READING, Pa. – Two weeks ago, Steve Torrence was so far ahead of his closest pursuers in the race for the Camping World Top Fuel championship that one would have needed binoculars to find second place Brittany Force and maybe the Hubble Space Telescope to locate everyone else.

After driving his Capco Contractors Top Fuel dragster to victory in eight of the 13 races comprising a shortened NHRA regular season, Torrence led Force by 411 points and 10th place Doug Kalitta by a whopping 801.

However, when qualifying for the Mopar Express Lane Nationals begins this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway, the three-time reigning series champion’s once massive advantage over Force will have been reduced to a miniscule 20 points. Kalitta, the final qualifier in an expanded Countdown to the Championship (seven races instead of the traditional six), will start just 80 points further back.

Such is life in the era of pencil parity.

Torrence’s feelings about the NHRA Countdown largely mirror those of world No. 1 pro golfer Jon Rahm with regard to the format used to determine the winner of the FedEx Cup, the pro golf equivalent of the Camping World series champion.

“At the end of the day you could win 15 events (during the regular season) and you (only) have a two-shot lead (to start the week at the Tour Championship),” Rahm said. “I understand it’s for TV purposes and excitement and just making it more of a winner-take-all and they (do) give you a two-shot advantage, but over four days that can be gone in two holes.”

Torrence has said basically the same thing about the NHRA playoffs and the way the points are adjusted after the regular season. However, the sport’s dominant driver over the past five seasons has made his peace with the system since it reached out a bit him in 2017 when he lost the title on the final day to Force

“That’s just the way it is,” the 48-time pro tour winner said of the Countdown system. “Basically, it penalizes the best teams for being successful, but it gives more teams a chance at the end of the year and that’s obviously what they were going for.”

The system stung him in 2017, but Torrence, who is from Kilgore, came back a year later with an answer for what he considered the inequities in the format. In 2018, he and his Capco Contractors team won all six races in the Countdown, an accomplishment unlikely ever to be duplicated.

Although subsequent titles in 2019 and 2020 were not secured with quite the same flair, they were no less significant.

For Torrence, the 2020 championship was especially memorable because it was won in “old school” fashion with the title determined simply by who earned the most points over the course of the shortened 11-race series with no Countdown and no recalibration of the points.

Even though he missed the season opener, the Texan earned enough total points over the next 10 events to beat Kalitta to the podium by 193 points.

As a result, the 38-year-old cancer survivor is in position this year to become just the seventh driver in NHRA pro drag racing history to finish atop the standings four straight years. The last to do so was Tony Schumacher, who strung together a Top Fuel record six consecutive titles from 2004 through 2009.

Qualifying begins Friday with a single session at 4:45 p.m., Texas time, followed by Saturday sessions at 12:15 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. Television coverage of final eliminations from 1-4 p.m., Texas time, on Sunday on Fox Sports 1 (FS1).

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