Western Swing kicks off with changes throughout the sport

Change has come to the NHRA POWERade series in a big way, and the first national event to showcase the most evident example of that change will be this weekend at Bandimere Speedway outside Denver when the 29th Mopar Mile-High Nationals arrive for their annual visit to "Thunder Mountain."

For the first time in NHRA national event history, the length of the racetrack will be 1,000 feet from start to finish in the Top Fuel and Funny Car categories, a safety initiative dictated by the NHRA in the aftermath of Scott Kalitta's fatal top-end accident in Englishtown, N.J., last month.

There are opinions on both sides of the mandate, but the change has been classified as an interim move by the sanctioning body as it continues to explore and evaluate a number of other methods of enhancing the safety of the sport.

The mood heading into Denver is not unprecedented. In 2004, Top Fuel's Darrell Russell was killed during eliminations in Madison, Ill., and two weeks later, the tour resumed action at Bandimere Speedway with several new rules in place that required modifications to the chassis in Top Fuel and Funny Car to offer the drivers increased protection in the area of their roll cages.

That issue aside, the Mile-High Nationals remain a critical event on the NHRA schedule because this race leads off the notorious Western Swing -- events on three consecutive weekends in Denver, Seattle and Sonoma, Calif. -- and Bandimere's high-altitude location requires teams to run unique engine and setup combinations to compensate for the thin air. Elapsed times and speeds will be significantly off-pace compared with those seen at every other NHRA venue.

So this year's trip to Thunder Mountain will represent a new chapter in the 57-year history of the world's largest automobile racing sanctioning body as the Countdown to 10 throttles up into its final six national events.

Here's a preview of this weekend's picture in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle:

Top Fuel
Time is running out on the three drivers who have the best mathematical shot at securing a top-10 points position before the end of Labor Day and the beginning of the decisive Countdown to 1 tournament.

Morgan Lucas, J.R. Todd and Bob Vandergriff Jr. have varying amounts of distance to make up to box their way into the next stage of the title drive as they continue to search for consistency and confidence heading into the Western Swing. Lucas is 32 points out of 10th place, now held by Doug Kalitta; Todd is 86 behind Kalitta, and Vandergriff needs to make up a 95-point deficit to work his way into the elite 10.

Up top, five-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher is sprinting away from the rest of the pack with a generous a 253-point pad over Antron Brown -- and it might be considered unreasonable to think Schumacher could be tackled from behind with only a half-dozen races to go in the Countdown to 10. Brown's David Powers Motorsports teammate, "Hot Rod" Fuller, comes into Bandimere the defending event champion and was the 2007 points leader when he won this race a year ago.

The sentimental favorite will be Doug Herbert, whose emotional victory at the previous race -- in Norwalk, Ohio, two weeks ago -- gave the sport a much-needed lift after the tragic loss of Scott Kalitta a week earlier.

Look for tuner Jimmy Walsh to be back at work this weekend with Tuttle Motorsports, the team he was hired away from by Kenny Bernstein early last year. When Walsh last tuned the dragster owned by Dexter Tuttle, Todd was behind the wheel. Since then, two drivers have filled that position, Alan Bradshaw and now Steve Torrence.

Others of note: Larry Dixon, third in the points, has won only two rounds of racing since his back-to-back runner-up finishes at Bristol and Topeka but has two previous victories in Denver (2001 and 2003). Cory McClenathan qualified second in Norwalk and has a 6-4 round record in the past four races. Lucas and Todd have a combined three round wins in the past three races and must avoid first-round losses to preserve any hopes of advancing into the top 10. Vandergriff is in an even deeper slump, with only one round win in the past six races.

Funny Car
Del Worsham, Gary Scelzi and Jack Beckman are veterans who share something else in common. If the Countdown to 10 were to end today, all three would be off the board.

Scelzi and Beckman (the defending event champion) are Schumacher Racing teammates -- part of one of drag racing's most accomplished and successful operations -- and Worsham is a perennial championship contender who nearly won his first crown in 2004. But those factors won't be sufficient to qualify those racers for this year's Funny Car championship; round wins and strong performances will be needed in the next six races for them to make the cut, and all three will have to pick up their games not only in Denver but throughout the Western Swing.

Tim Wilkerson keeps motoring forward, leading the points and remaining unfazed by the dominance he has wielded in his career season. His 151-point lead over reigning champion Tony Pedregon (the Norwalk winner) speaks volumes about how impressive Wilkerson's 2008 has been. In no immediate jeopardy of relinquishing his points lead, Wilkerson can race in a groove that suits him best, and he will have a solid, substantial program in his grasp when the Countdown to 1 begins in September.

