Schumacher wins Top-Fuel again
Tony Schumacher defeated Larry Dixon to score a class-record-tying fifth straight victory in Top Fuel and run his unbeaten streak at the 1,000-foot distance to 20 straight rounds with a victory at the 24th annual Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals. The event, the 17th race of the 24-event NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series and the next to last before the fields are set for the Countdown to 1 playoffs that start after the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in two weeks, was chock full of points drama and upset performances.
Matt Smith, who shared the winner’s circle a week ago in Brainerd with Schumacher, will do it again after scoring in Pro Stock Motorcycle with his second straight final-round victory over Angelle Sampey. Jack Beckman and Jeg Coughlin each earned their second wins of the season and their first since early spring with their respective Funny Car and Pro Stock final-round conquests of Frank Hawley and Dave Connolly.
Schumacher and Dixon began the season tied wins apiece and both were participating in their 82nd career Top Fuel final round in Reading, but that’s where the duality ends as Schumacher continued his roll by earning his fifth straight Wally and record-tying 10th of the season and Dixon suffered his fourth straight final-round loss of the season, 3.84 to 3.89.
“It’s definitely been incredible,” said Schumacher. “There really are no words. I could stand up here all day long and try to explain it, but it’s been a gift of a year. We’ve been together for five years, and this year has been the most dominant that we’ve ever been. It’s just an awesome car, and it hasn’t been one of those cars that’s run a tenth faster than everyone. That [final] there, it was a tenth of a second — good race. The driver had to do his job, and I think I’m driving good because it’s tight racing. It’s constant suck-it-up moments.”
Looking towards the playoffs, where his huge lead will be reset to just 30, Schumacher said, “They’re going to take all the points away, and I’m going to show up at the last race and try and win the race. If someone else wins the championship, I’m going to walk over there and shake their hand. We know the rules. We read the Rulebook. I knew coming in that if we won every race coming up here, they were going to take all the points away. We’ve been doing it this way for a year now, and I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say it was only good last year because it helped us. As good as we’re running, if we can’t close the deal at the end of the year, so be it, and someone else is going to be the POWERade champ. We have a great team, no matter what happens. If we didn’t show up at the last six races, we still have had a great season.”
Schumacher, who qualified his Alan Johnson-tuned Army dragster No. 1 for the third time in the last four races, earned a first-round bye for the second straight event and followed with victories over Brandon Bernstein and returning vet Clay Millican. Millican, appearing at just his second NHRA event this season and first since Gainesville, almost ended Schumacher’s victory skein in the semifinals, putting a holeshot on “the Sarge” but was unable to hold off the U.S. Army horsepower. Schumacher won by just .009-second, 3.928 to 3.945. Schumacher is now just two round-wins from breaking his own record of 21 straight round-wins, set in 2005-2006.
Dixon, the winner earlier this year in Phoenix and runner-up in Houston, Bristol, and Topeka with Don Prudhomme’s U.S. Smokeless dragster, defeated Doug Foley, Countdown hopeful Dave Grubnic, and Antron Brown. Dixon’s semifinal victory over class rookie Brown edged him closer to second-place Brown in the points standings.
The Funny Car final pitted two racers who previously worked together to teach the fine art of driving at Hawley’s NHRA Drag Racing School, and come the final exam, the teacher, Beckman, beat the headmaster, Hawley, with a 4.18 after Hawley had to abort his pass. The win was the fifth of Beckman’s career in Funny Car and came just a week after he red-lighted in the final round in Brainerd.
“I screwed up last week,” admitted Beckman. “I had a car that could win the race, but I gave it away in the final. You never want to do that, so this is a little bit of redemption. Getting that trophy for the crew means everything.
“Racing Frank Hawley was huge. Like I said, it’s like a Little League pitcher that’s just a huge fan of the sport, and they bring up Mickey Mantle to play ball with you. Frank’s meant so much to this sport, and having him back in this sport is only going to make it better. Of course, the last thing we needed was another tough Funny Car out here. I was so happy for him when he won his rounds, and he was happy for me up until the final round, so that was cool. It was just a fairytale weekend.”
Beckman, like Dixon a winner earlier this season in Phoenix and winless since, reached his second straight final round and his third in the last five races after a disappointing string of events where he failed to reach the second round in six events and did not qualify at three others. Beckman, who clinched his spot in the Countdown playoffs in eliminations, powered his Tommy Delago- and Johnny West-tuned Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge past points leader Tim Wilkerson, 14-time champ John Force, and former world champ and low qualifier Cruz Pedregon in the semifinals.
“Closing out a spot in the top 10 is good,” added Beckman. “We go into Indy a little bit more relaxed. The crew gave me such a great, consistent race car. A couple of times, it wanted to move over toward the centerline, but it was a pretty smooth car all weekend long. We just stunk in the middle part of the season — nine races without a round-win. We had to kind of take a couple of steps backward to kind of start picking away at this. We’ve been consistent for a few races. Now, I think we’re starting to get quick, and I think if we can take that into cold-weather tracks, we will be contending for the championship.”
