Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. -- about one-half hour south of Chicago -- didn't earn its nickname, "The Record Setting Drag Strip," by accident. When conditions are favorable -- which they are expected to be this weekend when the 9th Carquest Auto Parts Nationals convene at Route 66 -- all four professional classes usually assault both the track and national record status quo. This year should be no exception.
Here's what to watch for.
Doug Kalitta is on a rampage and can take over the POWERade points lead this weekend if current points leader Melanie Troxel stubs her toe and leaves the door open for the Mac Tools headliner. Only 96 points separate the two, and Kalitta's three victories in the last four races have coincided with Troxel's lukewarm 5-3 round record over the same period.
The weather in Joliet this weekend is expected to be seasonably cool and dry, although showers could arrive by Sunday. If the rain holds off, expect raw muscle to rule in Top Fuel with sub-record elapsed times and new top-speed marks easily possible -- especially in Friday evening qualifying when temperatures could dip into the low 50s.
And that leads to the subject of three-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher. Route 66 Raceway is his home track, and this year the tour only makes one visit there. If ever there was a perfect spot for him to reverse his uneven performance in '06, this would be the time and place -- and the conditions.
In two out of the last four races, Ron Capps has withstood the firepower of John Force and come out on top in the final rounds. Three times in 2006, Capps has turned back Force when all the money was on the table -- and that has been the story of the '06 Funny Car season.
Team Castrol has dominated qualifying all year as Force, Eric Medlen and Robert Hight have flexed their way to the No. 1 qualifying spot at every event. But those three drivers have missed opportunities in eliminations, and Capps has made the most of his chances, winning four times and holding onto a 96-point lead over Force heading into Joliet.
Capps remains in a window of solid consistency, and although other drivers have made it to the winner's circle this year -- Robert Hight, Tommy Johnson Jr., Cruz Pedregon and Tony Pedregon, etc. -- none have won enough big rounds at enough races to gather up Capps. Until someone begins to do that, Capps will have to go into a major tailspin to give away his points lead.
The King Demon Crown special event will see eight of Pro Stock's most consistently quick qualifiers over the past year duke it out during qualifying, with $50,000 on the line Saturday. Once the KDC rewards the winner with a huge check from Barry Grant, Sunday's eliminations should be another wild and wooly slugfest.
The top five in the POWERade points are bunched within a margin of 124 points, with 138 potentially earnable at a national event. Greg Anderson and teammate Jason Line are the top two drivers, but this year they've found race victories a bit harder to come by than in the past -- a sure sign that there's genuine parity in Pro Stock. Why else did it take 10 races until the season's first repeat winner?
And that winner was Dave Connolly, suddenly the new pacesetter in Pro Stock whose two wins in the last three races have given him more national event wins this year than Anderson. Power will play the biggest role in determining the Joliet event title (again), and power has been the unmistakable domain of Anderson and Co. throughout his three championship campaigns. But this year has been different, and names like Connolly, Erica Enders and Jim Yates have made predicting a Pro Stock winner in 2006 a much tougher task than it has been since 2003.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
After a one-race absence the bikes are back in Joliet, but the key story line remains in place, essentially unchanged. Harley-Davidson and/or Buell vs. Suzuki -- and the Suzukis are winning. In fact, the same two Suzukis.
Points leader Angelle Sampey and teammate Antron Brown have won all four of this year's trophies, with Sampey ringing up a remarkable 12-1 round record. Despite their dominance, two-time POWERade champion Andrew Hines has advanced to at least the semifinal round at every race and has two runner-up finishes on his Harley-Davidson "Screamin' Eagle" V-Rod, putting him a mere 36 points behind Sampey in the standings.
Last year, Chip Ellis won the event on the G-Squared Racing Buell. He and the other V-Twin riders preparing for Joliet this weekend could capitalize on the power-enhancing atmospheric conditions at Route 66 to finally end the hot streak of the Suzuki entries. Of course, the Suzukis will also benefit from the cool, dry air that's expected to greet them, and that could lead to some very close combat until a winner is declared.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.