DieHard Race Week Start-Up, Charlotte
Thursday, September 13, 2012

It may have taken 12 days to complete, but with the 58th running of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus finally in the rearview mirror, the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series can take a moment to relax, regroup, and get ready for … (enter ESPN’s Lee Corso) … “Not so fast, my friend!”

To the contrary, the men and women of our traveling circus barely have enough time to tear down the big top, truck it on down the road to Charlotte, and put it back up before the cackle of a big-block Hemi roars to life again. First came the Western Swing, three races in three weeks out West. Now enter the “Fall Swing,” four consecutive races beginning this weekend with the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries at zMAX Dragway. After Charlotte, it’s Dallas, St. Louis, and Reading. Add in that the Countdown is in full swing, and there is no rest for the wicked!

The U.S. Nationals had a pretty dramatic day last Sunday. Highlighting the winner’s circle was Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher, who drove his U.S. Army dragster to his ninth win, breaking a tie with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for the most in class history. “The Sarge” also got locked up with a couple more legends in the process. Tied for the most Full Throttle wins ever at the Big Go with Pro Stock’s Bob Glidden, “the Sarge’s” 69th tally of his career also evens the score with the “Kind of Speed,” Kenny Bernstein. Pretty exclusive company for the man many consider the favorite to win the championship. Antron Brown locked up the top spot in the Countdown, and Bob Vandergriff Jr. held on to the final spot by only nine points over Clay Millican. With the defending champ, Del Worsham, now tuning Funny Cars, Top Fuel is guaranteed a new champ in 2012. For a look at all the points scenarios, be sure to check out NHRA.com. And did I mention Larry Dixon will be behind the wheel for the first time all season? He will be in the Dote Racing car for three of the final six events (Charlotte, St. Louis, and Reading).

Funny Car lived up to its always entertaining but highly unpredictable billing! With teammates racing each other left and right and one race car that blew up on back-to-back passes (driven by Todd Lesenko), there was drama on nearly each pass down the track. When it was all over, Mike Neff earned his second consecutive U.S. Nationals win when he beat Tim Wilkerson, who made headlines of his own. Starting the day 12th in the points standings, Wilkerson won three rounds, which, despite an oildown penalty that nearly cost him, put him 10th in the points by day's end, earning him the right to run for the championship. Because of that development, the defending class champion, Matt Hagan, was left seven points short in 11th, and Bob Tasca III came up 28 markers short of the line of demarcation. Ron Capps is the regular-season champion and will lead the field in the Countdown.

Pro Stock provided perhaps the most-talked-about outcome when Dave Connolly, crew chief of Erica Enders, used a small holeshot to slip past his own driver and win his third U.S. Nationals. Consider that he’s a part-timer and that he participated in Indy for the first time since going back to back in 2007 and 2008, you can do the math — that adds up to 12 straight round-wins. Did I mention that he is slated to race at four of the six races? It is also worth noting that despite the loss, Enders remains the favorite for the class title after claiming the fourth spot in points. The worst thing that she ran into in Indy could also be just the “block” she needs to write even more history in Pro Stock. Allen Johnson, the No. 1 seed, will still be tough, as will Summit teammates Jason Line (second) and Greg Anderson (third). Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbed the 10th and final Countdown spot, and Larry Morgan caught a break, going from a DNQ (prior to the race being rescheduled) to a round-win and the ninth spot in the points. Shane Gray suffered the exact opposite of luck, ultimately missing the show and falling from in to out of the championship race.

And in Pro Stock Motorcycle, good luck finding anybody giving any odds that the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson team will lose a race this season, let alone not win the championship. Andrew Hines finally won the U.S. Nationals, marking the first time the manufacturer has found the winner’s circle on drag racing’s biggest stage. Donning new shining candied colors, Eddie Krawiec (purple) and Hines (green), first and second in the Countdown, respectively, have won all 10 races this season and 12 straight dating back to last year. Without a doubt, it is now put-up-or-shut-up time for a field that for the first time since the season opener has been this close. The Hectors (Jr. in third and Sr. in fourth) still firmly believe that they can rise up and challenge. Only time will tell … and in just a very short time, we will all find out.

It is the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at "the Bellagio of dragstrips,” zMAX Dragway. And tickets are only a phone call away at 800-455-RACE (3267). There are numerous packages to be had, but one that got my attention is two tickets to any day for only $60. Also of note, children 13 and younger are admitted free every day with a paying adult. And remember, every ticket is a pit pass!

ESPN is your home away from the track every weekend. This weekend’s schedule is as follows:

Live second-session qualifying: Friday at 5 p.m. (all times ET) on ESPN3
Qualifying recap: Sunday at 3 a.m. on ESPN2
Qualifying recap re-air: Sunday at 2 p.m. on ESPN2
Live eliminations: Sunday at 11 a.m. on ESPN3
Eliminations recap: Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN2

With only six races to decide the champions, a good start is a must. Talk to most of the men and women in the pits, and they will tell you that though you can’t win the title at the first race, you can certainly put yourself behind the eight ball. In the past three years, eight of the 12 winners in the four Professional divisions who won in Charlotte have gone on to win the championship.

On to Carolina!