NHRA Countdown has its winners, falterers as halfway point passes

Ron Lewis

The NHRA's Countdown to the Championship is halfway over, and three races remain – with plenty of drama left in each class.

The Pro Stock Motorcycle category looks to crown one of the Harley-Davidson riders as champion again, but the drama here is not whether it's Eddie Krawiec or Andrew Hines but rather whether the 2013 rules are enough to satisfy the non-Harley teams enough not to revolt.

But in the Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock classes, the focus is points. And the leaders had better look out. Here's a recap of the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis at Madison, Ill.:

Destination: Winners Circle

Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Biggest Winner of the Weekend

Jack Beckman. The Valvoline/NextGen Dodge Charger driver trimmed Don Schumacher Racing teammate and points leader Ron Capps' advantage over him from 96 to 30 by winning his third Funny Car Wally statue of the season. With only three races remaining in the season, Beckman said, "It's nice to know that we have a car that can challenge for the championship. All we want is a fighting chance going into Pomona (the season finale)."

Biggest Loser of the Weekend

John Force Racing. The early-season Funny Car dominators were gone by Round 2. Three of the four lost in the opening round. The mighty have fallen, but this team has proven it can rise from disappointment and even destruction. So with three Countdown races ending in frustration, JFR has three chances to neutralize their Don Schumacher Racing counterparts' recent successes.

Hard-Luck Award Winner

Funny Car racer Terry Haddock. Surveying the damage form a body-detonating explosion during qualifying, the problem-plagued IHRA Nitro Funny Car champion did some serious soul-searching. "More and more, as time goes on, I wonder if it's worth it," Haddock told Competition Plus. "My dad never taught me to quit. Or maybe, he never made me smart enough to quit. I always feel like I have to win, have to beat this challenge. I'm sure it's not the responsible thing, but I'm sure tomorrow I will be hard at work trying to figure out how to fix this. At some point I'll sit down and determine what the responsible thing is. All these years I've tried and tried and tried. Sometimes when you try there are your skeptics who say you don't belong out there. But if you're not there, no one will ever know you want to be there. It's hard to know what the right answer is."

Up-Down Index

Top three making improvements, three headed the wrong direction/having bad weekend:

UP

• Jack Beckman – The No. 2-ranked Funny Car driver needed to go rounds and have Ron Capps drop out early, and that's what he got Sunday.

• Tim Wilkerson – Despite his worst qualifying effort since Sonoma (10th), Illinois' favorite son in the Funny Car ranks scored a semifinal finish and moved up to fifth place. He has gained five spots in the standings since the Countdown began. He's just 164 points off leader Ron Capps' pace with three events left to close the gap. "We're halfway there. No complaints. We'll just try to keep it going," the Springfield owner-driver said.

• Erica Enders – She and the GK Motorsports team avenged the previous Sunday's loss to Allen Johnson in the Dallas final round and improved one position in the standings. With four victories in the past 10 races (which include two runner-up efforts, two No. 1 qualifiers, and two elapsed-time track records), Enders is in third place. With three races left, she is 17 points out of second place and 126 behind leader Johnson. Enders also carried the NHRA drag racing banner in Driver of the Year Award third-quarter voting, following newly crowned IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski. Enders received two first-place votes.

DOWN

• Robert Hight – A clutch malfunction in his AAA Insurance Ford Mustang cost him in his Round 1 race against Tim Wilkerson. Hight led the points most of the season and through the Western Swing and was no worse than second place entering the Countdown. Today's he's in seventh place and must earned a repeat victory at Reading if he has any chance to make up the 182-point margin leader Ron Capps has on him. "We are not out of it yet by a long shot," Hight said. "Capps went out in Round 2, so we can still catch him in a couple of races."

• John Force – After the No. 2 qualifier lost to No. 15 journeyman Dale Creasy – for the fourth consecutive time they've met in eliminations – Force fell one spot in the standings, to 10th place, 218 points off the lead. The only really positive news for Force is that he's only 59 points – three rounds – out of fourth place.

