by Rob Geiger,

The hottest drag racer on the planet is the No. 1 qualifier at the seventh annual ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals as Pro Stock points leader Dave Connolly vaulted to the top spot with a 6.725 at 205.57 mph Saturday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Connolly joined Friday leaders Tony Schumacher, Robert Hight, and Chip Ellis, who all maintained their No. 1 qualifying spots, Hight and Ellis doing so with improved times.

Connolly has won the last five races in a row and has more national event victories this season (eight) than any other professional-level competitor. All 16 of the racers qualified for the Countdown to 1 successfully made the elimination fields for this event, the 22nd of 23 on the POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Schumacher claimed his NHRA-leading 11th pole of the year with Friday's pass of 4.482 at 327.59 mph in his U.S. Army dragster. Schumacher has three victories at The Strip, having won here in 2004, '05, and '06.

"We've run so well here the last few years but that does not in any way, shape, or form mean we'll run good tomorrow," Schumacher said. "I do feel a lot better getting down the track today because we'll see these same sort of conditions tomorrow. And it was big for us to win the first round of the Technicoat Shootout because it guaranteed us three runs today. Plus, Alan [Johnson, tuner] was pumped up to get a round win because it seems like it's been awhile since we won anything.

"If we get beat, we'll have gotten beat by a great car, no matter when it happens, because there are a lot of great cars out there. Even the cars not in the Countdown, they're out there headhunting for us. They can go for it because they have nothing to lose. It'll probably be a sleepless night but I do know we have a car capable of getting it done."

Schumacher's low qualifying effort was tempered greatly by his disqualification from the Technicoat Shootout, which occurred when his team passed the scales after their winning semifinal pass.

Richmond winner Doug Kalitta remained red-hot with a second-best 4.528 at 331.04 mph in his special-edition Long Way Down/Mac Tools dragster.
Championship contender "Hot Rod" Fuller is fourth with a 4.529 at 326.32 mph in his Caterpillar dragster. Bud's Brandon Bernstein and SkyTel's Larry Dixon are sixth and seventh, respectively, with a pair of 4.534s.

Hight was temporarily bumped off Funny Car's No. 1 spot in Round 3 but he responded with a 4.763 at 322.58 mph to return his Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang to the top spot by the end of the day. Hight and several others benefited from the thick cloud cover and smoke that descended on the area Saturday, blowing in from Southern California.

"We came here with a brand-new car and we're still learning about it," Hight said. "Fortunately, we have three other cars here that we are able to data from and that's what having a team like ours is all about. It's pretty impressive to get four cars in the field these days. John [Force] just got us all together and he was screaming about how proud he was of everyone.

"The icing on the cake would be a win here tomorrow. I hope my teammates can help me out and take out some of my competitors. We'd love to win the race but I honestly think if we can go to the semis at each of these last two races that will probably be good enough to win the championship."

By qualifying No. 1, Hight edged one point closer to current POWERade leader Tony Pedregon, who qualified his Q Horsepower Chevrolet Impala second with a 4.770 at 314.09 mph. Fellow  title-hopefuls Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps also earned top-half berths. Scelzi is third with a 4.775 at 320.81 mph in his Mopar/Oakley Dodge, while Capps is sixth with a 4.783 at 322.96 mph in the Brut Revolution Dodge Charger.

Newcomer Mike "Zippy" Neff ended up seventh in his John Force Racing debut after a best of 4.784 in his Ford.

Although he's won a class-leading eight races this season, including the last five events in a row, Pro Stock low qualifier Connolly has only led the qualifying field twice this year. His run of record, a 6.725 at a track record top speed of 205.57 mph, came in Round 3 when he led a trio of racers around Friday leader Justin Humphreys. 

"This is another tribute to the whole team," Connolly said. "We went testing again for four days between Richmond and here and it was obviously worth all the hard work. It's exciting to be here in Las Vegas and exciting to be starting the Countdown to 1 on this incredible run we've been on. I'm so happy to be driving this car.

"It's been a remarkable season. As far as confidence goes, this team is right up there. We're running great and it doesn't seem to be coming to an end. With the ladder the way it is, we'll see one of the Countdown racers in Round 2 if we're lucky enough to win the first round, so it'll be a lot of pressure right from the start."

Outgoing champ Jason Line is second with a 6.727 at 205.22 mph, while his Summit Racing Pontiac GTO teammate Greg Anderson secured the third spot with a 6.731 at 204.42 mph. 

The first monster match-up of the Countdown to 1 will occur in Round 1 when No. 8 qualifier Allen Johnson (6.750) matches up with No. 9 qualifier Jeg Coughlin (6.752).

Ellis' incredible second-half performances continued here with his fourth consecutive low qualifying effort and his fifth in the last six races. Ellis dipped to a 7.023 at 189.60 mph Saturday on his Drag Specialties S&S Buell V-Twin to reset the track's elapsed time record. Ellis will now try to capitalize on his fast start and win his first race of the year.

"I need to separate Chip Ellis the person from Chip Ellis the racer and just go out there tomorrow and ride the bike," Ellis said. "I put a lot of stress on myself. I've been doing it all year. I need to just ride, have fun, and do what I do. If anyone runs into me tomorrow morning please just remind me to have fun.

"Without tooting my horn, I know I'm a machine on the motorcycle when we're making runs in testing and qualifying. I need to bring that to race day. If I stay in my three foot by eight foot area I work in when I'm on that bike, I should have no trouble. I have the best bike here. I've had the best bike for the last half of the season."

The other three players in the Countdown to 1 are close behind Ellis. Andrew Hines is second overall after a 7.049 at 188.44 mph on his Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod. Matt Smith is third with a best of 7.049 at 186.77 mph on his Torco Buell, while Peggy Llewellyn is sixth with a 7.071 on her Rush Racing Products V-Twin.