Mike Edwards (ABOVE) is enjoying a better season than any driver in any NHRA professional class. He's scored five times in six finals, and if not for some upset losses on holeshots, he'd have more. The soft-spoken Oklahoma veteran won Gainesville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Englishtown, and Norwalk and is the odds-on favorite to win his second championship. The only chink in his armor is at the start line, where he has lost seven times on holeshots, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of all the times he's been beaten.
Allen Johnson (BELOW RIGHT) is having by far the best title defense of any of the 2012 champs. He's several rounds behind Edwards, but with four victories (Gainesville, Las Vegas, Epping, and Denver) in six finals, he'd be in first place if he competed in any category other than Pro Stock. Third-ranked Jeg Coughlin, who made a quantum leap this season when he switched to Roy Johnson horsepower, has two victories (Topeka and Chicago) and a penchant for winning rounds at the line. He's at his best under pressure, and won two of his four career championships in the Countdown era, one (2008) when he was infinitely further from the top drivers entering the Countdown than he is now.
Summit Racing teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line are seventh and sixth in the standings, respectively, and suffering through easily their worst seasons ever. Anderson has been shut out completely, and halfway through the regular season actually had a sub-0.500 win-loss record for the first time since the ‘90s. Line has won just once, in Houston. But with a combined six championships in the past decade – four for Anderson and two for Line, neither can ever be counted out, especially under the Countdown format, which turns insurmountable 400-point leads into manageable 40-point leads.
Shane Gray has run with the leaders from the outset, though he has yet to win, and in Sonoma had low e.t. for the first time in his career. Vincent Nobile has three wins, including the last two events – Sonoma and Seattle – and ranks with Coughlin and Rickie Jones as one of the premier leavers in Pro Stock. Erica Enders-Stevens' problems aren't on the track; funding issues have sidelined her Cagnazzi Racing team for several races and may keep her from participating in the Countdown.
Championship favorite: Mike Edwards
Sure to make the Countdown: Greg Anderson, Jeg Coughlin, Mike Edwards, Erica Enders-Stevens, V. Gaines, Shane Gray, Allen Johnson, Jason Line, Vincent Nobile, Rodger Brogdon
Probables: none – no one not already in the Top 10 is within eight rounds of making the Countdown
Long shots: Rickie Jones, Larry Morgan
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
Nothing compares to what's gone on this season in Pro Stock Motorcycle; there's never been a comparable reversal of fortune in any class between any two seasons in NHRA history.
Vance & Hines riders Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec combined to win 15 of 16 races last year, but since NHRA rewrote the rulebook in the offseason to mitigate the Harley-Davidson riders' advantage, Krawiec, who won his second consecutive championship in 2012, and especially Hines have struggled mightily. In 18 combined starts, they've survived the second round just three times. Krawiec has struggled to stay in Countdown contention, and Hines isn't even in the top 10, mired in 12th place with two races to go.
In their place, 2011 Rookie of the Year Hector Arana Jr. (ABOVE), son of the 2009 world champ, has become the man to beat. He dominated the early months with back-to-back-to-back triumphs at the first three races of the 16-race bike season – Gainesville, Charlotte, and Houston. Arana failed to make it out of the semifinals at the next four events but finished second in Denver and won Sonoma to assume a commanding lead heading into Brainerd.
Matt Smith, the 2007 champ who hadn't won a race in two years, got back on top in Norwalk and also reached finals in Chicago and Sonoma. With just one first-round loss all year and a championship pedigree, he's a solid bet to make a run during the Countdown.
Michael Ray, the only rider other than Krawiec and Hines to win a race last year, has two already this year (Englishtown and Chicago) and rates with Smith as Arana's biggest challenger. Scotty Pollacheck and John Hall reached their first NHRA finals in the most wide-open season in years, Pollacheck with runner-ups in Houston and Norwalk and Hall with a win in Epping.
Championship favorite: Hector Arana Jr.
Sure to make the Countdown: Hector Arana (Sr), Hector Arana Jr., John Hall, Scotty Pollacheck, Michael Ray, Matt Smith
Probables: Adam Arana, Shawn Gann, Eddie Krawiec, Steve Johnson
Long shots: Andrew Hines, L.E. Tonglet