NHRA Countdown Contenders: The Movers, Shakers, and Losers

Tony Schumacher’s 75th win!

When the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship started in Charlotte back in September, there were 20 potential champions in the Top Fuel and Funny Car ranks.  Four races down, there’s been a lot of movement in the standings– some climbers and some sliders.

When I made my preseason picks, I selected Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel and Ron Capps in Funny Car mainly because they were the two most deserving.  Kalitta has three runner-ups (2003-04, ‘06) and Capps has been runner up in the championship standings four times (1998, 2000, ‘05 and in 2012 lost by two points).  I was hoping to see a new face on top of the standings, but it won’t happen this year for these two.

Doug Kalitta at the Gatornationals.

When the NHRA nitro divisions line up on the Strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway this Friday, the competitors will have four rounds of qualifying and four rounds of Sunday racing to change their fate for the future.

A breakdown in points goes like this, 10 points for being a participant, qualifying points of 3-2-1 for low ET in each qualifying session in a descending order.  Then after qualifying, points are awarded for each position in the lineup (8 – 1st, 7 – 2nd, 6 – 3rd, 5 – 4th, 4 – 5th and 6th, 3 – 7th and 8th, 2 – 9th through 12th, and 1 – 13th through 16th.  The race break down is 20 points for first round loser, 40 for the quarterfinals, 60 for a semi-finals finish, 80 for the runner up, and 100 for the win.  A new National elapsed time record is worth a bonus 20 points.

So, if you’re the No. 1 qualifier, set low ET in all four qualifying sessions, and win the race that driver will earn that driver 130 points.  The added National record bonus will give a total of 150 for the event.

Starting with Top Fuel, it looks like Tony Schumacher is inching closer to his eighth World Championship and appears like the U.S. Army team is marching forward with dominance.  As NHRA’s most prolific Top Fuel driver with 76 wins, Schumacher now has amassed a total of 2,462 points and a lead of 134 points over Doug Kalitta with three wins exclusively in the Countdown and one opening round loss giving him the best run to the title.  Besides, he’s the favorite this weekend after he won the Vegas spring race in April.

Schumacher in Dalls.

In the runner up position is Kalitta, but he only has a nine point lead over Steve Torrence, and 14 away from defending Top Fuel champion, Shawn Langdon.  All three of these positions could change so rapidly by the semi-finals in Vegas, but unless Schumacher goes out first round, all he has to do is maintain his lead by qualifying and matching his points with the other contenders in the early rounds.  The magic number is 151 for Schumacher leaving Las Vegas.

Kalitta dominated the regular season with ten final round appearances and earned two wins prior to the playoffs.  He was the leader at the turn before Schumacher rained on everyone else’s parade.

Torrence is making his best showing in the Countdown and has raced to the semifinals twice and two quarterfinals.  Langdon reached the finals in St. Louis, a semifinals conclusion in Dallas but has two first round defeats.

Steve Torrence in action.
Steve Torrence in action.

Just a round behind Kalitta, Torrence, and Langdon is the 2012 champion, Antron Brown.  He’s 170 points out of the lead, but only 36 out of second.  He won St. Louis and rebounded after a couple of early defeats by the third race, but went out in Reading in the first round erasing his hopes of getting back to the top.  He started the Countdown in second and has slipped to fifth now.

Only four points behind Brown is Kalitta’s teammate J.R. Todd, who has made the most progress after starting 10th and now going for a top five spot.  He reached the finals in Dallas, but his other results were three quarterfinals appearances.

Another Top Fuel runner is Spencer Massey, who dropped from sixth to seventh after the first four events.  He has two semi-finals, one quarterfinal, and a first round loss.  Another driver that had a great regular season is Khalid alBalooshi and finished fourth in the regular season.  Now he’s in eighth.  He reached the finals at Charlotte, but since then has had two quarterfinals and a first round loss.

Brittany Force comes from a winning family, no doubt.  Her first year in the Countdown didn’t pan out for her fans.  She had two first round losses, an unexpected DNQ in Dallas, and then came so close in Reading to collecting her first win before losing to leader, Schumacher in the finals.  She started ninth in the Countdown and is still there.

