With the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series' Countdown to the Championship playoff system consisting of just six events, a driver can't afford to have a single bad weekend.
Just ask Antron Brown.
The defending Top Fuel champion put himself and his portion of the Don Schumacher Racing team in an early hole by failing to qualify for eliminations last weekend at the Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
The DNQ dropped Brown from sixth to ninth in the Top Fuel standings, but he was not the only big name who didn't enjoy much Carolina hospitality. Incoming points leader Shawn Langdon was a second-round casualty, costing him the top spot in the standings to Carolina runner-up Spencer Massey. Meanwhile, seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher exited in the first round, dropping him from third to fifth in the standings.
They'll all have to rebound quickly because the NHRA is already back in action this weekend with the AAA Texas Fallnationals outside Dallas. Qualifying highlights will be shown Saturday at 11:30 p.m. on ESPN News; ESPN2 will feature three hours of eliminations coverage Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Qualifying on Friday will be live on ESPN3 and WatchESPN at 6:15 p.m. ET, with Sunday's eliminations starting live at noon ET on the same networks.
Massey holds a 24-point lead over Langdon, while Lucas is 30 points back.
"We had a minor setback in Charlotte, but we still feel good about things," Langdon said. "The Al-Anabi car is still running strong, and team morale is still up, so it's not anything we're going to let get us down. We just have to keep working like we have been, keep digging and keep fighting. Hopefully, we can get that No. 1 spot back at the end of the Dallas event."
Brown hopes to get his title defense back on track this weekend at the Texas, where he was last year's winner.
"You never imagine that something like that is going to happen, and we never imagined that's how we'd start the Countdown," Brown said, discussing his disappointment from a week ago. It was his first DNQ in 110 events. "Sure, it's going to be hard, but we haven't given up on getting back to the top; no one on this team ever gives up. We made some great testing runs at zMAX Dragway on Monday, and now we have to do that once we get to Dallas."
The big winner at zMAX was Morgan Lucas, who introduced a brand-new and untested chassis for the start of the Countdown. The gamble paid off with a 3.877-second final pass that bested Massey's 3.816-second effort, elevating Lucas from eighth to third in the standings.
"We've never been in this situation of chasing a championship, and we just want to continue to run well and do the best we can do," Lucas said. "We're comfortable saying that we know how to put ourselves in position to win races, but we're having fun and trying to enjoy this."
In Funny Car, Robert Hight made an even bigger leap in the standings at Carolina, jumping from ninth to third with a holeshot win in the finals over points leader Matt Hagan.
Hagan's 78-point advantage is the biggest championship lead among the four Countdown battles.
"We've been consistent all year long, and that's what we're aiming to do these last five races," Hagan said. "We added to our lead at Charlotte but can't afford any slip-ups. We've already had a great season, and I'm ready to see how it plays out."
Hight barely scraped into the Countdown, but as in his championship season of 2009, he and his John Force Racing team appear to be peaking at the right time. Hight's win at the U.S. Nationals in early September was his first in more than a year, and as in '09, he backed it up a week later with a victory in Carolina.
JFR qualified all three of its entries for the Countdown; John Force is fifth and daughter Courtney is sixth in the standings.
"We've pulled it all together, and I've got a great team," Hight stated. "We definitely did what we had to do [at Carolina]. I've got some confidence, but we've got our hands full and our work cut out for us.
"We're trying to pick up every point we can," he added. "Not many people beat Matt Hagan on holeshots, and that team has been No. 1 all year for a reason. That was a 40-point swing for me, but we don't have a whole lot of time to celebrate. We're getting back at it again in Dallas under a whole different set of circumstances and conditions. It will be a whole new ballgame."
Mike Edwards dominated Pro Stock with six event wins in 2013, but his championship lead was trimmed to just 10 points by Jeg Coughlin's win at Carolina.
Edwards ran well at zMAX, reaching the semifinals, where he lost to Coughlin, who claimed his third victory of the season. Jason Line jumped from sixth to third in the standings by making it to the final round, where he lost on a holeshot to Coughlin in the most exciting final matchup of the day.
"To win in the first race in the Countdown is extremely gratifying, but I've been on the other side of that coin a few times," Coughlin said.
The Arana family put three riders in the Countdown in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category.
Hector Arana Jr. leads the points but lost ground to his father, Hector, after red-lighting in their head-to-head matchup in the semifinals at Carolina. Hector Sr. then lost in the finals to non-Countdown qualifier Andrew Hines but moved from fifth to third in the standings.
"It's about going rounds," said Arana Jr., who leads Matt Smith by 33 points. "The most important thing is winning the first and second rounds, because you can't always win them all."
Adam Arana, who is Hector Jr.'s younger brother, lies ninth in his first Countdown.