The Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six-race playoff series, opens Sept. 14-16 at spectacular zMAX Dragway, Bruton Smith’s Bellagio of drag strips.

The kick-off race for this season’s world championship battle for the top 10 drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, promises to be one of the best ever. In past seasons, this event has produced incredible record-setting performances, like Funny Car driver Matt Hagan’s impressive milestone run of 3.995 seconds last year. Hagan’s victory at the event propelled the Virginia cattle rancher on to the world championship title five races later. Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Eddie Krawiec, who set both ends of the track record on his Harley-Davidson V-Rod last September, also used the race-winning momentum to secure a second world championship title in Pomona.

Every Countdown-eligible driver knows that getting off to a fast start in the first race of the playoffs is critical. That’s why every team will be pushing hard to win the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries at zMAX Dragway. In addition to Hagan and Krawiec, other defending winners of the event are Antron Brown in Top Fuel and Kurt Johnson in Pro Stock. The race will be televised on ESPN2HD.

Many drivers have proven the win early philosophy over the years. Robert Hight won the Funny Car title from a starting point of 10th in the points standings in 2009. Hagan was sixth last season. Cruz Pedregon was as far back as eighth when he took the title in 2008. Like Hagan, Pedregon and Hight also opened their championship runs with victories at zMAX Dragway.

“(In the Countdown), whoever gets the hot hand, can win it all,” said John Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, who won a record 15th Funny Car world championship in the Countdown to the Championship in 2010.

There are a lot of drivers who are certifiably hot entering the Countdown this season, like Top Fuel driver Spencer Massey, who has won four races and earlier in the season at NHRA’s first stop at zMAX Dragway electrified the crowd with a jaw-dropping speed of 332.18 mph to take the national record. He used a series of impressive performance runs in eliminations to win the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.

Massey, who will battle Tony Schumacher, defending winner Brown, Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta and Brandon Bernstein, among others, for the race victory and the championship title feels confident heading back to a track where his team has shined.

“All year long we’ve been running well,” Massey said. “We’ve set track records, we’ve set speed records. This is for all the marbles. We’re putting everything into it. Our Prestone/FRAM guys are putting in 125 percent; we’re going for it.”

No Pro Stock racer has been hotter than Erica Enders, who in April at Charlotte came up short in her bid to become the first female racer to win an NHRA Pro Stock race. She did accomplish the historic feat at Chicago in July. Since then she has tacked on two more race victories – at Seattle and Brainerd – and appears poised to challenge for her first world championship crown. A season crown would be another major first for the native Houston driver.

“There is no better time to be hot than right now,” Enders said. “I’m excited about the recent success, but we’ve just got to keep pressing forward, working hard and doing our best every week.”

In the two-wheel category, Hector Arana Jr. hasn’t won a race in 2012, but that doesn’t mean he’s not had a solid regular season. He’s ready to start adding to his Pro Stock Motorcycle win total when it counts the most – in the Countdown playoffs. He just wants the hectic pace to slow down a bit.

“This year has flown by,” said Arana Jr., who is third in points and has posted three runner-up finishes and earned one No. 1 qualifying position on his Lucas Oil Buell. “For some reason last year, it seemed like it took so much longer to do the whole year, and this year, everything is just flying by. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because we’re doing better this year and there’s been a little bit less stress. But this year has been really good so far.”

The O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. In addition to all of the drama and excitement going on in the Countdown playoffs, fans will also enjoy a brilliant night qualifying show on Friday, some powerful exhibition runs by two jet dragsters and an incredible fireworks display to close out Friday’s racing.

On Sunday, fans who attend the race will certainly want to participate in the Nitro Generation Track Walk, where all ticket holders can walk side-by-side down zMAX Dragway with the most popular drivers in the sport.

General admission tickets for Friday are only $20 and kids 13 and under are admitted free each day with a paid adult ticket. Fans can purchase three tickets and get one free in select sections. For tickets to the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries, please call the Charlotte Motor Speedway ticket office at (800) 455-FANS (3267).

* SCHEDULE: Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 and 5:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, and 12:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16.

* TICKETS: For tickets for the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries please call (800) 455-FANS or log on to www.zmaxdragway.com.

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise 90 minutes qualifying coverage at 10:30 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, Sept. 15, and three hours of eliminations coverage at 8:30 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Sept. 16.

* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries will feature competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8 a.m. on Sept. 14, and eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on Sept. 15 and continue through Sept. 16.

* NHRA PRO MOD SERIES presented by ProCare Rx: NHRA’s popular Pro Mod touring series will make its eighth start of the 10-race 2012 season at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries. The series features some of the world’s fastest and most unique doorslammer cars, with an eclectic mix of vintage and late-model body styles, in quarter-mile competition. The first qualifying session will be Friday, Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. Qualifying will continue on Saturday, Sept. 15 with a session at 2 p.m. and will be followed by the first round of eliminations at 4:30 p.m. Eliminations will continue Sunday, Sept. 16 at approximately 2:30 p.m.

* ON THE WEB: Get live timing, scoring, multimedia and the latest news updates from every NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event on the Internet at www.nhra.com. Visit the official NHRA pages on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.