When the 19th O'Reilly Nationals at the Texas Motorplex had been completed Sunday afternoon in the golden twilight east of Dallas, there were three excited winners who had each won their respective professional categories with solid performances.
Tony Schumacher moved a step closer to wrapping up his second Top Fuel championship; Del Worsham used his Funny Car victory to move into third place in the POWERade points; and young Dave Connolly continued to impress Pro Stock fans from everywhere with his second win of '04.
But in their wake, David Grubnic, Cruz Pedregon and Bruce Allen pondered what might have been had the fates been kinder to them.
Grubnic, the popular Australian racer who drives one of the three Top Fuel dragsters campaigned by Connie Kalitta, lost his fifth opportunity of 2004 to win his first career national event when Schumacher outran him in the final. What hurt even more? Grubnic had out-qualified Schumacher, had cut a better reaction time than Schumacher in the final, and had already lost two other final-round matchups against Tony earlier this year.
"I feel badly for myself, obviously," said Grubnic, after his latest runner-up finish. "But I really feel bad for my team who worked so hard today to help get me that first win and we missed again. It makes you wonder if that first win is ever going to come."
The Funny Car runner-up, Cruz Pedregon, found himself in a similar position as Grubnic on Sunday. In his fourth final round of 2004, the 1992 champion was again denied a victory, this time by Worsham, whom Cruz defeated three weeks ago in the first round of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Cruz has been winless since debuting his Advance Auto Parts team in 2002 but continues to edge closer to an event title.
"I thought we were finally going to get that win," said Cruz, after losing to Worsham by 1/100 of a second in the final. "All you can do is try to take what you've learned and use it to get better results next time. I'm disappointed, but our team keeps getting closer to that win and it will happen, I believe, before the end of this season."
In Pro Stock, Bruce Allen was outwardly disappointed after missing his first national event win since the spring race in Chicago in 2002. Driving for the legendary Reher-Morrison team located in nearby Arlington, Texas, Allen's disappointment was amplified by his desire to win the race in front of a gallery filled with friends and family making the short hop to the Motorplex.
"It was a good day for the first three rounds," said Allen, who defeated Ron Krisher, Warren Johnson, and Rickie Smith on his way to his first final-round appearance of '04. "It was a bad day when we lost the final. When you only get so many chances at getting all the way to the final round, you want to take advantage of it. We tried, but we couldn't do it this time."
The oldest adage in sports is, "There can be only one winner." For every winner in each professional category that tasted victory in Dallas on Sunday, there was a runner-up who will have to hope for a next time.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.