The odds of not favoring the best seeds in NHRA’s countdown to the Championship
JERRY FOSS NHRA / NATIONAL DRAGSTER
Top Fuel team owner Morgan Lucas was in a no-win situation on the eve of the first NHRA Championship countdown in 2007.
The cutoff race – the last before the professional fields of title-eligible drivers were defined – was in Reading, Pa. At Maple Grove Raceway. And her first-round draw for the eliminations was her Lucas Oil Dragster teammate Melanie Troxel.
This first year was the only one where the pool of each pro class was limited to eight riders; it has been 10 since. And Troxel had a chance to make the cut as a No.8 ranked driver, if they beat Lucas on that opening round at Reading.
Lucas was faced with the dilemma of allowing Troxel to beat him and lead the team’s two cars to the championship pursuit or earn him his place. They discussed it ahead of time and decided to do the one-on-one race and see what was going on. Lucas beat her, destroying her chances of competing for the title.
He received substantial criticism for not advancing his team’s interests, but knew he would have received equal amounts if he had dived. Troxel said she wanted to earn a spot in the countdown rather than be handed it. She ignored the results, remarking that it was almost impossible to win, anyway, from eighth position.
His prediction turned out to be true. No one in any of the four pro categories (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle) has won the championship since a # 8 start. But being the # 1 racer before the countdown didn’t been a guarantee. Ask former Top Fuel “Hot Rod” Fuller or Doug Kalitta or Tim Wilkerson of Funny Car – racers who were in the catbird seat to start a countdown but couldn’t make it into a title.
However, Robert Hight, in the Funny Car category, is the only rider to come back as far as 10th place. He did so in 2009, winning the first of his three championships and giving hope to the late drivers.
Through recalculating NHRA points and grouping the countdown qualifying drivers together by splitting them in 10-point increments (the top driver with a 20-point advantage that can erode in a flash), Hight won the first two playoff races (in Charlotte and Dallas) and was immediately in charge.
This manipulation of the standings, which includes a point-and-a-half system in the final in Pomona, Calif., Is arguably the trigger point among runners and anti-Countdown fans. Many runners over the years have expressed their dissatisfaction with the exclusive format, but at this point they all seem to have resigned themselves to the reality that the NHRA is not considering abandoning the countdown.
The NHRA, however, suspended the playoff system in 2020 due to programming chaos linked to the pandemic.
Inside the numbers
• The NHRA has completed 13 countdowns (none in 2020, marked by the pandemic).
• And with the approach of this 14th, the number one driver became the champion of the category 21 times out of 52 possible (40.4%).
• In other words, the regular season champion failed to become the series champion 31 times on 52 occasions (59.6%).
• The No. 2 seeds have won titles six times (out of a total of 52 times).
• Eddie Krawiec (2008) and LE T tab (2010) of Pro Stock Motorcycle and Matt Hagan (2014) of Funny Car all won championships after entering the countdown to seventh place.
• Brittany Force (Top Fuel, 2017) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle, 2018) clinched the titles from sixth place in the standings.
Top ranked drivers who won championships
Superior fuel: Tony Schumacher (2008), Larry Dixon (2010), Del Worsham (2011), Antron Brown (2012, 2016), Shawn Langdon (2013), Steve Torrence (2018, 2019). That’s six different pilots, eight times.
Funny car: John Force (2010), Ron Capps (2016), Robert Hight (2019). It’s three pilots, three times.
Professional stock: Allen Johnson (2012), Erica Enders (2015), Jason Line (2016), Bo Butner (2017), Tanner Gray (2018). It’s five different pilots, five times.
Moto Pro Stock: Matt Smith (2007), Eddie Krawiec (2011, 2012), Andrew Hines (2014, 2019). It’s three different pilots, five times.
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