Tony Schumacher's reign under fire
POMONA, Calif. -- No one stays on top forever.
Two racing dynasties could come to an end soon, at least for one season. Jimmie Johnson and Tony Schumacher, two invincible drivers in recent years, are close to giving up their thrones.
Schumacher has won six consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championships. Johnson has won an unprecedented four consecutive Sprint Cup titles.
For Schumacher, it will take a minor miracle to keep his Top Fuel championship streak going. Schumacher trails Larry Dixon by 82 points entering Sunday's Auto Club NHRA Finals.
Schumacher made his presence felt on the final qualifying pass Saturday, earning the top spot with a run of 3.794 seconds at 322.88 mph. Dixon is No. 2.
Schumacher needs to win the event in the Army dragster, along with setting a national elapsed time record. And even that won't be enough unless Dixon loses in the first round. Dixon hasn't lost in the first round since the Bristol race in June.
"I guess the stars will have to align for us," Schumacher said. "With that said, we have to believe it will happen. For some reason, we specialize in this sort of thing.
"I'm not certain if we can do it again this weekend, but be assured we're going to take our best home run swing when we get to the plate on race day. We've proven over the years that miracles can happen."
Yes, he has. Schumacher came from behind in the final event twice in the last six years.
The 2006 season had one of the most dramatic endings in NHRA history when Schumacher entered the event 45 points behind Doug Kalitta. But Schumacher won the title by winning the event and setting a national record in the final after Kalitta lost in the semifinals.
Schumacher was in fourth place, 67 points behind, entering the 2007 finale at Pomona, but won the event and took the title after points leader Rod Fuller lost in the first round.
It can be done, but not this time. I'll go out on a limb (a pretty safe limb) and say it won't happen.
Dixon is going to win his third championship and his first since 2003, the year before Schumacher's streak began. Dixon has 12 victories this season, including three in the five Countdown events. Dixon has no intention of taking a conservative approach Sunday.
"We don't play defense," he said. "Besides, playing offense is a lot more fun."
Most of the people on Dixon's team have been there, done that. Schumacher's entire crew from the 2008 season now work on Dixon's Al-Anabi dragster under the direction of Alan Johnson, who guided Schumacher to five of his championships.
Johnson left last year to lead a new team owned by Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani, a member of the ruling family of Oatar.
Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team have been the ruling family of NASCAR for a long time now, but this could be the year he falls short.
Johnson trails Denny Hamlin by 33 points with two races to go, but unlike Schumacher, Johnson doesn't need a miracle to keep his crown. A victory Sunday at Phoenix and next weekend at Homestead, Fla., (not out of the question) probably would do it.
Win or lose, both Schumacher and Johnson deserve praise for what they've accomplished. Hall of Fame recognition is in their future.
Two amazing championship runs may end, but these guys remain two of the best ever to strap into a race car. Expect to see more championship seasons for both men in the future.
But no one stays on top forever.
John Force is hoping to get back to the top in Funny Car for the first time in four years, but he may need some help from his daughter, Ashley Force Hood.
Matt Hagan has a 38-point lead (a little less than two rounds of racing) over Ashley's dad entering Sunday's eliminations.
Force Hood is the top qualifier (4.076 second at 309.98 6mph), so she could face Hagan (who qualified fourth) in the semifinals.
"I haven't looked at the ladder," Force Hood said. "But [Hagan] has taken me out the last few races, so I owe him one."
Teammates could decide the championship. Force's team did all it could in qualifying, taking the top three spots. Force is No. 2 and Robert Hight is third.
Hagan's teammates at Don Schumacher Racing weren't quite as good. Jack Beckman is seventh and Ron Capps in No. 11. Beckman could face Force in the quarterfinals. Capps may get a shot at Force in the semifinals.
Force knows it's an uphill battle to the title. In his 14 championship seasons, he's never had to come from behind in the final event.
No one has. In the 28 years since this points system was started, no Funny Car driver has come from behind to win the title in the last race
"But I'll be ready to fight the fight Sunday morning," Force said. "It's a showdown, and I love a showdown. Anybody can win. I know the drill. This kid Hagan is pretty sharp, but we're gonna slug it out."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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