Michael Ray has emerged as one of the favorites to win the Pro Stock Motorcycle world championship title this season in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

As the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship opens Sept. 13-15 at the Carlyle Professional Hand Tools NHRA Carolina Nationals presented by NAPA Auto Parts at zMAX Dragway, the Texas rider expects a strong challenge from North Carolina's own Matt Smith during the six-race playoff battle.

The two riders were teammates last season, but went their separate ways during the off-season and now find themselves wrapped in a tight points battle for the championship.

Hector Arana Jr. has led the series standings all season, boosted by three early season wins, including the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway. Since mid-May, however, Ray and Smith have been grabbing headlines in the class.

Ray expects the final six playoff races to be an intense shootout. Ray feels that Smith will be the one he needs to focus most on during the championship run. 

"I'd have to say if you discounted Matt Smith Racing and Viper Motorcycle Company, that rivalry between Matt and I, you'd be cutting us a little short," Ray said. "He and I have raced really hard together. He's a past champion. He's my past crew chief. So there is nobody I want to personally beat any more than him when I put on my helmet."

Ray has claimed victories at Englishtown and Chicago this season and earned two No. 1 qualifying positions. Smith, the 2007 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ from nearby King, N.C., had an emotional win at Norwalk, Ohio where he shared the winner's circle with his father Rickie, a North Carolina drag racing legend, who claimed the Pro Mod victory at the same event. He's also had two runner-up finishes and earned three No. 1 qualifying positions.

Ray says off the track he and Smith have remained friends, but when they put on their racing leathers, gloves and helmets, anything can happen.

"I think that our friendship off the track allows us to be more fiery competitors to each other," Ray said. "He knows that there's a little bit of bad blood kind of from the way things ended last year with him and I, and when he beat me a couple times this year, whether it be on holeshots, and when he won up in Norwalk, it was a little bit of redemption for him, whether he'd come out and admit it or not."

Others to watch in the 190 mph Pro Stock Motorcycle category include past zMAX Dragway winners Hector Arana Sr., Steve Johnson, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Category newcomers John Hall, Scotty Pollacheck and rookie Adam Arana also will be racing for victory at the playoff series opener.

The Carlyle Tools NHRA Carolina 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.

As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they're granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. No other sport offer fans an up close and personal experience like NHRA. Fans can stand close by as teams warm up their high-horsepower machines prior to each run.

Fans also will want to visit NHRA's popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.

Be a part of the action all weekend with a three-day pass to the Carlyle Tools NHRA Carolina Nationals, with packages starting at just $99. Bring the kids along for an even better ticket offer: Children 13 and younger will receive free general admission with a paid adult all weekend.

Carlyle Tools NHRA Carolina Nationals qualifying opens on Friday, Sept. 13, with pro sessions scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions are scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 14, at 12:15 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15.

The race will be televised on ESPN2 HD with qualifying coverage on Saturday and three hours of eliminations coverage on Sunday beginning at 8:30 p.m. (ET).

To purchase tickets, call the Charlotte Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS (3267) or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com. To stay up to date with everything going on at the Bellagio of drag strips, log on to www.charlottemotorspeedway.com or connect with zMAX Dragway on Twitter at www.twitter.com/zmaxdragway or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/zmaxdragway.