By Rob Geiger,

The paths to the titles of the sixth annual NHRA Nationals have been set as professional qualifying at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raced to a close Saturday evening. The hot conditions and cloudless sky forced drivers to abandon attempts at Friday leaders Doug Kalitta, Gary Scelzi, and Warren Johnson, but there was still plenty of great racing action as lower-ranked and unqualified drivers pushed their way up the three pro ladders.

Team Schumacher drivers Tony Schumacher, Whit Bazemore, and Ron Capps all needed Day 2 heroics to make the cut, but each driver managed to pull through and earn spots. Sensing weakness, the drivers behind Schumacher and Bazemore in the points are rallying to make up ground in the Nevada desert. 

Doug Kalitta

The first half dozen cars in Top Fuel stayed in exactly the same order they finished Friday's action in with Kalitta leading the way in his Mac Tools rail with a 4.496 at 329.34 mph in his Mac Tools dragster. This was Kalitta's first No. 1 qualifying effort of the year and the 24th of his career. He'll get $4,000 from Budweiser for the effort and will race final qualifier Scott Palmer (4.814) in the opening round of eliminations.

"We had a real strong run last night and that's a tribute to the facility because the track was there for us to take advantage of the cooler air," Kalitta said. "But to win you have to run in the heat and the fact we went 4.60 in Round 1 shows me that we can be competitive when it's hot. We're not nervous about the sunshine. We're heading into tomorrow with confidence.

"We would love to gain some ground on [Tony] Schumacher. Any time you see that team struggle you know that you need to do whatever you can to take advantage of it. That's a great team and they got us last week. It wouldn't be a shock if they came to life tomorrow. But maybe we can pay them back instead."

The two biggest movers of the day were points leader Tony Schumacher and Budweiser's Brandon Bernstein. Schumacher started the day outside the field but responded with a 4.693 at 299.66 mph, which placed his Army rail in 13th place, his worst qualifying effort in three years. The white-knuckle Round 3-run was his only full pass down the dragstrip.

Bernstein, who has struggled mightily lately with two first-round losses in a row, improved from 12th to seventh place with a 4.600 at the close of qualifying.

The two drivers making their pro debuts this weekend, Jack Beckman and Ben Marshall, will face each other in Round 1. Beckman, the No. 8 qualifier, has lane choice.

Gary Scelzi

The most revealing thing Scelzi learned in Rounds 3 and 4 is that he'll line his Mopar/Oakley Dodge up against John Force Racing pro Eric Medlen's Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang in the opening round of eliminations. Scelzi and crew chief Mike "Zippy" Neff did coax a 4.89 and a 4.94 out of their hot rod in Saturday's heat so they remain confident about their chances Sunday.

Scelzi's 4.797 at 325.06 mph from Round 2 pays $4,000 in Skoal bucks. It was the 37th low qualifier award of Scelzi's career and his fourth in Funny Car, a class he took up in 2002.

"I'm not a big fan of opening up against Eric Medlen because that team shares information over there and they have data from John [Force's] and Robert [Hight's] runs that will help them," Scelzi said as he quickly switched to the cockpit of the Alcohol Funny Car he's running this weekend. "But we're just as good as them so I'll get my elbows up in the cockpit and we'll race."

Force is lurking just behind Scelzi in second place with a best of 4.809, the same number third-place qualifier Tim Wilkerson ran in his Levi, Ray, & Shoup Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Hight recovered from a big fire Friday to move his Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang all the way up to fourth place with a 4.811.

Don Schumacher Racing stars Bazemore and Capps had their team owner and sponsors chewing their fingernails as they both waited until the last session to make the field. Bazemore posted a 4.951 in the Matco Tools Dodge to earn the 12th spot, while Capps pulled out a 4.989 to put the Brut Stratus in 15th place.

Warren Johnson

Johnson bagged $3,000 from the King Demon Crown bonus fund for the second straight weekend after maintaining the low qualifier position he earned Friday night with a 6.824-second pass at 201.46 mph in his GM Performance Parts Pontiac. "The Professor" has now pushed his record total of No. 1 qualifying efforts to 132. This is his first at The Strip, the only track on the tour where he hasn't won a race.

"We made changes this afternoon because we feel like the conditions just now are most representative of what we'll see tomorrow," Johnson said. "This is the hottest we've been this year and this being a new car we needed to try some things to see how it would react. It went too far so at least we learned what not to do.

"Today was like NASCAR's happy hour. No one was going for low E.T., we were all just tuning for tomorrow. I'd like to drive one of those cars. I could qualify one. I just don't want to be out there with 42 other rednecks two inches away from me. Notice I said 'other rednecks.' That was meant to be all-inclusive."

With team sponsor and track owner Bruton Smith looking on, zMax's Larry Morgan concluded his best qualifying effort of the year with a second-best 6.838 at 200.92 mph. Valvoline's Ron Krisher (6.849) and Jeg's Mail Order pro Jeg Coughlin (6.854) rounded out the top four and will have favored status heading into race day.

Bruce Allen hasn't had the best year so far. After qualifying for every race in 2004, he's already missed three of the first four this season. But he did make the cut here, on the button, with a 16th-place 6.886 at 200.32 mph. He'll need to be sharp to beat Johnson in Round 1.

Phoenix winner Allen Johnson and Erica Enders were the bigger names on the DNQ list.

The Pro Mod warriors have completed their first round of eliminations and reigning AMS Staff Leasing Pro Mod Challenge champ Mike Ashley emerged as the new man to beat in his Torco Racing Fuels Shelby. Ashley, the No. 2 qualifier, posted low E.T. of the round when he carded a 6.238 at 227.19 mph to dismiss Shelly Payne.