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Denver looms large for NHRA contenders

For the next three weeks, all eyes and ears in Drag Racing Nation will be fixed on the 2006 Western Swing, making three stops in three weeks in Denver, Seattle and Sonoma.

Will this year's triple-header be the turning point in what has already been a wild and wide-open NHRA POWERade season? Will the second half of the 2006, 23-race insurrection get off to an explosive start this weekend at the Swing's opening game, the 27th Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway? And in three weeks, will the headwaters of the professional championship chases be flowing in different directions?

First things first, and that means a look ahead to this weekend's event on "Thunder Mountain."

TOP FUEL

Melanie Troxel. Doug Kalitta. Brandon Bernstein. As the second half of the season revs up, each of those three drivers knows this year's championship is hovering within their reach. For any other drivers in the standings to move into contention, they would have to overcome points deficits of more than 200, including three-time champion Tony Schumacher, the latest Top Fuel winner in St. Louis three weeks ago.

Denver's stingy atmosphere combined with a weather forecast that calls for sunshine all weekend and temperatures in the 90s are pitfalls every nitro tuner expects to confront at this race. It's practically a lock. They'll make the typical adjustments available to them to restore some of the lost horsepower and soften up their clutch tuneups to help their race cars avoid costly tire smoke.

But even the most skillful preparations and expertly administered tweaks are no guarantees of success. At Bandimere, many a round has been decided by a lost blower belt caused by the increased speed the superchargers are spun to counter the flimsy air density. And that has given this race a reputation for unpredictability that frequently favors the underdogs and gives fits to the front-runners.

Troxel, Kalitta and Bernstein all hope they can at best soar at the Mile-High Nationals, and at worst, survive up there. But with only a 110-point margin between those top three racers, a real possibility exists that the order may be different when eliminations end. High anxiety, indeed.

FUNNY CAR

John Force has been winning championships since 1990, but this year his frenetic pace outside of his race car may be the most all-consuming that it has ever been. His new reality television show premiers on Monday, he's grooming daughter Ashley for her professional debut in a Funny Car, and his seemingly endless fusillade of business commitments have the 13-time champion, at times, gasping for breath. And with only 44 points separating him from points leader Ron Capps, he may be doubly breathless in the rare air of Denver this weekend.

In classic Force fashion, he is stalking his prey.

So far this season, Capps has won more rounds than Force (29-25) and more races (5-1) and Capps' first-half consistency was as close to perfect as you'll ever witness in the category. But after enjoying a triple-digit lead earlier on, Capps now holds a tad more than two rounds of racing over his notorious pursuer and an early round slip-up this weekend by either driver could make a wholesale change in that picture.

As we saw in Top Fuel, there's not much in the way of a rear attack looming behind Capps and Force in the standings, with third-place Robert Hight a distant 233 points out of the lead. The spotlight is likely to remain on the top two drivers throughout the Swing, and both plan on getting off to a quick start in Denver.

PRO STOCK

Greg Anderson and Jason Line ended the season's first half within two points of each other -- a symbolic as well as mathematical signpost that they are still the category's pacesetters. But they'll be in a genuine brawl for the next four months with a points race reflecting undeniable parity throughout the top 10. As the Swing begins, several drivers could do themselves some real good with a strong trip out West, and the Anderson-Line duet needs to keep a close watch on the next four drivers in the standings: Dave Connolly, Jim Yates, Kurt Johnson and Mike Edwards. The spread between first and sixth is only 120 points.

Erica Enders may be outside of serious title contention at present -- 207 points back -- but her recent move from Cagnazzi Racing to subsidiary status with Don Schumacher's mega-team may pay dividends. She'll make her Dodge debut as part of Schumacher's four-car effort in Denver which will include drivers Richie Stevens, Shaun Carlson, and former NHRA Rookie of the Year and IHRA Pro Stock champion Gene Wilson, whose status with the DSR has yet to be completely formalized. Wilson is expected to drive a Scott Geoffrion "tribute car" this weekend in memory of the former Mopar star who passed away in May.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE

You'll find all the parity you want in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class as the second-half schedule drops the hammer with every competing brand of bike occupying a spot in the top five -- and two riders tied for fifth (Antron Brown and Karen Stoffer) only 147 points behind standings leader Angelle Sampey.

This is the ideal scenario for the contingent making the first of two appearances on the Swing (the other will be in Sonoma). The Suzuki, Harley-Davidson and Buell nameplates continue to take shots at each other with brand loyalty and personal pride heating up the competition. Right now, Suzuki holds a slim 4-3 victory advantage over the domestic brands and any of the 16 riders qualifying for a national event field -- regardless of what they're racing -- have to be considered potential race winners.

The better-breathing Harleys and Buells have usually fared better in the stifling air in Denver and a key matchup to watch this weekend will involve Suzuki's Sampey and reigning class champion, Harley rider Andrew Hines, who is only 28 points behind and has yet to make a trip to the winner's circle in '06 on his "Screamin' Eagle" V-Rod.

The battle rages on.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.