The mind of funny car driver Ron Capps often wanders back to last year's NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series championship, a season-long journey that ended eight points short.
Eight points. The difference between being a champion and a footnote.
It was the third time in nine full seasons Capps had finished second. He enters today's National Hot Rod Assn. final eliminations at the 42nd Auto Club Nationals one point behind Robert Hight and 73 points behind 13-time champion John Force. Capps is qualified sixth in his Brut Dodge Charger. Hight qualified second, Force third.
Capps can win the title if he wins the race and Force loses in the first round. Or, Capps must beat Force in the second round and set the national record on a track that has never yielded the class' quickest time. Either way, Capps must win out.
The day may provide a moment that defines Capps' career with a victory. Worse, it might define his career with a loss.
"Ron is probably one of the best drivers in the class," said top-fuel driver Larry Dixon, who was a teammate of Capps when he was driving for Don Prudhomme. "I think he's a better driver than John Force as a pure driver. Not a showman, not a businessman, but if you weigh them both as drivers, I think Ron is a better driver."
Capps has his own star qualities. He seems as comfortable around celebrities as those common folks who crowded around him Saturday while he was packing his parachute between qualifying runs. There is a laid-back maturity about him, like an older brother who knows best but has his own frailties.
In the wound-up world of drag racing, Capps is marketable without trying to be like everyone else, most of whom are trying to be like Force.
Capps is not just racing for himself, either. He seems intertwined with his crew chief, Ed "Ace" McCulloch, who has never won a title, either. McCulloch won the sport's premier event, the U.S. Nationals, a record six times, but never a championship as a driver or crew chief.
McCulloch has been fighting colon cancer the last two years. Despite two surgeries and six months of chemotherapy in 2005, he missed only last year's race in St. Louis.
"I want to win a championship, but winning one with him and for him tops the list," said Capps, 41, whose car was tuned by McCulloch before they moved to Don Schumacher Racing from Prudhomme's shop.
"That's what hurts so bad about right now, leading all year, tasting the possibility of a championship."
Capps, runner-up to Hight in the season-opener at Pomona, led the championship 17 of the next 18 races, and has been second the last three.
Theirs is a father-son relationship forged by Capps' admiration for the man he describes as "John Wayne," who drove in the 1970s and had little time for nonsense.
Capps as a youth had a scale model of McCulloch's 1971 Dodge Demon. When Capps began driving a top-fuel dragster for Roger Primm in 1995, he approached the unapproachable McCulloch, and the unlikely pair connected.
Since 2000, both have chased the elusive championship together, a title both covet.
"It validates a lot of things in a person's career, and you join an elite group of people," said Tony Pedregon, who won the title in 2003. "Once you become a champion, you're a champion for life. It sure does have a lot of meaning."
And that's why it's so important when the title is so close.
"That's why we do this," McCulloch said. "We race to win races and win championships.... I would like to win a championship before it's over, but it's not going to alter my life.
"I know Ron wants to win as bad as I do. Fortunately, he has the time to do it that I don't. He's had a good career up to now. He's going to win a championship before it's over. He will. Whether I do remains to be seen."
And, if it doesn't happen?
"I'm expecting to go all the way" Sunday, Capps said, "but hypothetically speaking, second would be better than third."
It's a feeling he knows from experience.