Commentary

No finale flourish for Schumacher, but it's still a year for the ages

Will any driver from here on out be able to do what Tony Schumacher did this year in his U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster? Consider the numbers: a sixth overall championship, 15 national event titles, 76 round wins. "The Sarge" is in total command, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: December 4, 2008, 12:51 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

POMONA, Calif. -- In the world that Tony Schumacher created for himself in 2008, this past weekend qualified as a dud.

At the Auto Club Finals, "The Sarge" put his U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster on the pole and set the low elapsed time and top speed of the meet. Yet he lost in the second round of eliminations.

What a failure.

That's written with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course. Schumacher didn't cap a season for the ages with another win Sunday, but he did grab another line in the record book despite losing. With his first-round victory, Schumacher tied Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson's 2004 record of 76 round wins in a season. The two also are tied for the single-season wins mark, as Schumacher nabbed No. 15 two weeks ago at Las Vegas.

"I just would rather have lost in the middle and won the last one, to go all winter long with a win," Schumacher said. "But what we've done this year is simply unbelievable."

In winning a fifth consecutive Top Fuel title (his sixth overall), Schumacher, crew chief Alan Johnson and the Army team pulverized the competition. They notched 15 wins, including 10 in the 12 races contested at 1,000 feet during the season's second half after the death of Scott Kalitta. The team qualified in the bottom half of the field only three times (and won from there twice), and never lost a first round.

Those are the numbers. For the full measure of his dominance, take stock of the reactions of his peers at Pomona after they experienced rare moments of success against him.

In the second round, "Hot Rod" Fuller got another shot at Schumacher for the second consecutive race and fourth time in five events. Fuller had actually battled Schumacher to a 2-2 draw through their first four appearances of the season, including a final in May at St. Louis that Fuller won. But since midyear, The Sarge had consistently worn out Hot Rod with six consecutive wins.

Still, Fuller continued to call him out, including two weeks ago before the final round at Vegas. Schumacher drilled him on the track, then in the press room. "He keeps asking, we'll keep giving it to him," Schumacher quipped.

On Sunday, the tables were turned, as Fuller clicked a .043-second reaction time to beat Schumacher on a holeshot, 3.862 seconds at 313.66 mph to 3.853/315.56.

[+] EnlargeTony Schumacher
Courtesy NHRAA common sight on the NHRA POWERade Series tour in 2008: Tony Schumacher celebrating in the winner's circle.

"We might not be rivals, but in my mind he's the best, and I want what he's got," said Fuller, who received a roaring ovation from the fans as he traveled the return road after the round win. "That's the best in the business, the best there ever was, those two guys together [Schumacher and Johnson], and I can say I was probably the last person to ever beat them."

At the U.S. Nationals during Labor Day weekend, Johnson announced his departure at season's end. He's starting a new Top Fuel and Funny Car operation with Qatar-based Al-Anabi Racing. Many wondered whether such an announcement on the eve of the Countdown would be a distraction, but that idea proved laughable as the team kept winning through the Big Go, then four of six Countdown events.

But not the season finale. Larry Dixon, a two-time Top Fuel champion whom Schumacher calls "one of the best drivers in the world," was positively giddy after he beat Fuller in the Auto Club Finals. The 14-year veteran knows that any national win is cherished, but especially so in a year when few were on the table.

"You take those 15 events [won by Schumacher] out of the mix, now there's only nine for the rest of us," said Dixon, who also won the season's second race at Phoenix and finished second in points. "And winning two out of nine, that's huge."

Schumacher picked up third-quarter Driver of the Year honors Saturday, an award given across all forms of motorsports. Anderson was the previous NHRA driver to win the full-year award after his record season, and John Force was the only other drag racer to win it after his 1996 championship season.

Will Schumacher win it after this season? Probably not, because NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson won his third consecutive Sprint Cup title on Sunday, a feat that hadn't been achieved in 30 years. But should he? Ask almost anyone in the pits.

"It's one for the ages. I grew up watching this sport before I started racing, and to see what that team's done this year, it's certainly part of history," Dixon said. "He's used up everybody this year, including us."

It's history now, and come February and the start of the 2009 season, it may seem like very old history. Schumacher and the Army car will return, but with a new crew chief (yet to be announced) and a largely new team, as many crewmen are leaving with Johnson.

Schumacher won't be a runaway favorite for a sixth consecutive title and knows he likely won't turn in another double-digit win season, but he promises he's looking forward to the rebuilding project.

"We're going to have fun with a new challenge, a new group of people," said Schumacher, who will be 39 years old at the start of next season. "I enjoy building a team, and we're going to get to start over.

"We're not going to have this year -- this year we've just got to sit back and enjoy the fact that we had it won. We got to be part of something great. We might go out next year, maybe win one race and the championship; we don't know how we'll do. But I like the challenge, the whole challenge."

Someone who has been in his shoes knows that everyone else in Top Fuel will look forward to the challenge, too.

"It just is so, so tough. I now realize that. It's like when you do it one time, it really, really goes to the rest of the class and really makes those other people dig down and work hard," Anderson said. "They come with a better product next year, and that's what will happen in that class. It makes the class better, it makes the sport better.

"That's the double-edged sword that comes back at you. You create that when you do something like that. You make them all mad, and they all come back with guns blazing. Be ready for it."

Schumacher says he will be, but it will be a different army.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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