- John Schwarb
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CLERMONT, Ind. -- Not once this season did the Top Fuel class have to look up to Tony Schumacher in the standings.
Of course, the competition did not yet have to deal with the three-time defending champion at the 53rd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
The quarter mile at O'Reilly Raceway Park has been a playground for the U.S. Army dragster, and on this Labor Day it was all that and more as Schumacher bagged his second consecutive and sixth overall U.S. Nationals title.
In beating Larry Dixon in the final, 4.575 seconds at 331.94 mph to 4.748 at 268.44 mph, Schumacher seized control of the Top Fuel points in the NHRA POWERade Series' new Countdown to the Championship. Indy was the first race since the points were reset for the top eight in each class, and Schumacher began the Countdown to Four in second place behind "Hot Rod" Fuller and just ahead of Dixon.
He had not been first in the standings all year, until Monday.
"I love it. I want to go into the last two races in that No. 1 spot with a 10-point lead," Schumacher said. "I don't care if they take away 150 points, I don't want to have to earn two more rounds to catch the guy in front, I would like to be that guy. That's it."
Schumacher was that guy from Day 1 at Indy. He set a track-record speed of 333.66 mph in first-round qualifying Friday night, and the 4.477 elapsed time stood up all weekend for the pole position.
In the eliminations he mowed down his foes with, well, Army-like precision, taking out Clay Millican, Cory McClenathan and Melanie Troxel with nothing worse than a 4.641 ET. That set up a final with Dixon, a foe with whom Schumacher had history at the U.S. Nationals. The Don Prudhomme driver beat Schumacher in 2005 and Schumacher beat Dixon in 2002. The two drivers have claimed every Top Fuel title at the U.S. Nationals since 2000.
"This seems to be the most crunch-time race every year," said Schumacher, who claimed his 40th career victory to tie -- interestingly -- Dixon for 10th on the NHRA all-time wins list. "I think we operate better under pressure, we did at the end last year [winning the title on the final run]. You've got to step up, and we're really good under those conditions."
For the first time in U.S. Nationals history, all four defending race champions returned to the finals. But only Schumacher repeated, as Robert Hight (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) all came up short.
Hight took over the lead in Funny Car points with a runner-up finish, ending a wild weekend for the class at Indy. John Force, on the heels of a huge rally to get into the Countdown, failed to qualify for eliminations, and points leader Ron Capps went out in the first round to three-time U.S. Nationals champion Kenny Bernstein, who is out of the Countdown.
Jon Capps, Ron's younger brother, had a better day at the Big Go in winning his first career round in FC, taking out top-qualifying Jeff Arend. Force's daughter Ashley gave the capacity crowds a thrill with a No. 2 qualifying effort and one round win, but lost to Del Worsham in the quarterfinals.
Sixth-qualifying Mike Ashley was the last man standing in the class, putting a winning touch on a heartwarming tale. His Torco/Skull Gear Dodge Charger carried a special one-time custom paint scheme honoring the Eric Blake Faulkner Foundation.
Donnie and Hollie Faulkner, proprietors of a merchandising trailer that travels with the series and well-known throughout the racing community, had a stillborn son in May. They credited an Arkansas-based bereavement program with helping them cope through the difficult time, and looked to turn their loss into something positive.
Evan Knoll, owner of Torco Racing Fuels and a sponsor of Ashley's team, donated his sponsorship on Ashley's car to the foundation, and a host of other companies made donations to allow Ashley to run the special vehicle, with a body custom designed by Chip Foose.
The body, only run at Indy, is being donated to the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction, with proceeds benefiting the Foundation. It will be advertised as a U.S. Nationals winner, as Ashley drove it to 4.894 at 323.74 mph in the final to defeat Hight (8.072, 104.28).
"What a special day to win Indianapolis, it's something you always want to have on your résumé," said Ashley, who moved to second in FC points. "That is big for me, but it's magnified 100 times by the purpose of this race for me, which was to drive this Eric Blake Faulkner car. It was amazing."
Pro Stock played out mostly to form, with the top two drivers in points, Anderson and Dave Connolly, squaring off in the final. Anderson beat Jeg Coughlin, third in points, in the opening round, then took out top-qualifying Max Naylor on a holeshot. He took out one more Countdown driver, Kurt Johnson, to get to the final.
In the final, Anderson was chasing his 20th consecutive U.S. Nationals round win and fifth title in his KB Racing Pontiac GTO, but he ran up against a better car in Connolly's Chevy Cobalt.
What a special day to win Indianapolis, it's something you always want to have on your résumé. That is big for me, but it's magnified 100 times by the purpose of this race for me, which was to drive this Eric Blake Faulkner car. It was amazing.
Connolly, coming off a win two weeks ago at Maple Grove Raceway, laid down the low ET of the weekend in the first round, a 6.648 that sent home Jason Line, Anderson's teammate and another Countdown driver. In the final he turned in a pass of 6.710 at 206.32, beating Anderson (6.729, 205.79) by eight one-thousandths of a second at the finish line.
"I felt real comfortable about the whole situation. We had the best car each round," said Connolly, a five-time winner this year for Cagnazzi Racing. "Greg had one heck of a streak going on, I'm just glad to say the Torco team's the one that knocked him off that record. He was hungry, so were we."
Craig Treble came to ORP not so much hungry as blessed, having backed into the No. 8 and final Countdown spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle when Chris Rivas couldn't win in the semifinals at Maple Grove. He qualified sixth in his Team Tigue Suzuki, and knew that in eliminations he would have to be cagey with a bike not as good in the barometric conditions at Indy as the Buell V-Twins.
So he raced, beating the V-Twins of Matt Guidera and Hector Arana on the way to the final and then the V-Twin of points leader Smith for the title. His reaction times were progressively better all day, then in the final he didn't even need one as Smith red-lighted by .003. Treble completed a pass of 7.037 at 190.83 to win in his home state.
"It was a crazy day, we didn't have the fastest bike. We had to drag race," said Treble, an 11-time race winner and first-time U.S. Nationals champion. "This is Indy, anything can happen."
Treble jumped all the way from eighth to second in the standings with the win, the kind of jump possible in the new Countdown format.
In the Sportsman divisions, Frank Manzo won Alcohol Funny Car for the ninth time, tying the legendary Bob Glidden as a nine-time U.S. Nationals champion.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tony Schumacher hadn't led the Top Fuel standings all season. "The Sarge" changed that with another win at the U.S. Nationals, writes John Schwarb.