The biggest disappointment in the Countdown goes to the rookie candidate, Richie Crampton.  After winning the prestigious U.S. Nationals, he’s won only one round of competition since then.  After gaining all that momentum after a hot summer, the Morgan Lucas Racing team has struggled mightily when it counted the most.

Matt Hagan at Indy.  He's the one to beat.
Matt Hagan at Indy. He’s the one to beat.

Funny Car has narrowed down to a 2 man, one woman race.  Matt Hagan is now leader by 36, followed by guess who?  Yep, the 16-time champion, John Force and right on his heels in his daughter Courtney.  The Toyota Nationals has become major real estate for one of the three.  Every round of qualifying could be beneficial and whoever makes it the furthest could have a leg up going into Pomona.

Hagan is the leader by winning Charlotte and Reading along with reaching the finals in St. Louis.  John Force hasn’t won a race in the six-race format, but has a final, semi-final, quarterfinal and a first round loss to be second.  Daughter, Courtney has either won or out after the first round with back-to-back wins in Dallas and St. Louis and early losses in Charlotte and Reading.  She is 36 down from her dad, and 72 out of the lead.

Courtney Force at Sonoma.  She's still a contender against Hagan, and Dad, John Force.
Courtney Force at Sonoma. She’s still a contender against Hagan, and Dad, John Force.

Hagan can’t afford to lose early.  John Force can’t afford to lose, period.  There are just eight rounds of racing left.  Courtney Force could have a career day and make it a three-way battle at Pomona for the Auto Club NHRA Finals.

John Force isn't ready to back down in the chase for the championship.
John Force isn’t ready to back down in the chase for the championship.

Right behind the top three that can mathematically move up are Tommy Johnson, Jr. and Robert Hight, respectively.  These two are 114 and 135 points behind and it’s either win or kiss their chances good-bye in Vegas.

A major disappointment was the Kalitta Racing Funny Car driven by Alexis DeJoria.  She had three wins and another final round in 2014, but in the Countdown has raced to two first round losses, one quarterfinal, and a semi-final.  This team could play the spoiler role and quickly become a thorn in the side of the top three.  Crew chief, Tommy DeLago doesn’t like to lose and you can expect this team to run well in Las Vegas.

Now the next three, my preseason pick, Ron Capps has been all over the board.  They run well at some races, winning Epping and Brainerd, but had eight first round losses.  They also could pull the upset in Vegas and could have something to say who wins the championship.  It was just last year that Capps knocked out Matt Hagan and turned out the lights on his championship drive.

Del Worsham is another Funny Car driver who’s been there winning the 2012 Top Fuel championship and this season despite two final round appearance has yet to crack the winner’s column.  As the teammate of Alexis DeJoria in the Kalitta camp, this team has tons of potential.  He recently was defeated in the finals against Courtney Force in Dallas, so this team knows its way down the dragstrip.

Journeyman Tim Wilkerson got into the Top 10 over Jack Beckman keeping him out of the Countdown.  It’s been a lackluster year for Wilkerson.  The Countdown didn’t do him any favors with one semi-final, two quarterfinals, and a first round loss.  This team needs to get its bearings straight before they can make a comeback to prominence.

The biggest letdown is two-time Funny Car champion, Cruz Pedregon.  The speedy Pedregon has driven into a rut.  He won a round in Reading, but that was his first round win since Seattle in early August.  He’s 10th in points and really should be up there along side of Hagan and the Forces.  Vegas odds makers could have field day if this team rallies in the last two races and the promise for this team is endless.  The results obviously haven’t shown the effort.

All the drivers will be getting an extra hour of sleep Sunday night with Savings Time coming back, so they’re won’t be any excuses of not getting enough rest.  Although, who can sleep with so much on their mind.


About Jay Wells 321 Articles
Jay Wells, 61, is a veteran motorsports public relations and marketing official. He spent 33 years at the track working with NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, and NHRA series' before retiring in 2009. He began writing for RacingJunk.com in September of 2013 covering the NHRA and NASCAR circuits with post race coverage along with feature and breaking news stories. Wells resides in Mooresville, North Carolina. Follow Wells on Twitter @ jaywells500.

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