Conditions right for speed

BAYTOWN, Texas -- Houston Raceway Park has long been a drag racing facility where horsepower can run wild. This weekend, the 17th O'Reilly Spring Nationals opens for business at this sea-level venue and as always, the teams which can make the most power will certainly have the upper hand on race day. All four professional categories will be taking to the dragstrip and here's a preview of the season's fifth event of the NHRA POWERade series. Top Fuel
When the discussion turns to which Top Fuel teams brandish the most horsepower on the NHRA tour, the teams of Doug and Scott Kalitta (and by extension, David Grubnic), Tony Schumacher and Brandon Bernstein certainly lead the way. Schumacher and Bernstein have combined for this year's four national event wins, but Houston Raceway Park may provide the most ideal conditions for creating horsepower that we've seen all year. Although warm weather is predicted for Houston through Sunday, there may be some extensive cloud cover on race day which will help teams harness that power to the track. Doug Kalitta is the defending event champion and is winless in 2004. If he's going to break into the win column in Houston, he'll have to outperform points leader Schumacher, who has won three of the year's first four races. Phoenix winner Brandon Bernstein will be strong based on what his team can accomplish on good tracks and the recently repaved HRP surface will only get better as the weekend continues. Larry Dixon? In 1999, he broke the 4.40 barrier at this event with tuner Dale Armstrong. Despite a final round appearance in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Dixon and crew chief Dick Lahaie are working at developing a high-power tuneup for sea level tracks where 4.40's are possible. If it takes a 4.40's combination to win this weekend, Dixon and Lahaie can only hope they uncover it ASAP. Funny Car
At this early stage of the season, the performances of Del Worsham and teammate Phil Burkart are easily the most riveting highlights. Del's two wins and Burkart's victory in Las Vegas two weeks ago sheds an intriguing light on the championship picture. No other team has put together a consistent string of round wins and race victories. In fact, the powerhouse teams of John Force, Don Schumacher, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, and the Pedregon brothers, Cruz and Tony, have barely kept pace rather than set the pace. Tony Pedregon, the series champion and defending event champion, needs to start tallying round wins if he is to energize his title defense. His tuner, Dick Venables, has a racetrack that will take plenty of power and if the cloud cover comes in on Sunday, he'll have the most favorable conditions he's seen all year. In fact, we may see some of the quickest elapsed times of 2004 if the track temperature doesn't climb well into triple-digits. Pro Stock
Last year, it was Kurt Johnson winning the Spring Nationals with Greg Anderson suffering a rare first round loss. Anderson went on to make scant few additional mistakes in '03, and this season, he's been nearly flawless -- and unbeatable. Will there be any surprises this weekend? Only if the other top teams can go quicker than Anderson, and it's been a while since anyone has been able to make that claim. Warren Johnson set a national elapsed time record here last year and Kurt set a national top speed mark. Jeg Coughlin's first Pro Stock win came here in 1997 in his second professional start. But Anderson can cut through whatever past accomplishments his opponents can muster with e.t.'s at least 2/100's to 4/100's quicker than the next quickest competitor in every round of qualifying and eliminations. Not many new wrinkles in this story. Anderson will have to leave someone an opening to take him down. And those openings have been rare indeed. Pro Stock Bike
Right now, the Harleys are hot. Their sweep of the Gatornationals two races ago is still reverberating through the sport and with a bonus of $10,000 from Mickey Thompson for the first PSB rider to break the 6-second barrier, this could be another windfall weekend for the V-Rods. With favorable conditions, this race will be a good test for the Suzukis and whether they can bounce back from the Harley blitz in Gainesville. With Angie McBride leaving Star Racing, replaced by former Star standout Fred Collis, that may be a team with an extra measure of motivation to step up. Reigning champion Geno Scali was a non-factor in Gainesville and he'll be looking to take charge in Houston. So will Angelle Savoie who has been winless since capturing last year's first two national events. Her teammate Antron Brown is due to climb out of his slump as is Craig Treble and Shawn Gann. But the Harleys of Andrew Hines and GT Tonglet will command the spotlight this weekend and another victory for the domestic nameplate will prove Gainesville wasn't just a shot in the dark. Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and