NHRA offers weekend's best bet

The motor sports world should focus on Clermont, Ind., this weekend instead of Fontana, Calif.

The NHRA will finalize its field at the U.S. Nationals near Indianapolis for its Countdown to One championship playoff in the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series.

Instead, several million more eyes will be tuned to the NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Fontana for the penultimate race of what now is called its regular season.

They must like a sport in which competitors win by playing bumper cars.

The 54th annual U.S. Nationals will have story lines NASCAR only can dream about.

Top Fuel leader Tony Schumacher has won 10 of 17 events, and the Army-backed driver is loved as much as NASCAR's Kyle Busch is disliked.

Tim Wilkerson, an independent racer running on a tight budget, leads the Funny Car standings.

Two women -- Hillary Will in Top Fuel and Ashley Force in Funny Car -- have won titles this year and will contend for championships.

Rookie Antron Brown is No. 2 in Top Fuel with a win this year, when he became the second black driver to triumph.

Those topics should draw the spotlight to Indiana, but none will.

The relative lack of interest in the world's biggest drag race is because too many motor-sports aficionados don't respect drag racers -- kind of the way many stock-car drivers don't respect their counterparts.

But it doesn't help drag racing's credibility that most full-time pro drivers after Monday's elimination rounds will be in the Countdown.

Many consider the regular season laughable in the NHL because 16 of 30 teams (53 percent) advance to the playoffs; 51 percent of NBA teams advance.

The NFL sends 37 percent of its teams to the postseason.

But it's a much easier route in NHRA, where the top 10 in each of its four pro categories move on to championship contention.

Only 15 Top Fuel dragsters competed at the last race in Reading, Pa., and 67 percent of them will get into the Countdown. It has been more challenging in Nitro Funny Car (50 percent ) and Pro Stock (43 percent).

In NASCAR, 12 of about 45 full-time drivers (27 percent) advance to the Chase for the Cup. Along with Major League Baseball (27 percent), Cup offers the most elite fields.

Neither of the racing playoff formats thrilled me at first. Traditions took big hits. But the Chase and Countdown have added interest.

NHRA's inaugural Countdown last year has been improved. A year ago, the initial field of eight was cut to four for the final two events; points were reset each time.

That didn't work out for Las Vegan Rod Fuller, who had a nearly insurmountable Top Fuel points lead wiped out. Fuller, currently fifth in points, missed getting the Top Fuel title after losing in the first round at the final event, which Schumacher won.

Tables could turn this year.

Schumacher, a six-time champion, has won the last five events.

His 526-point lead -- 20 points are awarded for each round win -- over Brown will be erased.

Countdown drivers will be separated by 10 points. A change will give Schumacher and other pro leaders 20-point bonuses for winning the regular season and 30-point leads to start the playoff Sept. 14 at the new dragstrip at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C.

A year ago, Fuller led by 184 points before the Countdown. The regular-season points leaders weren't given 20 points. He could have used it; he lost the title by 19.

I urge race fans to give drag racing a try this weekend by tuning to expanded programming on ESPN2 (Cable 31) through Monday's championship eliminations.

If for no other reason than to see if Schumacher's phenomenal run continues.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.