Tony Schumacher wins 14th of season
Victories by Tony Schumacher, Cruz Pedregon, and Dave Connolly at the 3rd annual NHRA Virginia Nationals capped an historic weekend at Virginia Motorsports Park in which performance records and career bests were shattered in qualifying and eliminations and the races for the NHRA POWERade championships became both more clear-cut and closer.
Schumacher won his 14th race of the season and pulled to within inches of a sixth Top Fuel championship while Pedregon and Connolly each beat the incoming points leaders in eliminations to keep themselves and a small group of other hopefuls in the running in Funny Car and Pro Stock following the fourth of six events in the 2008 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Schumacher and the U.S. Army team has now reached 10 straight final rounds – every single one since the NHRA switched to the 1,000-foot distance in Denver in July – and won for the eighth time in that span when he outdueled Hillary Will, 3.81, 316.08 to 3.84, 3.07.08, in the final.
Entering the event, no Top Fuel dragster had recorded an elapsed time in the 3.7-second range but Schumacher changed all that in a hurry beginning in Friday evening qualifying where he became the first in the zone with a 3.771 and followed it with five more, including three straight in the opening rounds of final eliminations to reach his 17th final round of the season's first 22 events. Schumacher, who sports a 15-1 record in the Countdown playoffs, now leads by 212 points and can clinch the championship by merely qualifying in Las Vegas.
Will, who became the second driver in the 3.70s behind Schumacher in qualifying, reached her third final-round of the season and the fourth of her Top Fuel career by racing her Jim Oberhofer-tuned Palm Beach Int'l Raceway/KB Racing dragster past T.J. Zizzo, Kalitta Racing stablemate Dave Grubnic, and Doug Herbert. Will powered to a series of 3.8-second passes, the best of which was her 3.83 conquest of tire-smoking Herbert, who also ran in the 3.70s in qualifying, in the semifinals. Will's final-round appearance boosted her from fourth to second in the standings.
Pedregon, who had been runner-up in his last seven final rounds, won for the first time since the Spring 2006 event in Las Vegas, going wire to wire from the No. 1 qualifying spot to take the win. Pedregon moved from sixth to third place when Jack Beckman smoked the tires against him in the final. The win was the 24th of Pedregon's Funny Car career.
Pedregon, the low qualifier with a class-best 4.041, ousted points leader Tim Wilkerson in the semifinals to end the Levi, Ray, Shoup driver's 10-round winning streak and minimize his points lead. Wilkerson, who won a monster first-round matchup with Ashley Force in round one and beat Melanie Troxel in round two, hazed the tires against Pedregon's Rahn Tobler-tuned Advance Auto Parts Solara. Prior to besting Wilkerson, Pedregon had defeated Tony Bartone and Tommy Johnson Jr.
Beckman and his Johnny West-wrenched Valvoline/MTS Dodge reached their seventh final of the season and 12th of his Funny Car career in tough fashion, opening his Sunday account by winning the quickest side-by-side race ever to 1,000 feet, edging Del Worsham, 4.048 to 4.050. He followed that win a crucial win over points rival and reigning world champ Tony Pedregon in round two and a tire-pedaling victory over Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the semifinals.
In round one, Robert Hight came close to recording the first three-second Funny Car pass in the 1,000-foot era when his Automobile Club Ford charged to a 4.005 against his boss, 14-time world champ John Force.
Cagnazzi Racing teammates Connolly and Jeg Coughlin faced off in the Pro Stock final, with reigning POWERade champ Coughlin hoping to put even more distance between himself and his points pursuers, but Connolly kept alive the hopes of his Charter Communications/Lucas Oil team and the others still in the title hunt by besting Coughlin, 6.57 to 6.61, for his 21st career Pro Stock win.
U.S. Nationals champ Connolly, on the verge of falling out of championship contention after a disappointing first three rounds of the playoffs, jumped up to third place with his Richmond outing, which also included three wins over fellow Countdown players – Greg Stanfield, Kurt Johnson, and low qualifier Greg Anderson – with a pair of 6.58s and a 6.59.
Coughlin, the No. 2 qualifier in the first-ever all-6.5-second Pro Stock field, raced his Jegs Cobalt past John Nobile, Memphis champ Mike Edwards, and Johnny Gray with runs of 6.55, 6.57, and 6.58 to reach the final, his seventh of the season. Coughlin still leads K.J. by 74 points and Connolly by 77 with just two events left in the season.