Photos: courtesy NHRA
Sunday’s K&N Filters Route 66 NHRA Nationals in suburban Chicago will likely go down as one of the best races of 2016.
While there were no national records set – although Jack Beckman came close with his 333.25 mph run in Funny Car — there were so many track records set that it was easy to lose count of how many new marks were established.
At last check, there were six different track marks either set or re-set at some point Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
The NHRA now has the next weekend off before it begins its annual West Coast swing: Denver, Sonoma and Seattle.
This past weekend’s event will go a long way towards setting a baseline for many drivers to push as hard as they can in the next five races to qualify for the upcoming Countdown to the Championship.
The Countdown essentially resets things across all three major pro divisions and the 24-race NHRA schedule quickly evolves into just a six-race season for those who qualify for the six-race playoff.
In other words, the first 18 races of the season are nothing more than a dress rehearsal for when it all counts: in the Countdown.
To see drivers like Funny Car’s Beckman win his first race of the season, or Angelle Sampey reach the final round of Pro Stock Motorcycle, was definitely uplifting.
We also saw ageless veteran Greg Anderson, 55, winning his sixth race of the season – and continued KBR’s streak of either Anderson or teammate Jason Line winning every race this season.
At the same time, there were a number of question marks that resulted – as in how several drivers failed to do what they do best, namely, win.
One has to wonder how it is that the winningest driver in Top Fuel history – eight-time champion and 80-race winner Tony Schumacher – has now gone more than a year since earning his last win.
Ironically, The Sarge’s last triumph came at the site of this past weekend’s race, his home track, Route 66 Raceway.
It’s also hard to believe how 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, who was vanquished in the first round Sunday at Route 66., is also in jeopardy of missing the Countdown if he doesn’t pick up his game in the next five races.
Another then there’s also Erica Enders, who won the NHRA Pro Stock championships in 2014 and 2015, and now is also in jeopardy of even qualifying for the Countdown.
The next five races will virtually be make-or-break for folks like Enders, Force and several others.
Between the three-race Western Swing, the race at Brainerd (Minnesota) and the final race to clinch a spot in the Countdown – the legendary U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend – teams will be doing all they can to improve their lots for the playoffs.
You’ll see more testing by teams, arguably more experimentation and even trying new parts, as well as likely tuning with the most aggressive tune-ups possible – even though that is also a recipe for smoking the tires and potentially wasting a run that could decide whether you make or miss the Countdown.
That’s right, just one run could essentially continue – or end, for all intents and purposes – a driver’s season.
With five races left that means a maximum of 40 runs remain in the regular season for each driver in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock. Do the math: four qualifying runs for each race, as well as a maximum of four elimination rounds in each race.
So you can see just how important each and every round will be.
To paraphrase a classic rock song by Three Dog Night: “One is the loneliest number that there ever is.”
Only in NHRA competition, one may be the only number that truly counts.