- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The NHRA's Countdown to 1 championship format achieved its desired effect by creating a tight battle for Top Fuel honors decided by just two points.
The margin of victory may have been a lot closer than it was in previous years, but the man hoisting the trophy was the same, as Tony Schumacher emerged as Top Fuel champion for the sixth consecutive year -- and seventh time overall -- after edging Larry Dixon.
Their Full Throttle Drag Racing Series battle will resume this weekend at the 50th running of the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals (eliminations on Sunday at 8 p.m., ESPN2 and ESPN360.com) at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
The intense Top Fuel competition in 2009 was fueled by preseason personnel changes that essentially resulted in Dixon driving for Schumacher's old team. Teaming with new crew chief Mike Green, Schumacher reshaped Don Schumacher Racing's attack in a remarkably successful fashion, toppling his former crew led by Alan Johnson for Al-Anabi Racing.
The rivalry carried over into preseason testing at Palm Beach International Raceway, where Dixon unofficially clocked a 3.763-second pass that was usurped by Schumacher's 3.753-second effort.
Schumacher expects even greater things this year now that he and Green have a full season of working together with the U.S. Army-sponsored rail dragster.
"It wasn't like we hired anyone off a Cracker Jack box," said the driver known as "The Sarge." "These guys are excellent, each one of them in their own right. Now we've been together for a year and no one changed positions. Everything's status quo. We brought out a new DSR car, and it ran fast -- two quickest runs in the history of the sport. Had amazing conditions, but just did back-to-back runs.
"When you can go out and make back-to-back runs, you know you've got something. The tuneup is where you want it. The clutch disk, the performance, the engine. Everything is where you want it, so we're really looking forward to getting it started at Pomona."
Despite his confidence, Schumacher believes the Top Fuel competition will be tough in 2010.
"There's about 10 good cars out there that are going to battle every weekend," he said. "It's what you show up for. It's brutal right now. It's the hardest thing I've ever been a part of."
Dixon enters 2010 confident that he, Johnson and Al-Anabi have what it takes to topple the Schumacher-DSR dynasty.
"Instead of scrambling to get a team put together, we had the opportunity to spend this past offseason refining, and that's very positive," Dixon said. "It's cool to have a great team and have the opportunity to improve what we had.
"I've been looking forward to going to Pomona since the Wednesday after the last Pomona race," he added. "I think our whole Al-Anabi team has. We spent the winter trying to make our team better, and now we get to find out if we are any better than we were last season."
Apart from Dixon and Al-Anabi, Schumacher's closest competition may come from within Don Schumacher Racing in the form of Matco Tools driver Antron Brown, who led the Top Fuel category with seven top qualifier runs and six event wins in 2009. Brown won the season finale at Pomona and finished third in the standings after entering the Countdown to 1 playoffs with the points lead.
"We're pretty amped up and excited to get back to Pomona, especially for the 50th annual Winternationals," Brown said. "That gold 'Wally' trophy is one that you want to have in your trophy case one day. Our goal is to start off the season where we left off last season, and that's with a win at Pomona."
Cory McClenathan ranked fourth in 2009, and the NHRA veteran and his car combined to drop 35 pounds in an effort to challenge DSR and Al-Anabi.
"We knew we needed to shed some weight both with the driver and the race car," McClenathan said. "The Fram guys went to work on that and I went to work on myself, and it has been a win-win situation for everybody."
Kenny Bernstein Racing's long association with Budweiser has come to an end, so longtime fans will need to adjust to the sight of Brandon Bernstein in a blue Copart-sponsored rail car. The Bernsteins hope to improve on a one-win, four-finals season in which Brandon finished fifth in the points.
Missing from action will be drag racing icon Don Prudhomme, who shut down his team (and sidelined driver Spencer Massey) when sponsorship could not be found.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.