- Bill Stephens
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It has been a tough couple of years for Larry Dixon.
After rolling over everything in his path in 2002 and 2003 as he racked up a pair of NHRA POWERade Top Fuel Championships, the departure of his Hall of Fame tuner, Dick LaHaie, at the end of 2004 ushered in a protracted period of adjustment for Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's race-winning franchise.
LaHaie's assistant, Donnie Bender, was promoted to Dixon's crew chief and national event wins became a scarce commodity following a two-year period in which the Dixon and LaHaie duo was at the top of the nitro food chain.
Meanwhile, Prudhomme's Funny Car operation has also gone through some major changes over the past couple of years, with Ron Capps leaving Snake Racing at the end of 2004 to join Schumacher Racing, requiring his former teammate, Tommy Johnson Jr., to go it alone. TJ has also missed regular invitations to an NHRA winner's circle since his fuel coupe became the only vehicle in Prudhomme's Funny Car garage and up until this weekend, he had bagged only two round wins all season.
On Sunday at the 38th ProCare RX Super Nationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey, Dixon and Johnson gave Prudhomme a taste of that old race-winning magic by winning their respective classes and presenting their team owner with a pair of national event titles for the first time since Columbus, Ohio, in 2002.
Dixon's victory was capped with a final-round winlight over Doug Herbert by 5/100ths of a second and it rewarded Prudhomme's Sky-Tel sponsored team with its second consecutive win. It was also Dixon's 40th career win, putting him just 12 victories shy of five-time champion Joe Amato's all-time mark of 52.
Another uncanny stat tallied by Dixon borders on the surreal. He has now appeared in the Englishtown final round seven consecutive times and has won four of them.
Prudhomme savored the moment.
"It's special," he said. "When Larry won last week [in Chicago and Tommy didn't], you're only 50 percent happy. It's like having one kid hit a home run and the other strike out.
"Tommy needed it. They're the ones that had been striking out, and Sunday they hit it out of the park."
Johnson almost saw his first win of 2007 go up in smoke, literally. In his first-round matchup with Gary Densham, TJ's nitro Chevy Impala erupted in a huge ball of flame, essentially consuming much of the race car. Johnson was unhurt but with only a 75-minute turnaround, his Snake Racing crew had their work cut out for them.
"We had to change everything after that fire, right down to the fuel tanks," Johnson said. "That was a bad fire. It snuck up on me because the run was going fine and then, blam, there was this huge fireball.
"It was blazing pretty good. I couldn't see. I couldn't breathe. It was time to go."
Johnson made a hasty retreat out of the roof escape hatch and through thick, black smoke as soon as he got the car stopped.
He ended his triumphant race day in E-town by capping Tony Pedregon in the final round. Sunday's win boosted Johnson from 12th to eighth in the POWERade standings, putting him in position to command a spot in the Elite Eight of this year's Countdown to the Championship.
Greg Anderson was his usual unstoppable self in Pro Stock, with one of his obligatory national event sweeps: qualifying No. 1, setting low elapsed-time and top speed of the event, and winning the race. The three-time POWERade champion got past Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the final, giving him 49 career victories -- tying him with Prudhomme on the NHRA's all-time list of national event winners. It was Anderson at his overwhelming best.
"I really can't fathom that many wins and finding myself tied with a legend like Don Prudhomme," Anderson said. "It's not because of me, it's all those guys I'm associated with my team owner Ken Black. I'm a lucky man and I count my blessings every day. I'm going to ride this wave as long as I can."
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, after three runner-up finishes at Raceway Park, veteran Craig Treble went all the way for the 10th time in his career. His latest win was most impressive, as he barely outran three-time champion Andrew Hines in the final on a motorcycle which doesn't carry the livery of a primary sponsor.
"We went for broke," said Treble, who distanced himself from the pack fighting for the eighth and final Countdown playoff berth. "We won a race without a name on the tail section. I think we're the only team in the top 10 without a major sponsor."
There will be very little time for any of Sunday's winners to digest their accomplishments. This coming weekend, all four professional classes will be hustling to Norwalk, Ohio, for the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Norwalk Raceway.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com
It's been a long road back for Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's race teams. Larry Dixon and Tommy Johnson Jr. scored big wins in New Jersey, writes Bill Stephens.