Schumacher claims 50th win
Tony Schumacher long ago locked up the top spot in the Countdown to the Championship, but the five-time NHRA POWERade champion isn’t about to cut his opponents any slack. Schumacher won his milestone 50th career Top Fuel title, and his ninth of the season when he defeated teammate Cory McClenathan in the final round of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. Schumacher, who hasn’t lost a race since the second round in Norwalk, was joined in the Brainerd winner’s circle by Tony Pedregon, Kurt Johnson and Matt Smith.
Schumacher, is in the midst of one of the most dominant seasons in NHRA history, got progressively quicker in the late rounds before finishing the job with a 3.865 over McClenathan, who was close behind with a 3.900 in the Fram dragster. Pedregon, the reigning NHRA Funny Car champ, claimed his fourth win of the year after Beckman red-lighted in the final while Johnson, a Minnesota native who has long been a favorite of the enthusiastic Brainerd fans, won his third race of the season to pass Jason Line for the No. 2 spot in the Pro Stock standings. Another three-time winner in 2008 is Smith, who bravely fought through the pain of a kidney stone to win the Pro Stock Motorcycle title of the year on a single run when Angelle Sampey’s Rush Racing Buell could not fire in the final round.
After claiming his 50th win, Schumacher is just two wins away from tying Joe Amato’s record for career Top Fuel victories and the way his U.S. Army car is running, he’s likely to get there this season. The reigning POWERade champ has now reached the final round in nine of the last 11 races, winning seven times. After receiving a single run in the final, Schumacher once again took car of his arch rival, Rod Fuller, 3.92 to 3.98, and then earned a spot in the final with a 3.88 win over Doug Kalitta’s Mac Tools dragster.
“I’m quite aware of how good this team is; It’s the best team I’ve ever seen,” said Schumacher. “We’re racing against great teams. It’s a lot of pressure but I love those situations. It’s amazing to be a part of these moments. I feel like I’m driving my best. I feel like I’m doing a good job keeping the car in the center [of the lane] I feel like I’m part of the team right now.”
McClenathan, who along with Schumacher, Antron Brown, Fuller, Larry Dixon, and Brandon Bernstein, has secured his spot in the Countdown to One, reached the final for the 53rd time in his career with a semifinal win over No. 2 qualifier Steve Torrence in the semifinals. McClenathan ran as quick as 3.89 in eliminations, but couldn’t match the Army dragster in the final.
Pedregon, who began the year with a fiery explosion in Pomona and suffered a similar incident in Joliet, maintained his perfect four-for-four record in final rounds when he stopped Beckman’s Valvoline/MTS Dodge in the title bout. Beckman had the quicker car, 4.23 to 4.21, but Pedregon was there to capitalize on his early (-.065) red-light start. A round earlier, Pedregon won a key round against his former boss, John Force, 4.369 to 4.373.
“I have never won in Brainerd and this is a big achievement,” said Pedregon. “There is never a bad time for a win but this was really important because we’re trying to get back in that No. 2 spot in the Countdown. Everyone is a big challenge but the toughest one is still [John] Force. I know he says he’s old and he’s tired but I ain’t buying it; he’s still as tough as ever.
“Beckman is tough too, but sometimes you can force people to make mistakes when your car is running well and our car is running well right now.”
Although disappointed at losing the final, Beckman had a get healthy weekend in Brainerd as he moved past Mike Neff and into the ninth spot in the Countdown to the Championship. After qualifying eighth, the former Super Comp national champion and driving school instructor used a string of low 4.2s to defeat Gary Densham, Ron Capps, and points leader Tim Wilkerson to reach the final for the eighth time in his professional career. The Funny Car field for the Countdown to the Championship has also begun to take shape as Wilkerson, Pedregon, Robert Hight, and Cruz Pedregon have secured their starting spots.
After a disappointing round one loss in Sonoma, Johnson made a quick rebound with his 39th career Pro Stock title. Following a solid qualifying performance that yielded the No. 2 starting spot, K.J. powered past Jim Yates, Mike Edwards, and defending event winner Jeg Coughlin to reach the final. Johnson’s ACDelco Cobalt was exceptionally consistent with four runs between 6.648 and 6.671 on race day.
“We had a super great day,” said Johnson. “We got a little behind at first, but the car got faster and faster each round. I’m also pretty happy with my driving. I had four good lights and that makes me feel good. When your car is running as well as our car is, it does add pressure because you need to perform.
“Its obviously big anytime I can win a race in Brainerd because this is my home track and we have a lot of support here,” Johnson continued. “It can be a distraction but when they close the door and I pull into the water, I have no distractions at all.”
Five drivers in Pro Stock are confirmed for the Countdown; Greg Anderson, Kurt Johnson, Jason Line, Jeg Coughlin, and Allen Johnson. Connolly, who missed the first five races of the season, has climbed to eighth after reaching back-to-back finals.
The opening round of Pro Stock Motorcycle was wildly unpredictable as bottom-half qualifiers Craig Treble, David Hope, Mike Berry, and Wes Wells all won on holeshots. Smith, who was riding in pain after being diagnosed with kidney stones earlier in the weekend, somehow maintained his focus and cruised through the field, running in the sixes on three of four runs, including a 6.954 in the opening round and a 6.973 on his final round single. He also received a single run in the opening round when Jim Underdahl broke.
“This is amazing,” said Smith. “For us to come here with a new bike, qualify No. 1 and win the race is unreal. When we brought this new bike out, we thought we might have to give up a race or two while we were getting it sorted out. We figured that we’d be in good shape for the start of the Countdown in Charlotte but obviously I’m really happy with it now.
"I was in a lot of pain this weekend and last night I went to the hospital and they told me I have 10 kidney stones,” said Smith. “It really hurts, but it helps to get the win. In the third round, I was really in a lot of pain and maybe that’s why I had a late [.110 reaction time] but now I’m just going to go home and get well before Reading.”
Although he lost in the semifinals, Chip Ellis joined Smith and Andrew Hines as the three riders have locked up their Countdown to One berths in the battle for the 10 spots.
In Lucas Oil Sportsman action, Brina Splingaire won her second national event title of the year in Super Gas, and then returned a few minutes later for the Super Comp, final where she lost to Rick Bowman. Other winners were Brandon Lewis (Top Alcohol Dragster), Mick Snyder (Top Alcohol Funny Car), Arnie Martel (Comp), and Brett Speer (Stock).