NHRA TAFC Title Decided But Top 10 Still Wide Open
Brand topped the rankings almost all year but dropped crucial head-to-head showdowns with Harker at Reading on the last weekend of his season. Both came in semifinal matchups, and Brand drilled the Tree both times with clutch .022 and .019 reaction times, but both times – in the rescheduled Charlotte race held in conjunction with Reading and in the Reading event itself – he had to fight just to keep his car in his lane while Harker streaked to near-perfect runs. Brand's once insurmountable lead was down to a single point by the time they staged in the Reading semi's, and Harker, for the third of four times that weekend, established a new career best (5.51, 5.48, 5.45). His amazing Speed City Monte Carlo then picked up another three-hundredths to a 5.42 in the final, the third-quickest run of all time behind only Manzo's consecutive 5.41s in the last two rounds of his title-clinching win at this race in 2011.
Brand's title bid began to unravel when he dropped final-round decisions he was favored to win on back-to-back days last month – both against upstart Scott McVey, who won his first national event title at the rain-delayed Brainerd race that was completed at Earlville then at the Earlville regional itself. Brand reached at least the semifinals in 13 of 15 starts this year, claimed his first national event victory in Topeka, and lost two other winnable finals – in Gainesville, where he narrowly red-lighted against Dan Pomponio, and in the rescheduled Brainerd final against McVey. He didn't lose in the first round all year, won four events in eight final-round appearances overall, and amassed a 35-11 win-loss mark.
Brand might have a stranglehold on the number 2 spot, but the battle for position throughout the rest of the Top 10 remains wide-open; drivers not even in the Top 10 can still end up as high as third place, which is currently held by all-time great Jay Payne. 2014 was another solid season for Payne, highlighted by a second career U.S. Nationals title. Out of races to claim, he'll finish no better than third but is guaranteed to make the Top 10 for the 15th year in a row – every year except his rookie year in Top Alcohol Funny Car, 1999 – and likely to make the Top 5.
Four rounds behind Payne is Shane Westerfield, who was third last year. He's fourth now, with a national event victory (Houston) and a regional victory (Las Vegas), and one round ahead of a four-way logjam of drivers separated by just two points: Lombardo, Pomponio, Kris Hool, and Clint Thompson.
Lombardo, runner-up for the 2013 championship and a Top 5 driver the past two years, currently is fifth with 498 points but is out of races to claim and can only go down from there. Pomponio, who backed up his 2013 Gainesville and Charlotte victories by repeating at both, is sixth, and though he still has two more national events to claim, the New Jersey driver won't be making the cross-country trek to Las Vegas and Pomona to lock down another Top 5 finish.
Hool, a two-time winner on the regional tour this year, including at his most recent stop, in Noble, Okla., will pass both Pomponio and Lombardo if he wins a single round at either of the two remaining national events. Thompson, tied with Hool at 496 and a three-time finalist this year in regional competition, also will pass Pomponio and Lombardo with a round-win at either Las Vegas or Pomona.
Doug Gordon, who swept the national and regional events at Seattle this year, might be in a better position than anyone but Harker and Brand. With 466 points in just nine starts, he'll almost certainly make the Top 5 and probably the top three. Perennial Top 10 driver Chris Foster, who won the Norwalk regional for the third year in a row, is one point behind Gordon but, because he's not heading west next month, is in danger of missing out on what would be his fourth appearance in the Top 10.
Just outside the Top 10 loom several drivers with an excellent shot at passing Foster, particularly Brian Hough, Sean Bellemeur, and Annie Whiteley. All three should be at the last three races of the year – the national events at Pomona and Las Vegas and the always brutal Vegas regional.
Hough, the early points leader with victories at the Winternationals and the Phoenix regional, will overtake Foster by just qualifying for either national event and he, like Gordon, can finish as high as third. Bellemeur, probably the most overdue driver in Top Alcohol Funny Car, will be at the wheel of Spiro Kontos' car at the Vegas regional and his own car at both national events. Whiteley, who won nine races in 12 final-round appearances and made not just the Top 10 but the Top 5 in each of her first two years in Top Alcohol Funny Car, surprisingly has been shut out this year. She has three runner-ups, including one at a national event, but has been upset in the first round in five of her last six outings despite qualifying in the top half every time.