CLERMONT, Ind. -- The intensity and importance of the Chevrolet Performance NHRA Nationals has been ramped up since the NHRA introduced its Countdown to the Championship playoff format a few years ago.
The almost 60-year-old event at Lucas Oil Raceway has long been considered the most prestigious stop on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour. But now it also represents a driver's last chance to make -- or miss -- the six-race Countdown.
Top Fuel ace Shawn Langdon was the holiday weekend's big winner, carting home a $100,000 bonus for his victory in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout on Sunday in addition to a Wally trophy for his first triumph at the "Big Go."
Langdon has been the dominant Top Fuel driver this season with five wins and he will enter the Countdown as the top seed. As the No. 4 qualifier at Indy, he bested Pat Dakin, Terry McMillen and Doug Kalitta before his 3.818 second/320.97 mph run knocked off Steve Torrence in the final.
"This is the biggest race of the year by far and this team just did a phenomenal job," Langdon said. "With how special this event is, with the history behind it, it was important for me to win this and I wanted it bad.
"We want to keep the momentum going and keep working hard."
The biggest surprise Monday in Top Fuel was the early exit of Don Schumacher Racing. After qualifying 1-2-3, the DSR entries of fastest qualifier Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey were all eliminated in the first round.
On a cool, overcast Labor Day morning that followed days of stifling heat, the Schumacher team collectively missed the setup. Had they made it through the first round, the Schumacher cars may have gained speed, because the sun burned through and the temperature crept into the mid-80s by the time of the finals. Instead, the team had to pack up early for the short drive home to its nearby base in Brownsburg.
Brown had the biggest roller-coaster ride. In the space of about 18 hours, he went from being on the bubble as the No. 16 qualifier prior to pole position after his clutch final run, only to lose to eventual 16-seed Morgan Lucas in the first round.
Brown's 3.825-second pass was just a tick slower than the 3.811 that won him the top seed. But Lucas laid down a 3.784 to put Brown on the trailer. Similarly, Schumacher made a competitive 3.835-second pass that didn't match up to Clay Millican's 3.800.
"We're really disappointed, especially after how we qualified [Sunday] night," Brown said. "That's what you get. Everybody brings their A-game out here and we fell a little bit short."
Torrence and Bob Vandergriff were the final two Top Fuel drivers to make the Countdown. In Funny Car, the battle for the final Countdown spots was even more intense, and Robert Hight celebrated a double delight by bumping his way in with a U.S. Nationals victory.
The 2009 Funny Car champion ended a 35-race winless streak with his victory over Jack Beckman in the final. Hight's third Nationals win was the sixth consecutive at Indianapolis for John Force Racing.
"This is definitely the biggest win of my career," Hight said after clocking a 4.111 second/312.64 mph pass in the final. "We won four races in a row last year, and then to go into that dry spell, you start wondering and doubting yourself. That wears on you.
"[Crew chief] Mike Neff really changed things for me this weekend and this is the perfect time to get a win."
A clutch second-round victory against a tire-smoking John Force pushed Del Worsham past Bob Tasca III into the final Countdown spot, while Tim Wilkerson's run to the semifinals was also enough for him to clinch a playoff berth. Matt Hagan, another high-profile first-round casualty at Indianapolis, enters the Countdown with the No. 1 ranking in Funny Car.
Mike Edwards won admiration from his Pro Stock peers as well as a Wally trophy when he revealed that he has been racing the past few weeks with a rotator cuff injury in his left shoulder.
Fifteen years after his last U.S. Nationals victory, Edwards not only drove in pain, he won his last three races by holeshot. Edwards' quicker reaction time of .032 second propelled him past V. Gaines (.067) in the final despite running a 6.637 second ET to Gaines' 6.620.
"Right now, I ain't feeling no pain," Edwards told ESPN2's Gary Gerould. "The shoulder hurts, but this award is going to make it feel a lot better."
Edwards, who will enter the Countdown as the No. 1 seed in Pro Stock, told Gerould that doctors want to operate on his shoulder as soon as possible. But naturally he wants to wait until the NHRA season ends in November.
"I'm very much concerned," he said. "I'm going to go home and see if I can figure something out and maybe give me a little relief. But I've got to keep going."
Pro Stock Motorcycle was fought out between a pair of teammates, as John Hall edged his boss, Matt Smith, in an all-Buell final.
Countdown positions were secured in PSM by Eddie Krawiec, LE Tonglet, Shawn Gann and rookie Adam Arana, whose brother, Hector Arana Jr., is the top-seeded rider for the playoffs.
The NHRA Countdown for the Championship starts with the Carolina Nationals, Sept. 13-15 at zMax Dragway in Charlotte.