NHRA still packs thunder at Speedway

Oct 26, 2004 5:47 AM

If there is a tremor in the Las Vegas Valley this weekend, have no worries. It’s just the thunder of the NHRA Powerade Drag racing series on the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

This will be the second visit of the season in what is the fan-friendliest of family entertainment the city has to offer. Beyond all the mind blowing horse power these engines produce on the drag strip while racing, the selling point for these events still remain being able to feel like you are part of the event.

Every ticket is a pit pass. Every driver and crew member is readily available for conversation and autographs. You don’t have to get there early like at a baseball game or NASCAR race. The drivers are always there throughout the day tearing their engines apart, cleaning, testing, and then getting ready for their run on the track.

Their superstars don’t hide in trailers or in the dugout as in other sports. These guys genuinely cherish the fans and their support, and it’s because of that attitude conveyed to the fans who attend that keeps NHRA going stronger than ever.

Even if you aren’t a motor sports fan, compared to any other ticket price in today’s sports, it remains the best value in the city. Taking the family out for a day in a carnival-type atmosphere and being able to do it affordably is a major draw. The Friday night qualifying sessions remain my favorite because of the flames flaring from the pipes down the Strip against the night backdrop.

The drivers love coming to Vegas. Not only because the stands are filled to capacity all three days, but because they love to discuss their odds with each other.

Vegas is the only stop on their tour where odds are placed on them. Crew members, drivers, and fans all stop by their favorite Station Casinos or Palms sports book and pick up a sheet to discuss the odds. The bookmakers in most cases are at a slight disadvantage because it is not something they book on a regular basis, but all indications are that they do pretty well with it despite sweating on a few occasions.  

The odds offered deal with the three major NHRA divisions, Top Fuel, Funny Cars, and Pro Stock.

Tony Schumacher (5-2 favorite) has already clinched the Top Fuel championship and has dominated the last portion of the season. His odds would be much lower if there weren’t a chance or possibility that the team may try to test new equipment with nothing at stake. Doug and Scott Kalitta are the ones to watch if Schumacher falters.

All John Force needs to clinch his 13th Funny Car Championship is qualify this weekend. Force is the 3-1 favorite and the overwhelming fan choice. Look for Gary Scelzi and Del Worsham to give Force all he wants Sunday. Worsham has one more win on the season than Force.

The Pro Stock division is ruled once again by Greg Anderson, who has taken what was once the most competitive division and turned it into his own personal test and tune session. He is chasing the all-time NHRA record of 14 wins in a season, but has stumbled in the last three events losing in the finals each time. Regardless, he’s still a -140 favorite. Teammate Jason Line, with four wins this year, is Anderson’s closest competitor.

NASCAR hits Atlanta

Four races remain in the chase for the championship as the Nextel Cup series heads to Atlanta this weekend. Every week during the playoff stretch, the deck has been shuffled dramatically with the exception of the one ace in the hole, Las Vegan Kurt Busch.

While Busch continued his remarkable streak of consistency with another great run at Martinsville, Dale Earnhardt Jr, took a dive. Junior was only 24 points behind Busch last week, but finished 33rd at Martinsville. Junior dropped to third behind Jeff Gordon, 125 points behind Busch.

The hard charger of the week was Jimmie Johnson, who won at Martinsville and moved up four positions in the standings. Johnson still only gained 20 points on Busch which means that several of the contending drivers fell back considerably.

Beyond Junior taking a dive, there was also Elliott Sadler who virtually said good night to the party with a 32nd place finish. Sadler is 255 points behind Busch.

Because of the slide several of these drivers took, the odds to win the title were radically shifted as well:

”¡ Kurt Busch, an 8-5 favorite last week, is now 5-7 due to his closest competitors all falling. If he runs well this week, which he should, and his nearest challengers fall further behind, there will only be a few grains of sand left in the hour glass.

”¡ Jeff Gordon is now even money to win the title. He’ll also run well in Atlanta, but needed a better run than ninth at Martinsville. However, if Busch experiences some of the heartburn Junior did last week, Gordon will be right there to take advantage.

”¡ All the drivers are hoping that Busch falters somewhere, maybe none more than Junior, now 5-2. He won in Atlanta earlier this year making it six straight top seven finishes.

”¡ Jimmie Johnson was 30-1 last week and is now 12-1. He is the type of driver who could conceivably win the last four races in a row. If he were to do so, it wouldn’t guarantee him anything. Johnson comes to a track where he’s finished third and fourth in the last two races there.

Atlanta is nearly identical to Charlotte, which will definitely bode well for Johnson who swept the season there this season. Expect a strong run again for Johnson this week. He doesn’t feel the same pressure right now that the three in front of him do. He can go all out and if doesn’t work, oh well, because he already thought he was done in the chase. The others have to be overly cautious.

”¡ Mark Martin went from 15-1 to 35-1. He needed a great run last week and raced only slightly better than average. We saw how great he was in both races at Charlotte this year, but came away both times very disappointed. Last week he tested in Atlanta and was fastest, so there still is a glimmer.

”¡ As for drivers sitting 6-10, they are almost cooked and ready for the fork. Some like Sadler, Tony Stewart, and Jeremy Mayfield should do well. Mayfield finished second earlier this year in Atlanta and has no pressure this week.

Stewart finished seventh in Atlanta this year, the first time in five starts that he didn’t finish in the top five.

Drivers not in the chase that will have value are Kasey Kahne and Bobby Labonte.

Kahne finished third earlier this year there. Labonte is one of the best ever on the track with six wins over his career. This could a perfect spot for him to cash a large ticket. Labonte’s odds will be anywhere from 20-1 to 35-1.