Funny Car Countdown battle now Cruz Pedregon's to lose

LAS VEGAS -- An underdog put himself in position for the Funny Car title in the NHRA's penultimate race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But not the underdog most expected.

Tim Wilkerson, the driver/tuner who had been first in FC points after 15 of the Past 16 events going into Vegas and owned a 52-point lead with two to go, bowed out in the first round Sunday at the eighth ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals to open the door for a number of chasers.

Cruz Pedregon marched through, winning for the second consecutive race to move from third in points to a 12-point championship lead over Wilkerson going into the 44th annual Auto Club Finals in two weeks at Pomona, Calif. Pedregon beat John Force Racing's Robert Hight in the final, 4.100 seconds at 304.67 mph to 4.111/304.67.

In the other pro classes, Jeg Coughlin all but clinched the Pro Stock championship in beating Greg Stanfield 6.708/205.07 to Stanfield's red light, while Chris Rivas improved his outside chance at a Pro Stock Motorcycle crown by beating a late-firing Eddie Krawiec 7.052/185.79 to 7.307/152.31. Matt Smith leads PSM by 19 points over Krawiec and 39 over Rivas.

In Top Fuel -- this is a recording -- Tony Schumacher won in another record-setting performance. He secured his sixth championship by qualifying for the race, and in winning for the 15th time this season he tied Pro Stock's Greg Anderson for the most wins in a season.

Schumacher beat Las Vegas resident and defending race champion "Hot Rod" Fuller 3.806/314.53 to 3.821/315.19, answering Fuller's shout-out that he wanted "The Sarge" in the final.

"He just keeps asking. We'll keep giving it to him, I guess," Schumacher said. "If I had to race the [U.S.] Army car, myself, I wouldn't be looking forward to it."

The rest of the Funny Car class may be close to saying that about Pedregon, based on the past two outings. Sixteen years ago he won five straight races before the 1992 season finale to run down John Force and claim the only championship in the '90s not won by the legend. Now Pedregon has back-to-back wins for the first time since 1994 and newfound validation as an owner/driver.

In his glory days he drove floppers for Larry Minor and Joe Gibbs on teams with abundant funding, but from 2002 through last year, while running full-time on his own, he won one race and never finished higher than ninth in points, running against multicar juggernauts like John Force Racing and Don Schumacher Racing.

Wilkerson has dominated this season as a one-car team, but in taking over the points lead, "The Cruzer" -- who shares operations with brother Tony Pedregon but is still somewhat of an independent car -- is finding a new level of enjoyment than he did when he was younger and a hired hand.

"It means everything to me. I've worked hard," Pedregon said. "I thought, maybe I'm going to suck at this the rest of my life, maybe I was the luckiest guy in the world to drive some cars that were good. Maybe I'm destined to be just a catch-on-fire guy, really never do anything other than got lucky and drove some good cars.

"Through hard work, perseverance, hiring good people and being dedicated, I've managed to put myself in a position where I'm very proud of what we've done and answer the bell as a driver. All these things mean a lot to me."

Pedregon said Sunday would have been a success even if he had lost in the second round. That's how excited he was to win his first-round showdown with Jack Beckman, the top car in the DSR stable that came into the race second in points.

Pedregon said he barely slept, thinking about Beckman, but he fired a .017 reaction time to Beckman's red light for what he called the biggest round win of his career as an owner. The rest of the first round played out in exciting fashion as all four JFR cars won, Tony Pedregon won and, shockingly, Tim Wilkerson spun his tires to let JFR's Mike Neff pull away to a round win over Wilkerson for the first time after five failed attempts.

We didn't hold up our part of the deal today; that's all there is to it. We got a little greedy the first round and it cost me the run.

-- Tim Wilkerson

"We didn't hold up our part of the deal today; that's all there is to it," Wilkerson said. "We got a little greedy the first round and it cost me the run. I thought the track would hold more than it did there, and it spun the tire. When it did that I was in trouble."

Wilkerson will now hope to draw on an experience earlier in the Countdown, when he went out in the first round to Ashley Force at Charlotte, N.C. That dropped him from first to fifth in points, but he rebounded the next week at Dallas with a win to shoot back to the top. A repeat of that gut-check effort would hand him the title.

"We've got plenty of fight left in that dog, don't you worry," Wilkerson said. "I know it can be done."

With Wilkerson and Beckman out of the picture in the first round at Vegas, Countdown contenders Robert Hight and the Pedregon brothers marched into the semis in front of the sold-out main grandstand at The Strip. There, Hight took out Tony Pedregon, and Cruz Pedregon beat John Force by .019 of a second in a matchup reminiscent of the old days.

"John is still a legend; he made me a better driver," Pedregon said. "I don't care how old John is, he still has that desire and ability to rise to the occasion. He's a fighter."

At 45 years old, so is Pedregon.

"Cruz always had the talent to win, but as in a lot of success stories, so many things have to function right -- the driver, the car, the team, the budget, the management," said Tony Pedregon, the defending Funny Car champion and younger brother by two years. "I know him as good as anybody, and this isn't a big surprise to me. Sometimes it takes a lot more work than you'd like to get there.

"Right now, what he's seeing are the fruits of all that work, all the years."

In two weeks, he could get the ultimate payoff.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.