- Bill Stephens
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Tony Schumacher has become a marked man. His rise to the very pinnacle of the NHRA's most visible category began in 1998, when he and his father debuted a new Top Fuel team at the sport's most prestigious event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. One year later he was a POWERade champion, and in the past eight seasons, he has won three more titles.
Tony already has surpassed Joe Amato to become the only Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to win four consecutive championships, and another title this year would not only make him the NHRA's first "five-peat" Top Fuel champion, but he would pass Amato as the category's only six-time champion.
Now, it's up to the other drivers in the class to prevent him from doing it.
Of course, two veteran drivers came excruciatingly close to pulling off that feat in 2006 and 2007. Doug Kalitta saw Schumacher win the '06 championship on the last run of the last race of the season in Pomona, Calif., while "Hot Rod" Fuller missed winning his first championship at the same race in November 2007. Fuller lost in the first round while leading the points, only to have Schumacher win the race and stage in another remarkable come-from-behind championship finish.
Schumacher and his unparalleled tuner, Alan Johnson, again will be setting the Top Fuel bar this year with their U.S. Army-sponsored dragster. Fuller will have his sights set at ending Schumacher's championship streak with a full-time sponsorship from Caterpillar and a new teammate: Antron Brown, the former Pro Stock Motorcycle standout. Fuller has completely recovered from offseason knee surgery and enters the 2008 season with a team essentially unchanged.
Brandon Bernstein and Larry Dixon also were in the Countdown hunt in last season's finale and are expected to have their usual strong programs dialed in this year.
Top Fuel regulars such as Kalitta, teammate David Grubnic and the ever-improving Hillary Will will be in the center of the mix while the sport will be offering support and encouragement to veteran Doug Herbert, whose two sons, Jon and Jamie, last month lost their lives in a traffic accident in North Carolina. Herbert will be dedicating his title quest to his two beloved sons, titling his 2008 campaign the "For My Boys Tour."
J.R. Todd will be teamed up with Morgan Lucas this year, creating a formidable 1-2 punch in a class where multicar teams are still outnumbered by single-car efforts.
Cory McClenathan and Bob Vandergriff Jr. look to play bigger roles in the Countdown tournament this time around while Clay Millican progresses with his plans to secure primary sponsorship following the pullback of Torco Racing Fuels for 2008. Millican has brought in a talented young female driver, Jessie Harris of Rome, N.Y. -- a former jet car drag racer -- with hopes of competing with a two-car team in '08. With Melanie Troxel's move to Funny Car, Harris and Will would be the lone women occupying Top Fuel rides this year.
But the goal throughout Top Fuel Eliminator in 2008 is common to every driver in the class except for one. That common goal is for the 2008 NHRA POWERade championship to find its way into new hands when the season concludes in November. And the exception is Tony Schumacher.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com