Schumacher, Dixon ready for finale
They rarely meet head to head and when they do, the battles last less than four seconds.
Yet the rivalry between Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon has quickly developed into one of the best in motorsports.
The two Top Fuel veterans are separated by just one point heading into the final round of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Countdown to 1. That round comes this weekend at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals (eliminations Sunday on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com, 7 p.m. ET) in Pomona, Calif. And unless third-place Cory McClenathan manages to overcome a 48-point deficit, either Schumacher or Dixon will walk away with the 2009 Top Fuel crown.
For Schumacher, the title would be his sixth consecutive and seventh overall. Dixon is a two-time Top Fuel king, his successes coming in 2002 and 2003, the last two years before Schumacher began his remarkable streak of championships.
After being fierce competitors on the drag strip for nearly a decade, the Schumacher-Dixon rivalry exploded less than a year ago when crew chief Alan Johnson and six team memebers left Don Schumacher Racing to join the new Al-Anabi Racing team -- with Dixon as the driver.
Throughout the season, Dixon and Schumacher played down the notion that Johnson's departure from DSR created a rancorous relationship between the drivers.
"Everyone wanted me to bash [Johnson] for leaving, but the fact is he wanted to have his own team for a long time," Schumacher said. "And crew members follow crew chiefs.
"Having Dixon in that car is huge motivation, and it's been fun."
With Mike Green taking over supervision of Schumacher's car, there hasn't been a perceptible drop-off in performance. "The Sarge" has matched Dixon with five event wins in 2009 and heads to Pomona with that slim one-point advantage.
"Honestly, I thought it would be a year of rebuilding," Schumacher admitted.
Dixon beat Schumacher into the winner's circle in 2009, claiming overall laurels in Round 3 at Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis.
Although Dixon hasn't scored an event win in five tries during the Countdown to 1, his two final-round appearances have offset Schumacher's event win at the Dallas Fall Nationals and have virtually evened the point standings.
Dixon is also quick to quash thoughts that the crew swap created bad blood between he and Schumacher.
"I get along great with Tony; we trade texts during the week," he said. "But at the end of the day, for the last five years, he's had the No. 1 on the car, and everybody has been trying to take him out. For me, it's the same thing. You can be buddies in the staging lanes, but as soon as you throw the helmet on and light the car up, it's game on.
"He's got the same thing on me. I've read and heard him say that he gets pumped up when he races us, and a lot of the guys on [the Al- Anabi] team is his old team. I know that any time you race him you have to bring your A-game, and I try to fire everything I can at him."
Win or lose at Pomona this weekend, Dixon is proud of the fight that the start-up Al-Anabi team took to the dominant Don Schumacher organization. DSR owns three of the top four Top Fuel cars, including those driven by McClenathan and Antron Brown.
"I'm feeling great about it," Dixon said of his 2009 campaign. "I had not won five races in the last three years, so to be able to do that in one season is good. But for Alan and the rest of the Al-Anabi team, this is an off year for them. Last year, they won 15 races [with DSR].
"I know our team has very high standards, and we are certainly going to do our best to try and bring [the championship] home to the Al-Anabi team."
Although he is hesitant about stirring the pot, Schumacher finally admitted that adding to his championship streak would mean a lot after the wholesale crew change at DSR this year.
"I'd love to get that first one with Mike," he said. "And we both want to continue winning for our Army Strong Soldiers. Our brave men and women deserve to hold another big trophy."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.
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