• Ron Capps – Make it a Funny Car trifecta for this dubious honor. Capps and Tobler need to rekindle their mid-season magic, for they're letting too many teams take advantage of the stumbles.

Most Notable Qualifying Occurrence

Jason Line recorded what turned out to be low E.T. and top speed of the meet among Pro Stockers, dipping into the 6.4-second range. The KB/Summit racing driver also set both ends of the track record with his No. 1-qualifying 6.496-second elapsed time and 213.47-mph speed. Line's low-key reaction? "All in all, pretty darn happy to have a starting spot here at St. Louis," he said. "Last time I was here I didn't get one. So this place does not necessarily have fond memories for me. Maybe this will be one." He had a semifinal finish.

Most Notable Elimination Occurrence

It's as simple as ABC: Antron Brown Commands. He led the Top Fuel field with a blistering track-record 3.737-second, 326.79-mph performance Friday. Then he outlasted some of the class' toughest opponents, including finalist Spencer Massey, his DSR teammate, to assume the points lead. It's just 21 points, and he knows he can't let up if he is to win his first championship.

"We snuck off with that win. That was a tough battle against our teammate Spencer. That FRAM car has been tough all year. And to get a win through them is one of those incredible, hard feats," Brown said. "It's definitely very, very competitive, and these guys aren't playing anymore. It was a stressful day where we matched up against some great competition. Matching up against my teammate in the final was big – we've been back and forth in the points.

"It's great to have six wins, but right now they're all in the past. We need to go back to the shop and get focused on these last three races. It's just so competitive out here – and this point race is going to go down to the last race."

Most Memorable Quotes of the Weekend

"From our guys in the shop to our guys on the road, the guys who put this car together, and our crew chiefs, and us drivers, we lean on each other and we're able to make those unbelievable things believable." - Antron Brown

"But every round before that there's a lot of pressure. There's a lot of pressure before we get here. With all of these team members and all of these sponsors, I deal with a lot every day and every week. It's not an easy task, but to get the reward out here -- to have the final two in Top Fuel and the final two in Funny Car -- that's just incredible for my whole organization." - Don Schumacher, saying once his teams set up an all-DSR final round he feels the pressure evaporate.

"Sometimes change is difficult. There have been a lot of different drivers in Don Schumacher Funny Cars since I started driving there in 2006. You're adding teams, moving people, shuffling things around. I think I've had seven different crew chiefs since I've been here. And every single one of 'em has given me a car that can win a race. So I think that shows you the depth of quality that we're able to bring into DSR." - Jack Beckman

"I always say God has a plan. And maybe His plan for this year is for it to come down to one run for the championship." - Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster

Down the Road

Oct. 5-7: Auto-Plus Nationals, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa.

At The Back Gate

Sidelined Pro Stock driver Buddy Perkinson had not raced in NHRA competition since the November 2011 season finale at Pomona. As he woke up Friday from his 21st birthday celebration the day before and got ready to have some breakfast in Prince George, Va., he wasn't thinking he'd be driving a race car that day.

But before dinnertime, he had grabbed a flight to St. Louis, made a mad dash to the racetrack across the river at Madison, Ill., jumped in and qualified a provisional No. 5. Perkinson got a call about 8:15 that morning from Cagnazzi Racing's Dave Connolly, asking him to substitute for Mark Martino, who had to tend to a family situation.

Perkinson settled into the eighth qualifying spot with the DeSantis Crane Service Pontiac GXP and beat veteran V Gaines on a holeshot Sunday for his career-first round-win. Perkinson, who arrived at the track Friday with just 10-15 minutes to spare before his first qualifying run, shrugged off any apprehension. He said, "It's a steering wheel and two doors, you know? A car's a car. Every one is different, but it's still a car."

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