In addition: Mike Neff has the best record of any John Force Racing entry over the past six races, with three runner-up finishes and a 9-5 round record wrapped around a DNQ in Topeka, Kan. Several of the A-list drivers in the class have never won in Denver, including Worsham, Wilkerson, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. All teams are now required to race the new, NHRA-mandated chassis, which already has seen action with a number of teams in the season's first half.

Pro Stock
Dave Connolly is the man to watch.

A year ago, he was square in the middle of the Pro Stock championship hunt and putting himself into position to win his first career title. He won five national events in a row -- something rarely seen in the modern Pro Stock era -- but fouled away his chances for the championship on the final day of the season.

This year, he missed the first five races of '08, but has moved to within 54 points of the top 10 and won on the Mountain in 2006. Connolly is chasing down Warren Johnson, who is hoping to protect his 10th-place spot in the standings but is coming off a first-round loss at the Norwalk race -- to Connolly.

Greg Anderson has picked up his momentum after regaining the points lead in Norwalk while setting his sights on his fourth POWERade championship. Kurt Johnson has been a worthy adversary this year, and reigning champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. -- a two-time Denver winner -- isn't far out of the picture. Neither is Anderson teammate Jason Line, who is third in the points but winless since Las Vegas in April. But the defending event champion, Allen Johnson, is due for a breakout weekend, and with his primary sponsor, Mopar, underwriting this race, he might be an obvious dark-horse pick.

Another change taking effect in Denver will be the mandatory addition of data recorders on all Pro Stock entries. These onboard units are already in use in Top Fuel and Funny Car and are designed to collect key bits of information to be used for accident analysis.

Additional story lines: This weekend, Mopar will unveil its 2009 Dodge Challenger drag racing package based on its soon-to-debut, reborn 1960s-style muscle car. It's the first time in 40 years that Chrysler is building a factory-commissioned drag racing version of a production car. Despite a tumultuous season filled with unexpected change, Justin Humphreys advanced to the semifinals in Norwalk and is only 72 points from a place in the top 10, and he has sufficient time to make up the difference. Before his first-round loss to Johnny Gray in Norwalk, Ron Krisher had a 9-5 round record since Atlanta, highlighted by his win in Topeka.

Pro Stock Motorcycle
The heavy-breathing, V-Twin Harley-Davidsons and Buells have had superior performances at Bandimere in recent years as they seem to maintain more of their power in the scant atmospheric conditions they encounter at 5,000 feet above sea level. Bad news for the Suzuki faithful, especially after scoring their first win of the season when Chip Ellis went the distance two races ago in Englishtown. The Suzukis will be at a horsepower disadvantage, but this is a race that traditionally has offered frequent episodes of the unexpected over the years.

Reigning champion Matt Smith won the Mile-Highs last year and has only a single victory to his credit so far in '08. Andrew Hines has two wins this year and leads the points but is still smarting from his second-round loss to Craig Treble in Norwalk. Hines' older brother and three-time category champion, Matt, is the leader in Bandimere wins with four, and his mechanical expertise has become a crucial component in Andrew's success. The younger Hines made his PSM debut in Denver in 2002 on a Suzuki and has a Mile-High title of his own in 2006.

Whether Hector Arana maintains his forward motion after his first career win in Norwalk two weeks ago will be intriguing to watch. Was it just a fluky thunderbolt of good fortune that led to his initial national event win after 19 years of trying, or has he now assembled a winning program that makes him a threat for the long term?

In Denver, especially with the normally aspirated engines that power the bikes, drivers who goose the most out of their engines -- V-Twins in the Harleys and Buells, inline-4s for Suzuki and Kawasaki -- and behave themselves in the reaction time department will prevail. Watch for a host of red lights and holeshots to play a major role in deciding this year's King of the Mountain in PSM.

Don't overlook: Peggy Llewellyn, who returns to the series after a lengthy absence. Llewellyn will join Rockin Motorsports, riding a second Buell alongside '08 Gatornationals winner Matt Guidera. Llewellyn lost her ride with Rush Racing at the end of last year. Steve Johnson, who had an outstanding qualifying performance in Norwalk, winding up third, then losing on a holeshot to Treble in the semifinals of eliminations. Treble came within 4/100ths of a second of giving Suzuki its second win of 2008 when he lost to Arana in the final at Englishtown.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.