Hawley, who last reached an NHRA final round in Top Fuel in Dallas 18 years ago, hadn’t been to the money round in Funny Car -- the class in which he was the national champion in 1982 and ’83 -- in 24 years (1984 Brainerd event) and last scored in Funny Car at the 1984 Mile High Nationals. Hawley, who returned to the nitro coupes earlier this year in Gainesville and had competed in only three previous races this season, opened eliminations by defeating teammate Melanie Troxel, then upset reigning POWERade world champ Tony Pedregon, and, in the semifinals, class rookie Mike Neff, who earlier in the day had clinched the final spot in the Countdown to 1 playoffs.
Teammates Coughlin and Connolly squared off for the bragging rights, but the race was over before it even started when Connolly left the starting line .005-second too quick, drawing the red-light, his first of the season. Coughlin, the reigning world champ, made it official with a 6.650-second pass. The win was Coughlin’s 40th in the class and his 53rd overall.
On the day, Coughlin skipped past first-round loser Jason Line and into third place in points by defeating V. Gaines, Jim Yates, and red-lighting Kurt Johnson with three passes from his Jegs.com Cobalt that were within almost one-hundredth of a second of one another to reach his 65th Pro Stock final.
“We did a good job today, but we were also pretty fortunate. You don’t expect Kurt Johnson and Dave Connolly to go red against you, but we’ll take it,” Coughlin said. “Our car was struggling, we qualified 11th, and we knew we’d have out work cut out for us. The last couple of weeks, we’ve kind of been on that end of the qualifying, but we’ve been real strong on race day, so my hopes were still high. I have a lot of confidence in this team, and I felt we’d be a top-five team on Sunday.
“We need to carry this momentum into the Countdown. Indy is the biggest race of the year, no question about it, but come Charlotte [the inaugural NHRA Carolinas Nationals], we’re running for the POWERade world championship, and we want to win a fifth championship. We’ve got all the ingredients to make that happen, even against the likes of Allen Johnson, KB Racing, and Warren Johnson and that group. We’re poised, and we’re ready to fire. We’re getting that look back in our eye.”
Connolly, who started the season five races late while pursuing sponsorship, moved his Charter Communications Cobalt past both Gaines and Mike Edwards in points, leapfrogging from eighth place to sixth. He put a dagger into the heart of longtime rival Warren Johnson’s playoff hopes by beating “the Professor” in round one then defeated low qualifier and points leader Greg Anderson on a holeshot, the 42nd such driver-crucial victory in his career. In the semifinals, Connolly aced Dodge runner Allen Johnson to reach his 35th career Pro Stock final.
The Pro Stock Motorcycle final round was a rematch of their clash in Brainerd where Sampey’s bike refused to fire due to a faulty cam sensor and Smith soloed to victory, and although she made it to the line this time, the results were the same, with Smith flashing to victory, the 10th of his career, 6.98 to 7.06.
Defending world champ Smith, who moved past points leader Andrew Hines when the latter fouled in round one, rode his Nitro Fish Buell past Paul Gast, Craig Treble, and Steve Johnson to reach his 19th career final round.
“We had the fastest bike every round today,” said Smith. “We got over our tranny problems shifting that we had on Saturday. We had a good bike today. Taking over the points lead is huge because somebody told me that you get 30 extra points for being No. 1. I was like, ‘Man, we didn’t get that last year.’ That’ll be good. We’re peaking at the right time. That’s why we brought the new bike out: to try and get some data on it and run it.
“I’m just glad to be able to run for a championship again. We’re going to try and win every race that we can. If we can get far enough ahead of everybody, then it’s going to be hard for them all to catch us. Hopefully, we can get out there ahead as far as we can and let them catch up.”
Sampey, who scored her first career win at this event in 1996 but had not won a national event in more than two years, since she beat Smith in the final in Columbus in 2006, raced from seventh place to fourth in points, rebounding from her Brainerd disappointment to reach the final -- her 10th in 12 appearances at this event -- with her Rush Racing Buell. She trailered Wes Wells, Chris Rivas, and Karen Stoffer to make it to the money round, the 68th of her career. Stoffer did herself a huge favor by reaching the semifinals with her GEICO Suzuki, crashing into a provisional playoff berth and moving Hector Arana to the outside with one race to go.
Lucas Oil Sportsman titles were won by Marty Thacker (Alcohol Dragster), Frank Manzo (Alcohol Funny Car, the 77th win of his career and his ninth straight at this event), Dan Fletcher (Super Stock, his 53rd career win), Anthony Fetch (Stock), Jeff Strickland (Super Comp), and Iggie Boicesco (Super Gas).