NHRA: As Countdown moves to second round, questions abound

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The NHRA playoffs move on to the second round of the six-race Countdown to the Championship for this weekend’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in suburban St. Louis.

But before we move forward, let’s look back at the Countdown-opening Carolina Nationals last weekend in suburban Charlotte.

Several questions arose from the results. Let’s break things down:

* In Top Fuel, for the second consecutive year, Antron Brown won the Countdown-opening race. Can Brown take that win and do the same thing he did last year, namely, go on and win the championship again? Can he make it two titles in a row and three in the last five years?

* Can Doug Kalitta, who is in second place in the standings (42 points behind Brown), overtake Brown in the coming races and finally earn his first Top Fuel championship after nearly 20 years of trying?

* This weekend’s race at Gateway could be very pivotal for the third through seventh-ranked drivers in Top Fuel, who are already 100 or more points behind Brown: Steve Torrence (-100), Brittany Force (-116), eight-time champion Tony Schumacher (-127), J.R. Todd (-152) and Shawn Langdon (-159). If they don’t have strong finishes this Sunday, could some of them potentially find their playoff chances all but over?

* In Funny Car, the biggest story of Carolina was the event victory by 67-year-old driver John Force. The winningest driver in NHRA history (16 championships, 146 national event wins) has made it very clear that he intends on winning a 17th championship. Force came close to that milestone in 2014, but Matt Hagan pulled away in the final two races of the Countdown to win the championship. Now Force has another chance. Can he finish what he wasn’t able to do two years ago?

* In his 22nd season on the NHRA national circuit, Ron Capps is arguably in the best position he’s ever been in to win his first Funny Car championship. Capps has four wins this season and remains atop the Funny Car standings after Carolina. Defending champ Del Worsham is second (-42), while Force is third (-50). Can Capps finally put it all together this year to win that elusive first title?

* Alexis DeJoria is close to being fully healed from the fractured pelvis she suffered in a wreck at Sonoma. While DeJoria is 10th in the Countdown in the Funny Car class, 158 points behind Capps, strong runs at Gateway and next week at Maple Grove Raceway could potentially put her right back in the game for championship contention. Don’t sell DeJoria short. With Kalitta Motorsports backing, she still has the potential to become one of the biggest surprises of the Countdown in Funny Car. The question is, will she?

* Even though he failed to qualify for the Countdown, former two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon looked very strong at Carolina. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, could Pedregon become the biggest spoiler in Funny Car in the Countdown?

* In Pro Stock, teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson have combined for 15 wins in the first 19 races. It’s going to be hard for another driver to challenge their supremacy, but because the Countdown is essentially a new season, if there’s a class where we could see potential upsets, it’s Pro Stock. Can Line and Anderson hold on to their standings lead and potentially end the season facing each other in the final run of the year for the championship?

* Two-time defending Pro Stock champion Erica Enders got off to the worst start possible in the Countdown, failing to qualify to race in last Sunday’s eliminations at Charlotte. Enders, who has struggled all season, finds herself still in the Countdown, but in 10th place (last) she is also a massive 213 points behind points leader Jason Line. For Enders to have any chance of making it three titles in a row, she essentially is faced with a must-win situation in each of the last five races of the Countdown – and even if she were to win all five, that still may not be enough. Is Enders’ reign as Pro Stock’s best driver at an end?

* Jeg Coughlin also has his work cut out for him in Pro Stock. The former five-time champion lost in the first round at Charlotte and finds himself heading to Gateway this weekend in ninth place, 181 points behind Line. Coughlin has built his career and being a driver who thrives on pressure and coming from behind, but being so many points back and with so few races left, can he mount a comeback that could challenge Line and Anderson?

* In Pro Stock Motorcycle, defending and five-time champion Andrew Hines is off to a good start, coming into this weekend where he’s been much of the season already: No. 1 in the standings. Can Hines keep up his momentum in the remaining five races?

* In what was the biggest upset – and most likely the most pleasant surprise – of the Carolina Nationals, veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Chip Ellis unquestionably pulled off the biggest upset of the day in all four pro classes. Ellis defeated Hines in the final round to capture his seventh career win – but the first since 2008. With the win, Ellis vaulted to second place in the standings, just 44 points behind Hines. Could Ellis be this year’s Cinderella story of the Countdown?

* Veteran rider Steve Johnson missed the Countdown but showed he could be a spoiler during the playoffs, advancing to the semifinals at Carolina before losing to Hines. Could Johnson have a significant impact upon the Countdown and how it plays out if his Suzuki continues running like it did at Charlotte?

NOTES: The NHRA made two announcements Tuesday.

First, Dodge has been named the title rights sponsor of the upcoming third race of the Countdown, at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pennsylvania.

The race will be held Sept. 29-Oct. 2 and will be known as the 32nd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals.

“The Dodge NHRA Nationals in the Keystone state is an integral part of the championship hunt,” said Brad Gerber, NHRA vice president and chief development officer. “We are pleased to have Dodge involved with the event and will build upon their relationships in the sport of NHRA Drag Racing.”

Second, four tracks have joined the NHRA Member Track Network and will all be part of the NHRA’s Southeast Division 2. Those tracks are Orlando Speed World Dragway in Orlando, Fla., Lakeland Drag Strip in Lakeland, Fla., South Georgia Motorsports Park in Cecil, Ga., and Emerald Coast Dragway in Holt, Fla.

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