LAS VEGAS – Pro Stock's Allen Johnson and Pro Stock Motorcycle's Eddie Krawiec have little to do but show up at Pomona, Calif., in two weeks to claim their respective National Hot Rod Association series championships.
So the nitro-fueled classes will steal the spotlight at the Nov. 8-11 Auto Club Finals.
The Top Fuel battle is a knot of three Don Schumacher Racing colleagues. Tony Schumacher suddenly is applying the pressure on leader Antron Brown. Schumacher jumped from third place to second Sunday with his runner-up finish to Bob Vandergriff, whittling Brown's advantage from 136 points to 65.
But Spencer Massey, who lost in the second round Sunday at the Big O Tires Nationals here, also to Vandergriff, is clinging to a thread of hope that he can pull off some kind of super-performance such as Schumacher did with "The Run" in 2006.
"It's NHRA drag racing. You've got to keep your eyes on it, because it's an awesome show," Massey said. "Mathematically we still have a shot in Pomona. If things fall the right way, we can still win the championship. There are so many different scenarios. I'm not even going to think about it. I'm just going to try to win Pomona."
It's clear, though, that he strategizing like crazy. "If we qualify in Pomona like we did here [eight bonus points and a No. 2 start], we can make up almost another round of racing. So there's always that shot," Massey said. "There are different scenarios. It's not over until it's over. We've seen Tony Schumacher make 'The Run' and win the race, set the record, and get the championship."
"Easy, now," Schumacher and Brown might say.
Schumacher, that master of championship-producing, last-minute stunners with his U.S. Army Dragster in the season finale, said after qualifying, "We've pulled off miracles. You don't want to wish anyone else a mistake, but if we're going to be champs it's required."
However, he endorsed Brown [assuming Brown would fare well Sunday and pretty much lock up the title], saying the Matco Tools/Aaron's Dragster driver would make an excellent champion: "I hope he comes out and makes clean runs and becomes world champion. He's earned it."
Brown is scrambling to save his points lead after a first-round loss Sunday to new nemesis Khalid al-Balooshi helped erode his once-impressive points margin. That was Brown's second straight loss to the Al-Anabi Top Fuel rookie and the third overall in the Countdown. What looked like an almost-sure bet for the Top Fuel title looks in jeopardy now for Brown.
The consolation for Brown is that despite his worst start of the season (No. 13) and his opening-round exit at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he still leads the standings. All year -- whether he had the lead or was chasing Massey or Schumacher -- Brown promised a dogfight. And he has facilitated that, after entering the Las Vegas race with a 104-point edge.
"That's drag racing, he said. "The bad part is that we're letting these other guys get back in it," he said. "We're going to keep on pressing. We're not whipped. We'll be here testing [Monday]. One thing is that the good Lord is an able guy, He never gives you anything you can't handle. Things happen for a reason, and this is all part of it. We've put ourselves in a good position in case something like this happened."
In the Funny Car class, Jack Beckman also saw his advantage wane Sunday, although he reached the final round. The trouble is that Capps, his closest rival, did, too -- and beat him handily.
Capps trails by merely four points as he and Beckman have found their careers entangled in a way that will live on in NHRA lore.
When the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour visited Las Vegas in late March/early April, Capps was in a tailspin with his NAPA Dodge Charger. He failed to qualify for that spring race, then team owner Don Schumacher flip-flopped Capps' and Beckman's teams. Capps had bonded with Beckman's current team for seven-plus seasons, and Capps said it's "tough to go against them" in this Countdown. He said they all had opportunities to go elsewhere through the years but vowed to remain a unit.
"We always vowed we were going to win a championship together," he said. Now he must deliver a heartbreaking blow to them if he is going to earn his first championship.
The team swap proved career-saving for Capps. Beckman has flourished, as well, under new-to-DSR crew chief Todd Smith. Capps started the Countdown as points leader, and he built that margin to 96 points after the second of six playoff events. But Capps lost the lead to Beckman and began this return trip to Las Vegas trailing Beckman by 23 points.
The two met in the final round Sunday on the 1,000-foot course at The Strip at LVMS, and Capps won easily with a 4.070-second elapsed time at 315.12, as Beckman smoked the tires of his Valvoline/NextGen Dodge.
Capps said he feared Beckman in the final round: "I felt like stuff was going to go wrong. He's on a roll. To beat Jack was huge. We're both fighting for that first championship ring. I get up and that's all I think about. I go to bed and that's all I think about. And we're close."
Now the fours are wild at Pomona, with a measly four-point difference, four qualifying sessions, and four rounds of eliminations awaiting.
Beckman put his positive spin on the rivalry Sunday after his defeat. He said, "Right now we're four points ahead, but four points is the same as 20 points for winning a round in eliminations. So in a sense we're a round ahead right now. We had an off weekend. Our car didn't respond to a lot of the changes on Sunday and we still went to the final round."
Beckman got a lucky break in the semifinals when opponent rookie Courtney Force fouled out. However, in the round before that, he defeated John Force Racing's Mike Neff, the No. 3-ranked driver who is 88 points out of first place.
"The nice thing is that we went from having a remote chance when we were almost 100 points behind (Capps) to now having as good as chance as anybody to win the championship," Beckman said. "I'm excited to get to Pomona. I think we'll figure out what was ailing our car, and Pomona is our kind of race track."
In Pro Stock, Team Mopar/J&J Racing's Allen Johnson all but secured his first series crown in 17 years of racing with engine-expert father Roy. Allen Johnson defeated fellow finalist Vincent Nobile, who drives the Mountain View Tire Dodge Avenger with power from the Johnson shop.
Johnson enjoys a 126-point advantage over second-place and reigning champion Jason Line. "We wanted to come down on that championship with an iron fist," Johnson said Sunday after winning for the sixth time this year in 10 finals.
Also virtually sealing a third series title was Pro Stock Motorcycle's Eddie Krawiec, who scored a repeat victory at Las Vegas on the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson to top Matt Smith aboard his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell. "It takes a lot of pressure off going into Pomona," Krawiec said.
Photos: Ron Lewis