Ron Capps was the man to beat entering the inaugural 2007 NHRA Countdown to 1 playoff. He had driven into the final round in one-third of the regular season races, winning three, and sat atop the reset points with six races remaining in his drive for a long-awaited first Funny Car title.
He didn't finish the season in first. He didn't even leave the first Countdown race in first. Beaten in the first round of the playoff opener, then the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Capps fell to fourth in points and never recovered. He ultimately finished fourth, more than 100 points back of champion Tony Pedregon.
“Things can turn around quickly,” Capps said.
That's the Countdown in a nutshell.
Now in its third year, the Full Throttle Series' championship format has chewed up some great drivers and given new life to others. Volatility is its signature, and the small sample size of two seasons shows that starting the playoff in first place is a dangerous proposition.
Tony Schumacher won the Top Fuel title last year after starting the Countdown in first, capping off a 15-win season in which his U.S. Army team was virtually unstoppable. Matt Smith won the Pro Stock Motorcycle title in 2007 from the top spot, though he did surrender the points lead to Andrew Hines for a few weeks in the middle of the Countdown.
But six other champions from 2007-'08—three-fourths of the winners in the playoff's history—did it in come-from-behind fashion, relishing the role of chasers rather than the chased.
“The bottom line is if some of the guys up front stumble, somebody in the back can capitalize,” said Pro Stock Motorcyclist Eddie Krawiec. “That's the nice thing about this system—it gives hope. It shows every team, if you're in the Countdown to 1, you guarantee yourself a shot at winning the championship.”
Krawiec is the best proof of that, having won a championship last year on his Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson after starting the Countdown in seventh place. He vaulted to the top with remarkable consistency, reaching the final round in four of the five races featuring the bikes. He didn't even win any of them, following a winless regular season, but that was a footnote. The story was his racing in 19 of 20 possible rounds and making an improbable leap to the top.
Now his challenge is to do it the other way, starting on top. Krawiec collected four wins in 12 PSM events, twice as many as any other rider, putting him atop the reset points. The top 10 in each class are separated by 10-point increments, with 20 additional points awarded to the regular-season points champ. The leaders in the other three professional classes are Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Tony Pedregon (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock).
The Countdown to 1 begins this weekend at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., with the second annual Carolinas Nationals, then continues without a break to Dallas, Memphis, Tenn., and Richmond, Va. It's the longest uninterrupted stretch of the season.
“You're going to take a deep breath and let it out and we are going to be done with Virginia, and it's going to be two races left and quite a bit different than you see the points right now,” said Capps, who starts the Countdown from the second spot in Funny Car points.
Adding to the possible points shakeups are twists going into effect for the first time this week. NHRA officials announced at Indianapolis that qualifying points will be awarded in Countdown events, with three-, two- and one-point bonuses given to the top three cars or bikes in each session. With four qualifying sessions on tap this weekend, that could mean up to 12 points for a car perfectly tuned for four trips down the track.
For someone like Coughlin, a below-average qualifier this year for such a tremendous race-day performer, it could mean a change in strategy to the entire weekend in the Jegs.com Chevy Cobalt.
“We are typically a team that would come in on the conservative side and work our tuneup and setup, by (sessions) three and four (Saturday), we are typically in the top-5 or better,” said Coughlin, who has won both previous Countdowns after starting third in points. “We are typically an extremely strong team on race day, I think we'll filter some of that backward toward Friday.”
At many races the quickest qualifying runs come during Friday's evening qualifying, and teams safely locked into eliminations after that session sometimes return on Saturday to test different setups. In Funny Car or Top Fuel, that might mean the 7,000-horsepower cars smoke the tires early or otherwise fail to make complete 1,000-foot passes. Now, there is incentive to run all the way to the finish line.
“In Top Fuel, there are so many cars running within hundredths of a second. It's no longer that one car going fast and everyone else just trying to figure it out,” said Schumacher, third in points but flying with momentum after his record-tying eighth U.S. Nationals win. “So it's going to be about being able to know what you've got to do and go out there and just try to sneak that quick run in each and every time for those points. The points will matter.
“It's surprising that (NHRA) came out with it right now, where they have to get used to it with six races to go, but I'm OK with it. We are one of the cars, Antron has one of the cars, (Larry) Dixon has one of the cars; we are all going to benefit from that at some point.”
Another carrot dangled in front of the nitro classes is the return of elapsed-time records, this time for 1,000-foot racing. Any team setting a new E.T. mark (with a corresponding backup mark within 1 percent of the record in the same weekend) will receive a 20-point bonus, which could loom large by the end of the year. Schumacher won the 2006 title on the last pass of the season at Pomona, Calif., with a record-setting run.
Schumacher holds the current Top Fuel 1,000-foot record of 3.771 seconds, set last October at Richmond, while Capps' 4.023-second pass at Phoenix earlier this year is the Funny Car standard.
With Richmond on tap next month and usually racy Pomona at season's end, teams see two chances for record runs.
“It's going to be interesting, because it adds a twist to it and makes it a lot more exciting for the fans and our crew chiefs. When you run fast, I mean, everybody feels good,” Brown said. “When you run those record-breaking E.T.'s, everybody leaves with a smile on their face.”
The smile will be even bigger if it helps land a title.
Top-seeded drivers at a glance:
ANTRON BROWN, Top Fuel: Matco Tools driver has never been lower than second in points all season, and has held onto first place since June at Chicago. … Has five wins including sweep of July's three-race “Western Swing”, the seventh driver in NHRA history to do so. … Won two races and finished fifth last year in first Top Fuel season. … Won 16 races and finished second in points twice during 10-year Pro Stock Motorcycle career.
TONY PEDREGON, Funny Car: Has three wins in the Q Horsepower Chevy Impala SS, including last month at Brainerd, Minn., over second-in-points Ron Capps. Other two wins came over Ashley Force Hood, third in points. … Has left starting line first nearly 80 percent of the time (39-10-1). … Won championship in 2003 and 2007, brother Cruz Pedregon won last year.
JEG COUGHLIN Jr., Pro Stock: Two-time defending champion seeking fifth overall title this decade in Jegs.com Chevy Cobalt. … Seven wins this season lead all classes; also takes two-race win streak into Countdown. … Has not lost in first round all season. … Car hasn't qualified as well as other top Pro Stockers, but has won four times from No. 8 position and won at Indianapolis after qualifying 12th.
EDDIE KRAWIEC, Pro Stock Motorcycle: Won title last year in second full season of competition. … The Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson has appeared in eight final rounds in 12 events, with four wins. … Opening-round loss at Indianapolis was first early exit of season. … Has 7-0 record in red-light rounds