Series heats up at key NHRA stop

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- This weekend, expect to hear the term "pour it on" used a lot at the 36th Mac Tools Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway. This is an event and a venue that thrives on horsepower.

It's the third race of the 2005 NHRA POWERade schedule and historically, the teams that can fire up the most power on raceday are usually the ones which go home with the Gatornationals trophies. This event marks the season debut for the Pro Stock Motorcycles and the four professional categories in action this weekend enter the Gators under the following scenarios.

Top Fuel
When you talk about horsepower in this class, three teams immediately come to mind. The U.S. Army operation of defending event and series champion Tony Schumacher, the Mac Tools trimuverate of Team Kalitta with cousins Doug and Scott along with teammate David Grubnic, and Brandon Bernstein's Budweiser-sponsored effort.

Statistically, one of those teams should be your winner this weekend.

But statistics can be wrong and with the formidable challenges being mounted by young Morgan Lucas, veteran Cory McClenathan, two-time POWERade champion Larry Dixon and a host of talented scene-stealers such as Clay Millican, Scott Weis, and Doug Herbert poised to step up, nothing is considered impossible. Plus, newly-mandated rev limiters will be required for the first time in Gainesville and although most crew chiefs say it will have little bearing on their tune-ups, it does add another wrinkle to the complex task of managing 8000 horsepower.

But make no mistake, the prize in Top Fuel will go to the swift this weekend and sub-4.60 elapsed times will be the litmus test for who will or won't be in the running.

Funny Car
Phil Burkart is leading the Funny Car points for the first time in his career. If that's not an indication of how unpredictable the first two races have been in this young season, then there's no such thing as a surprise.

Last year, Burkart's teammate and team owner Del Worsham beat 13-time champion John Force in the final round on a holeshot. This year, Worsham has been a non-factor in Pomona and Phoenix and you'd have to expect the CSK team to do whatever it can to keep Worsham from suffering three consecutive weak outings.

But Whit Bazemore, Gary Scelzi, Ron Capps, and Tommy Johnson Jr. are aware that at this early stage of the season, it's far more important to be consistent than to be hot today and gone tomorrow. A strong showing in Gainesville this weekend could drastically alter the momentum in the category and that means someone ending Force's win streak at one following his Phoenix victory. It seems as if no driver has established a real rhythm so far in '05 and a grippy Gainesville racetrack could be just what the doctor ordered.

Pro Stock
Phil Burkart's Pro Stock equivalent is Allen Johnson, another surprise points leader after two races. Like Burkart, Johnson knows fame can be fleeting this early in the season and both know there are a mob of capable teams looking to burst their bubbles.

Defending event champion and two-time POWERade champ Greg Anderson has been in a major tailspin so far this year, a situation that has changed the face of the class he has dominated since 2003. Most of his opponents admit he'll be back to his winning ways shortly, but in the meantime, parity has returned to Pro Stock and there is a feeling that any one of the 16 cars on the qualifying sheet on Saturday could be the winning ride on Sunday.

Dave Connolly, Warren & Kurt Johnson, Larry Morgan, Jeg Coughlin, Richie Stevens, Jim Yates, Ron Krisher-ad infinitum. Who's the favorite this weekend? There isn't one.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
The 15-race Pro Stock Motorcycle slate begins in Gainesville, but instead of Harley vs. Suzuki, Buell vs. V-Rod, or Andrew Hines vs. The World, the focus will solidly be trained on a number: 6. The sport's first 6-second PSB pass has been on the minds of every drag racing fan in the universe after both Angelle Sampey and teammate Antron Brown dipped into the 6's during pre-season testing.

There are no evening qualifying sessions scheduled at the Gators which may hinder that first official 6-second bike lap (which will pay the rider $10,000 from the folks at Mickey Thompson) by forcing teams to take their best shots in the heat of the day.

Other than a handful of crew chief changes, the addition of several new faces joining the familiar list of veterans, and a small cadre of Buells scattered through the entry list, the PSB class will resemble last year's category fairly closely. And that means the emphasis in Gainesville will be whether or not we see that milestone 6-second pass.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.