It's still a jump ball.
That's how you can describe any of the four professional points races in the NHRA POWERade series after Sunday's eliminations ended at the 25th Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. In Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, none of the standings leaders heading in went to the winner's circle while several pursuers made the most of their weekend at Brainerd International Raceway.
Let's take a look at Top Fuel. While Doug Kalitta and Melanie Troxel have been the category pacesetters throughout the season's first three quarters, three-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher is now the relentless dynamo gradually overcoming his early-season struggles. The upshot? Combined with Kalitta and Troxel's second-round loss on Sunday -- within moments of each other -- and Brandon Bernstein's victory over Schumacher in the final (Tony's fifth straight money-round appearance), the points standings are as tightly bunched as they have been all year.
Kalitta is still at the top but by only 81 points ahead of both Troxel and her teammate Schumacher, who are tied for second. Bernstein's impressive win with a race car that was the picture of consistency all day is 116 points out of the lead with seven races remaining on the schedule. In short, less than six rounds of racing separate the first four drivers in the current T/F firefight.
This one is far from over.
And Funny Car remains an 8,000-horsepower Rubik's Cube.
In four of the last five races, points leader Ron Capps has lost in the first round. Usually when a team is stumbling that badly, they can't help but lose that lead to the team closest to them in the standings. But in this case, that second-place team is the 13-time championship outfit of John Force, and in three of the last five races, they have gone down to defeat in Round 2. It happened again Sunday, hence, Capps remains in the No. 1 spot by 48 points.
Tommy Johnson Jr.'s victory over Gary Scelzi in the final had no real impact on the F/C points race, but it was a good weekend for two teams which have been short on good racing luck in 2006. It did put some traction into the standings battle between Johnson Jr. and Scelzi as Tommy now holds onto sixth place in the top 10, only three points ahead of Gary.
In Pro Stock, it now appears the 2006 champion will come from among the top three drivers in the points -- but before Brainerd, it was beginning to look like a two-car affair.
Jason Line and his teammate Greg Anderson seemed to be fending off any serious challenges for the class' top two slots as Dave Connolly's determined attack plan hit some speed bumps in Seattle (Round 1 loss) and Sonoma (Round 2 loss). But Sunday's win over points leader Line in the final -- the second time in the last four races he's done that -- has revitalized Connolly's championship aspirations. Dave is only 25 points behind second-place Anderson and 108 from overtaking Line. It's been pointed out in the past that Connolly is always a threat to win on Sunday, conclusively proven in Brainerd by his fourth win of 2006 after qualifying a tepid 13th.
The Pro Stock Motorcycle chase continues to bounce in every direction and the shock factor clearly came into play on Sunday. When three-time champion Angelle Sampey was poised to retake the points lead from reigning POWERade champion Andrew Hines after he had fouled out in Round 1, the last thing in the world anyone might have expected was for Sampey to be disqualified after defeating first-round opponent Ryan Schnitz. But such was the case when Angelle and her U.S Army Suzuki were found to be five pounds too light during the mandatory postround weigh-in.
Sampey was distraught, maintained her innocence, and felt the NHRA's scales were in error. But the ruling stood and following teammate Antron Brown's final-round victory over Steve Johnson for the Brainerd trophy, she had to confront the emotional tug of war caused by Brown's jump into the POWERade points lead countered by her slide from second to fourth.
Five more national events remain on the PSB slate and the spread between first and fourth in the points is a mere 51. Along with Brown and Sampey, Hines and Chip Ellis are veteran riders with race-proven teams behind them. Brand rivalry has turned up the competitive heat in this class in '06 with Harley-Davidson, Buell and Suzuki all capable of going the distance.
This year's title clashes will again collide head-on this weekend in Memphis, Tenn. Perhaps more pieces of the championship puzzles will be dropped into place.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.