Going late at Gateway

MADISON, Ill. -- The 8th Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway on the outskirts of St. Louis will be run under a unique "all night-time" format when professional qualifying gets underway Friday evening.

The NHRA POWERade schedule has now reached the halfway point of the 2004 season and after an eventful stop in Englishtown last weekend, the final stage of the six-race-in-seven-week stretch is at hand.

All four pro classes will be in action and here's a pre-race outlook.

Top Fuel
Things took a dramatic twist in the 2004 championship picture over the past two events. Neither points leader Tony Schumacher nor momentary points leader Brandon Bernstein carded a victory, a sharp contrast to their early dominance in the season's first 10 events.

It was Darrell Russell in Columbus and two-time POWERade champion Larry Dixon in E-town taking command of the category while, collectively, Bernstein and Schumacher tallied three first round losses and a final round appearance between them in those two weeks. Meanwhile, Doug Kalitta continues to show inconsistency, and with a single win in '04, has remained mired in third place in the standings. Cory McClenathan has shown flashes of strength at times but hasn't put together a competitive winning streak.

If the evening conditions are as dry and cool as forecast, watch for the Bernstein-Schumacher-Kalitta high-horsepower tuneups to outrun the Russell's, Dixon's, McClenathan's -- and the rest of the Top Fuel class. Those three teams have a decided power advantage. If, however, the track won't hold the really big numbers that the "Big 3" can dish out, the event title will be very much up for grabs.

Funny Car
Whit Bazemore looked as unstoppable as a driver can look during his charge to the top of the POWERade standings between Bristol and Topeka. But two rough outings in a row at Columbus, where Del Worsham won, and Englishtown, where Whit was beaten by Worsham in the first round, have given Worsham the points lead again. Plus, John Force's runner-up finish in E-town has pulled him to within 42 points of the leader. Clearly, this class is still a wide-open frontier.

Bazemore needs to rebound to pick up the rhythm he was enjoying before Columbus. Worsham, the defending Madison champion, needs to capitalize on his opportunity to benefit from Whit's recent stumble, and Force must prove he is regaining his championship strut which has been missing for more than a year. Expect one of those three drivers to figure heavily in the race's outcome.

Pro Stock
The "good news/bad news" aspect of the Greg Anderson story in Englishtown is apparent. The good news for the category in general is that Anderson showed his fallibility -- a race occurrence this season -- when his faulty clutch setup sent him to his first round defeat against Darrell Alderman. The bad news? Anderson's teammate Jason Line took care of business and won his second race of 2004, and Greg will be doubly motivated to rekindle his record-setting pace when he gets to Madison.

Anderson's 2004 numbers are obviously phenomenal, but there have been other drivers slowly catching up to the reigning champion's performance. Both Dave Connolly and Steve Johns have taken their programs into the upper levels of the Pro Stock hierarchy while Kurt Johnson continues to remain somewhere in that neighborhood. All three drivers have the potential to run with Anderson head-to-head, but the key word is "potential." They aren't there yet and that means Anderson will maintain his dominance, perhaps until the next race in Denver when the new anti-exotic Pro Stock engine specifications go into effect.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
The blockbuster story for the bike class this weekend is the NHRA mandate adopted after Englishtown which will require the Harley-Davidson V-Rod-powered machines to carry an extra 40 pounds -- a ruling which has been anticipated thanks to the stunning performance advantage the domestic bikes have shown this year.

Andrew Hines was simply astonishing in E-town, not once but twice running the quickest elapsed time in history, ending the weekend with an all-time quickest of 7.016. His Vance & Hines "Screamin' Eagle" was just that as it screamed to the event win and gave him an ever-increasing 185-point lead over Shawn Gann for the top spot in the PSB standings.

There are quick Suzukis to be sure and Hines has not been the picture of consistency this season. If the weight increase on the Harleys is combined with a pickup in performance from such riders as Angelle Savoie, Gann, Antron Brown, defending event and series champ Geno Scali, and a recently resurgent Craig Treble, the V-Rods could see their show of power run into a sudden detour.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.