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Things heating up as series nears mid-point

ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. -- Last week, Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., dished out the ideal racing conditions which that facility has become famous for, and the NHRA's four professional POWERade categories responded with some of the biggest numbers we've seen all year.

The quickest run ever recorded in Pro Stock and one of the quickest ever in Pro Stock Motorcycle were centered around the quickest fields in the history of those two classes.

Hey, don't unfasten your seatbelt just yet.

This weekend, the 37th K&N Supernationals come to Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. -- another drag racing venue which has established a long tradition of record-setting times and speeds. This year, the Supernationals coincide with several headlining points races suddenly coming to a full boil as the season approaches the midway mark -- and that should result in some all-out quarter-mile pyrotechnics.

Here's a look ahead.

Top Fuel

Melanie Troxel's quick jump from this year's starting blocks launched her into a commanding lead in the Top Fuel points and had Drag Racing Nation asking, "Can she go all the way to the title?" Troxel has proven that she's for real and her first-half performance could be her springboard to becoming the NHRA's first female Top Fuel champion since Shirley Muldowney's 1982 title.

But Doug Kalitta has become a major threat to Troxel's championship hopes. He has now won four of the last five national events, trimmed Troxel's once-hefty points lead to only 71, and comes into a facility where his tuner, Rahn Tobler, can lay on the horsepower in generous doses. Troxel's crew chief Richard Hogan has conducted a masterful campaign of his own in '06 and has made few missteps in the first 10 races.

There are other noteworthy battles for position elsewhere in the standings, but right now, Troxel and Kalitta are waging the one that demands the most attention. Be advised, each will be watching the other very closely this weekend, and when qualifying ends Saturday afternoon, where these two superteams wind up on the ladder will add even more race-day intrigue.

Funny Car

Ron Capps has emulated Troxel, his Top Fuel Schumacher Racing teammate, with round-winning consistency throughout much of this season's first half. But like Troxel, he now hears footsteps approaching from behind and the points lead Capps has enjoyed since opening day is in jeopardy. Those footsteps belong to 13-time champion John Force and Capps' two first-round losses and a second-round loss wrapped around his victory in Topeka have combined with Force's win and runner-up finish in the last two events to close the gap between them to only 48 points.

Who will have the edge this weekend? Statistically, Force has four wins out of seven final-round appearances in E-town. Capps has two runner-up finishes to his credit at this race (including last year) but has never won here. Capps has taken the measure of Force head-to-head this season but Force is coming off a much-needed victory in Joliet last week.

This year's Supernationals look to be a pivotal lynchpin in how the 2006 Funny Car championship race will conclude. Currently, it's a two-driver title tangle and it could very well remain that way over the course of the season's second half. The Capps/Force fight to the finish is expected to turn even hotter from this point on.

Pro Stock

Proof that drag racing is more about winning rounds than winning races clearly can be seen in how Greg Anderson's 2006 has been going. The three-time POWERade champion has but a single win so far this year, yet enjoys a triple-digit points lead -- 110 -- over second-place Jim Yates. But don't kid yourself; parity is playing a much bigger part in this year's Pro Stock power struggle than it has in a long time.

The victories have been spread around pretty evenly this year and drivers two through seven in the standings are all within a decent hot streak of putting some real pressure on Anderson for the top spot. Anderson's phenomenal 6.620-second elapsed time last week as he wrapped up the $50,000 King Demon Crown proves he is still the man with the most horsepower and it was only Kurt Johnson's lightning-quick .012 reaction time in Sunday's race final that kept Anderson from a double-up victory in Joliet.

Either Anderson or his teammate Jason Line have won this event since Anderson teamed with owner Ken Black in 2002. That's a pretty impressive record to bring to E-town this weekend and it might be a factor in determining a winner. Sometimes, even parity has to stand aside for year-to-year superiority on a racetrack where horsepower rules.

Pro Stock Motorcycle

Chip Ellis made history last week in Joliet when he became the second rider to earn admission into the Mickey Thompson Six-Second Club with his qualifying pass of 6.988-seconds aboard the Drag Specialties Buell owned and prepared by George Bryce. Ryan Schnitz on another Buell V-Twin won the race -- a double dose of reality for the Suzuki-riding teams who had shut out the American brands at all of the previous races in '06.

The points leader, three-time champion Angelle Sampey, hasn't been able to shake two-time and reigning champion Andrew Hines, who although winless this year, sits only 14 points behind Sampey.

Schnitz moved into the top five with his win last week, 146 points from the top and Ellis and Antron Brown are bearing down on the leader as well. Look for another weekend of Suzuki vs. Harley-Davidson vs. Buell in Englishtown with low 7-second passes (and perhaps another six Friday night) setting the pace. Expect the standings to get shaken up a bit, especially in the top five, before Sunday is over.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.