan Lucas, Spencer Massey, Clay Millican, Tony Schumacher
Probables: Bob Vandergriff, Steve Torrence
Long shots: Brandon Bernstein, Brittany Force, David Grubnic