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
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
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