Emergence of Fuller, Todd shaking up Top Fuel

One year ago, the NHRA POWERade Top Fuel firmament was a place where one could find a genuine veteran presence. Melanie Troxel, beginning her second tour of duty with Don Schumacher Racing -- after embarking into the Top Fuel fray with DSR in 2000 -- was in the midst of a hot streak. Troxel strung together five consecutive final rounds from the '06 opening gun and led the points through the first 11 events.

During that stretch, experienced drivers such as David Baca, David Grubnic and Brandon Bernstein were also squarely in the race-winning mix, as was a relative newcomer, Hot Rod Fuller, who now leads the NHRA POWERade points after this season's first four races. Fuller's 2007 successes so far, combined with equally strong showings by J.R. Todd -- last season's rookie of the year -- easily could be described as a shift in the pecking order in the sport's quickest and fastest category.

In fact, three of the five top points earners in Top Fuel following the most recent event in Houston, the O'Reilly Spring Nationals, have a combined total of two full campaigns in the T/F class. Fuller made his pro debut in 1995, but last year was the first full-time Top Fuel gig that the former sportsman standout has ever completed.

Todd had previous Top Fuel experience while employed by Bruce Litton in the IHRA as a teenager before taking over the driving duties for owner Dexter Tuttle last year. Meanwhile, Whit Bazemore, now fourth in the points, has spent his entire NHRA career behind the wheel of a Funny Car up until now.

Only four-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher (third) and two-time champion Larry Dixon (fifth) provide adequate representation for the NHRA's veteran establishment in the top-five rankings.

Another prime indicator of how the youth movement in Top Fuel may be on the upswing is the appearance of Joe Hartley's name in the No. 10 spot. It was in Houston where Hartley advanced to his first career final round with a team that comes to battle with a racing budget far below that of the better-funded operations.

As the SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip in Las Vegas gets ready to rock this weekend, the prerace comments of both Fuller -- a Las Vegas resident -- and Todd would indicate that their quick starts this season (Todd won in Pomona and Houston and Fuller in Phoenix) are just the beginning.

"I'm coming home as the points leader and that was my goal coming into the season," Fuller said. "It's always cool to come back home, but leading the points is really cool. My goal is to win this race. We did well last fall. I want to win this race really badly, even more than Indy."

Said Todd: "We weren't all that outstanding at Houston, but we were just consistent the way we ran. We were locked into running low 4.60s [seconds] and getting down the track. If you do that every round you are making the car running next to you run better than that. We didn't overpower the track and didn't get crazy with the tuneup. Sometimes that's what it takes."

So is there a changing of the guard in the NHRA Top Fuel class, with such deeply entrenched big dogs as Schumacher, Troxel, Dixon, Grubnic, Doug Kalitta, etc., getting shouldered out of the limelight? Or will age and experience ultimately trump youth and enthusiasm when the 2007 NHRA POWERade season reaches its conclusion?

Stay tuned.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.