NHRA does the playoffs right

August, 27, 2010

Give me the Countdown over the Chase any day.

The NHRA version of a playoff is fewer races than the Chase (six instead of 10) and fewer qualifiers (10 instead of 12) for each of its pro classes.

Fewer playoff events mean each race has greater significance. And fewer competitors mean each driver has a better chance of winning the title.

The NHRA also gets it right by starting the playoff with its biggest event, a change for this season. The U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, which begin Friday in the pro classes, start the Countdown to 1 this year for the first time.

"It's our Super Bowl, our Indy 500 and Daytona 500," Funny Car driver Ron Capps said last week on a visit to Bristol Motor Speedway. "And now we're not only preparing for the U.S. Nationals, but the start of the Countdown also."

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Robert Hight
NHRAFunny Car driver Robert Hight started last season's playoffs as the last qualifier, but he went on to win the title.

Robert Hight, the defending Funny Car champion, believes starting the playoff at Indy adds excitement and attention to the Countdown.

"This is the biggest race we have all year long," Hight said this week on a conference call. "This is the granddaddy of them all. This is a great place to start the Countdown."

But starting the playoff at Indy is a one-year deal. The 2011 Countdown will start at the NHRA's best facility, zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C.

Hight won his first Funny Car title last season after barely making it in the Countdown in the 10th spot.

No Sprint Cup driver has won the Chase after starting the playoff from the last qualifying spot. Kurt Busch won the first Chase in 2004 after he started the playoff seventh. The Chase winner has started third or better since 2005.

And the Countdown also has delivered dramatic battles for the championship in the final race, something the Chase has failed to do except for the first year.

Seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher won the first Countdown in 2007 on his final pass of the season, winning the event at Pomona to edge Rod Fuller for the title.

Schumacher won his sixth consecutive title last year by only two points over Larry Dixon, who starts the Countdown on top this year. The regular-season points leader gets a 30-point advantage over the driver in the No. 2 spot.

"Our goal right from the start has been to finish first in the regular season and get that 30-point cushion," said Dixon, who has won nine events this season. "If we had it last year, we would have won the title."

Cruz Pedregon had not won a Funny Car race all season in 2008 before a Countdown charge at the end, winning the final three events to take the title.

All three Pro Stock Motorcycle Countdowns have been decided by six points or fewer, which is less than one round of racing.

"The reason for the Countdown was to keep people in the seats," said John Force, a 14-time Funny Car champion who starts the 2010 playoff on top. "There were years that I had the championship wrapped up by Indy and it was like, 'Why do people want to go if they already know who won?' Now it's really interesting."

Far more interesting than the Chase has been most of the time.

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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