The NHRA POWERade series won't have much time to catch its breath after an eventful race in Columbus, Ohio, last weekend. There will be little time for the winners to savor their good fortune nor will the losers have much of an opportunity to critique their missteps.
The 17th O'Reilly Summer Nationals will be called into session beginning on Friday at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan., and the early predictions are that the Fickle Finger of Fate will be meddling with the raceday destinies of the three professional classes just as it has over the course of the first eight events of 2006.
With the Pro Stock Motorcycle class taking some time off, here's a look ahead.
Not much of this year's Top Fuel storybook has made sense. Just when you think Melanie Troxel's season-long secret combination for ironclad consistency is infallible, she stumbles in Round 2 at two of the last three races. Just when it appears Doug Kalitta is poised to make a giant move to the top with two straight wins, he drops a first-round matchup with Larry Dixon in Columbus. And Tony Schumacher's mysterious 2006 M.O. of qualifying dominance leading to early-round defeats on Sunday has yet to be explained fully.
Will Brandon Bernstein be the newest hot item in the class? Based on a near-flawless performance in Columbus with four elapsed times in eliminations within a few hundredths of a second of each other, he might be the driver in the best position to benefit from back-to-back races. But Cory McClenathan's runner-up finish last week -- his first final round appearance of '06 -- follows three straight first-round losses, perhaps an indication that tuner Wes Cerny has straightened out the litany of mechanical headaches the team has been battling all year.
With the weather forecast for Topeka predicting sunny skies and 90-degree temperatures all weekend, a hot, tricky track usually becomes a key factor in determining a Top Fuel winner. The Summer Nationals might be another race where the sensible takes a back seat to the unlikely.
Ron Capps and Tony Pedregon are the two biggest stories in Funny Car heading into Topeka -- for entirely opposite reasons.
Capps' career-best start to the season which saw him advance to the final round in four of the first six races and tally three victories on his way to a sizable lead in the POWERade points has cooled considerably. He has now gone without a round win in the last two races and only the spotty performance of 13-time champion John Force has allowed Capps to preserve much of his points lead -- although it is no longer a triple-digit affair. It's a good bet Capps will leave Topeka with the points lead no matter what happens, but another first-round loss and a charge through eliminations by Force could change the big picture in a hurry.
Tony Pedregon's convincing two-race win streak has placed him on the outer fringes of the Funny Car radar screen. Tony is still a hefty 232-points behind Capps but Pedregon has taken a big bite out of what was almost twice as large a lead two races ago. All it would take would be a third consecutive first-round tumble by Capps and another big day for Tony -- in fact, for any of the half-dozen drivers scrambling behind Capps -- and Topeka could be a major turning point in the road to the 2006 championship.
Another points leader who needs to regain his title pace this weekend is Greg Anderson. The defending Topeka event champion has one round win in the last two races and he's fortunate that the closest driver to him in the points is his teammate Jason Line. But Jim Yates' Columbus win last week has pulled him to within nearly two rounds of racing to Anderson while anyone currently in the top 10 can tighten the standings' race with a victory this Sunday.
Pro Stock has been the quintessential example of the "Zero to Hero" storyline in 2006. Nobody has been able to get hot and stay that way. Drivers such as Anderson, Line, Warren and Kurt Johnson, Dave Connolly -- pick a name -- haven't been able to capitalize on a successful outing by following up at the next race with an equally satisfying encore. Eight different winners in the first eight races, No.1 qualifiers getting upset in Round 1 matchups, and national event winners failing to qualify at the next race. We've seen examples of that all year and with Connolly's win last week at the racetrack closest to his Elyria, Ohio, home, expectations typically would be that such an emotional high might give him some genuine impetus going into Topeka this weekend.
But in 2006 terms, Connolly shouldn't expect to wear the trappings of the category favorite at Heartland Park this time around. Lightning hasn't struck twice for any Pro Stock driver since the season began, and if anything, a trip to the winner's circle at a previous event almost has been a jinx in this season of surprises.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.