CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - The NHRA opens its Countdown to the Championship this weekend at zMAX Dragway, the crown jewel of drag racing and a place that could be pivotal in the final standings.
The last two years, three of the four division winners at zMax went on to win the NHRA Full Throttle world championships.
``No matter where you are in the top 10, you can win the championship if you go out and win that race,'' said seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, who is winless this season.
``Charlotte is critical. It's the beginning of the Countdown to the Championship. You could've won 15 races throughout the season but if you can't win in the Countdown, game over. You're not going to be called the Full Throttle champion. We're going to go at it hard. We've been developing parts and pieces all year long for those races, starting in Charlotte.''
In each of the past two seasons, three of the four division winners at zMAX went on to win the world championship.
In 2009, Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won the opening event in the Countdown and went on to win the title in their respective divisions. Last season it was Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
NHRA's Countdown is similar to NASCAR's 10-race title deciding series. In NHRA, the top 10 drivers in the series standings are locked into the championship race in each pro category.
Antron Brown, who trails Del Worsham in the Top Fuel category, believes he'll need to have a strong weekend in Charlotte to be a contender when the title is awarded Nov. 13 at the Southern California Finals in Pomona, Calif.
``I think (Charlotte) is very important, especially when you're starting to show up for the first leg of the countdown,'' Brown said. ``To go out there and get a leg up, and what I mean by getting a leg up, I mean getting off to a great start. If you go there with a win and come out with a win, you can get more points. It's easier to maintain points than it is to catch up, especially when you only have six races left for the championship.''
This year, the dragway located on the grounds of Charlotte Motor Speedway will host the only night qualifying session of the NHRA Nationals. The cooler temperatures are expected to produce very fast runs, and track officials have promised to shoot 40-foot flames off the scoring tower at the end of the track to indicate which lane had the fastest run.
Nitro Funny Car driver Matt Hagan said the special effects and the competition at the four-lane zMax Dragway will make Friday night qualifying a breathtaking event for fans in attendance.
``The coolest part is that you've got a six-foot flame coming out of each side of your car. It's so loud. You can't describe it to somebody,'' Hagan said. ``The nighttime deal is like no other. You see these cars run in the daytime and you see them run on TV and it looks great, but when you see that night run, it really makes a fan out of you.''
Eliminations are scheduled for Sunday.

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