Countdown a real pressure cooker

CONCORD, N.C. -- There was a genuine morning traffic jam at zMax Dragway.

Matt Smith sat on his NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle, craning his neck to try and see around the other vehicles lined up ahead of him, waiting for their turn to hammer down the strip. There was Antron Brown's Top Fuel ride, which trailed John Force's Funny Car, which was being held up by … a forklift hauling away a pair of port-a-johns and a guy with a leaf blower.

Watching it all was Ashley Force Hood, stealthily dressed in a T-shirt and sunglasses.

"Welcome," she said with a smile, "to the Monday Nationals."

On Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the final green light of Sunday's hot, sticky, oil-down-covered NHRA O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals, nearly every one of drag racing's biggest stars was at it again, cashing in a precious test date to prepare for this weekend's event at the Texas Motorplex.

"It's hotter here in Charlotte than we thought it would be," said Brandon Bernstein, fifth in Top Fuel points. "And we all know it'll be hot in Dallas next week. So I think a lot of teams decided to use up a test and stick around, even if they hadn't originally planned to."

Such is life two races into the NHRA's six-event Countdown to the Championship, where pressure to keep pace in the title hunt changes the mindset of Nitro Alley on a near hourly basis.

There already have been runaways, disappointments and sleepless nights. And we're just two weeks in.

"The Countdown just puts everyone on edge," Bernstein said as he stopped to wipe a barrelful of sweat from his brow. "You don't think it's going to be any different than the regular season. But it is. It's totally nuts."

Nitro-powered pressure cooker

When the NHRA introduced the Countdown format in 2007, the idea was simple and unapologetically based on NASCAR's Chase, which was in its fourth year. Separate the top 10 drivers in each class (in '07 it was just eight), reset the points and have at it.

There was, however, one glaring difference between the hot rods and the stock cars.

"It's only six weeks!" John Force exclaimed when asked about the subject. The 14-time Funny Car champion is 0-for-3 in the Countdown, though he missed most of the inaugural season after a crash. He rolls into Dallas with a slim four-point lead over Jack Beckman. "You can't do hardly anything in six weeks. But now you can win -- or lose -- a championship."

In other words, it is intense. And every single run, including qualifying, can have a gigantic impact on one's title hopes.

"What's the NASCAR deal? Ten weeks, right?" Beckman asked rhetorically. "So on paper you could have a terrible weekend, maybe even two, and still have time to recover. Over here you have one bad weekend, make one bad decision, and you're deader than King Tut."

Ask Antron Brown.

"I blew it at Indy," admitted the man who led the Top Fuel standings at the start of the '09 postseason before finishing third. "It's been, what, more than two weeks now and I'm still mad at myself."

Brown entered this year's Countdown seeded fifth. He was also seeded fifth in final eliminations for the Labor Day weekend U.S. Nationals, the Countdown's first event and drag racing's Daytona 500. But he and his team spent too much time looking ahead to a showdown with points leader Larry Dixon and not enough time at the dragster they faced in the 16-car first round.

"We played it safe against Shawn Langdon," Brown said. "We knew what times he'd been running all weekend. We'd be a lot faster and so we took it easy. He threw a Hail Mary at us and got us … got the holeshot and we were gone in the first round. The first round!"

Brown left Indy seventh in points, a whopping 150 markers behind Dixon, who eliminated Langdon and defeated Cory McClenathan in the final. After Charlotte, Dixon and Cory Mac were still 1-2 in points. Brown is mired back in sixth.

"There's no time to make it up if things go bad or if you make a mistake like we did," Brown explained. "There's not another bunch of laps to make it up or get it back together. It's all or nothing. If you're spending time wondering when you should get up on it then it's already up and gone."

The little things

In the concentrated world of the Countdown, every point matters. And since 2009, every run matters, thanks to a bonus system put in place for last year's postseason, awarding points on a 3-2-1 basis for the top qualifiers in each session and for setting a national elapsed time record.

Set a record and it means 20 points. Running the table in all four qualifying sessions means a dozen. That's a lot. Last year Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel) and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) each won their championships by a scant two points.

"You have to kind of flick the switch once the Countdown starts," Force Hood admitted. "During the first 17 races you work on qualifying, but you don't stress over it. Now you do. I didn't think the Countdown would feel different. I know the guys who have been with [John Force Racing] for 20 years, they didn't think it would, either. But it's so stressful. Everything becomes a factor."

Every change in temperature matters, as does every little bit of cloud cover. Even marks on the calendar become magnified by the Countdown.

"Something that has really changed our lives is the testing limitations," added Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Karen Stoffer. "Before the current rules [implemented in 2009] the teams with the money to do it would just test all the time. Now we each get four. Do you use those during the regular season to get into the Countdown? Or do you take your chances, hope you make the Countdown, and then have the huge advantage of four tests to get ready for six events?"

Four to go

That's why a full-blown NHRA Nationals event broke out on Monday morning in Charlotte. Just a bunch of ice-in-their-veins drag-racing, nitro-burning rocket riders, tweaking and tuning and, yes, freaking out.

"Why are all these cars out here today with all these racers and crew chiefs and mechanics out here sweating and carrying on?" John Force said, as he motioned wildly with his hands at all of the cars and commotion around him. "They're looking for an edge, man. For points, for speed, for whatever they can get. Something to take to Dallas and Reading and Vegas and Pomona and wherever else they tell us to go."

Then he mounted his scooter, fired it up and paused before taking off.

"And they're scared, man. This Countdown stuff is scary. I'm scared to death, can't you tell?"

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.