More than half the drivers in the Countdown have a legitimate shot to win the championship, but Matt Hagan (ABOVE RIGHT) probably has the best odds. The 2011 NHRA champion and 2010 runner-up has been revitalized this year by the addition of crew chief Dickie Venables after a winless title defense in 2012 that he still calls “embarrassing.” Hagan has the quickest run of the year (3.986) and won Charlotte, Englishtown, Chicago and Seattle for a single-season career-high four wins – and the Countdown hasn't even started.
Hagan and his Don Schumacher Racing teammates Johnny Gray, Ron Capps and Jack Beckman occupy four of the top six spots in the standings, and all of them – except, surprisingly, Beckman – have multiple wins. Beckman hasn't had his hands on a Wally all year, but in perhaps the most accurate measure of how evenly matched the cars are this year, he's just two rounds behind Gray. Beckman has been beaten in the first round just twice in the last 14 races; unfortunately for him, he was out in round two at most of them, and he has just one final-round appearance (Englishtown).
Capps is a rock; he's always there. Year after year, he's in contention, usually until the final day of the season and often into the late rounds. He's probably the best Funny Car driver who hasn't won a championship: he's third on the all-time Funny Car win list and a four-time championship runner-up, including last year, when he lost by the heartbreaking margin of just two points. Despite a DNQ in Seattle, victories in Phoenix and Sonoma have Capps right where he hopes not to be yet again on the final day of the season – second – but perfectly positioned for another run at that elusive first championship.
And yet the other DSR driver, 60-year-old billionaire Johnny Gray (LEFT), who insists that this will be his last full year behind the wheel, might have the best chance of all. He's just fifth in the standings but has won as many races as anyone in the class this year – four (Gainesville, Atlanta, Topeka and Norwalk), and he's been untouchable in finals after being a bridesmaid for much of his pre-2013 career.
The sport's biggest name, John Force, has picked up markedly since shaking up his team at midseason, moving his crew chief, Mike Neff, to Robert Hight's car and Hight's crew chief, Jimmy Prock, to his team. Following lackluster campaigns in 2011 and 2012 and a dismal first half of 2013, Force made four finals in a span of five races and won one, Bristol. And the switch has worked out well for both teams because Hight's performance has picked up dramatically since he acquired Neff's services, and Force hasn't missed a beat.
The other John Force Racing driver, John's daughter Courtney (RIGHT), is a bona fide star in her sophomore season, with wins at the season opener in Pomona and the inaugural event in Epping.
The dark horse remains Cruz Pedregon, whose success since he became his own crew chief continues to amaze his peers. The 1992 and 2008 series champ has won three times this year (Las Vegas, Houston, and Denver), and he is a constant threat for low e.t., particularly in the cool Friday evening qualifying sessions. As observed with Lucas in Top Fuel, the fact that Pedregon is at his best when conditions most resemble the ambient temps in the fall bodes well for his chances in the playoffs.
Championship favorite: Matt Hagan
Sure to make the Countdown: Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, John Force, Courtney Force, Johnny Gray, Matt Hagan, Cruz Pedregon
Probables: Robert Hight, Bob Tasca III, Tim Wilkerson, Del Worsham
Long shot: Alexis DeJoria