- John Schwarb
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Morgan Lucas and Eddie Krawiec shared the same frustration, the same hole in their NHRA Full Throttle résumés. But their circumstances were quite different.
For Krawiec, the defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, his lack of race wins was more a curiosity than a curse. How can a driver in any form of motorsports win a season-long championship without ever once being the best shoe at a race? With consistency, obviously, something Krawiec in his second full season could boast despite not owning a single win.
A winless career grew harder to stomach for Lucas, a veteran Top Fueler with a surname deeply ingrained in the sport. More than 100 times he left a national event unsatisfied, and from 2006 to 2008 he failed to reach even the precipice of winning, as he never made it to a final round.
No matter how it was rationalized, the same monkey sat on the backs of both drivers going into this past weekend's NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. Maybe it was only fitting that it took all day and into the night to emerge victorious, but by the rain-plagued event's end, Krawiec and Lucas finally had their winner's hardware.
"This is what it's about, what I've dreamt about," Lucas said late Sunday night. "I've had five years to think about this, and years prior to that."
Lucas scraped out the most unusual win of the weekend, pedaling and fighting his Geico/Lucas Oil dragster to the finish line in a slugfest over a more squirrelly Spencer Massey, 5.231 seconds at 162.86 mph to 5.418/145.25.
It was a somewhat appropriate end to a 106-race winless drought. Since arriving in Top Fuel late in 2004, replacing the late Darrell Russell in Joe Amato's dragster, nothing came easily to Lucas. His first full season in 2005 showed promise with a fifth-place points finish and three runner-up race days, but in three subsequent seasons he was a backmarker. The low point was 2007, when he failed to qualify for seven of 23 events and had only 10 round wins all season.
"When you're competitive at something, you want to win so bad, you get in these situations where the car doesn't perform and it's not showing you a lot of light at the end of the tunnel," Lucas said. "It makes it harder to get motivation to go to the next race. You still want to go because it's fun and it's your job, you love to do it. But at the same time, it makes you wish that you knew that when you went into that race, you knew things were going to be better."
Adding to the frustration was the fact that he was driving the Lucas Oil dragster -- as in his father, Forrest Lucas, the Indiana oil magnate whose products and sponsorship dollars are spread throughout NHRA pro racing, sportsman racing, other motorsports and multipurpose stadiums (see Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis). Although any driver who doesn't deliver results feels he's letting down a sponsor, Morgan Lucas' shortcomings on the track were a family affair.
"It definitely adds some pressure to the situation -- a lot of pressure -- because you want to justify the investment that my father and his company have put into our team," said Lucas, a native Californian now living in Indianapolis. "The name the company holds in motorsports in general, it's one of those things that when your father owns the company, you actually have a responsibility to perform for them. It just makes you feel like you're in quicksand, you can't get your head up, you keep falling farther and farther. You want so bad to show that you have what it takes."
Go figure: When Lucas finally did that Sunday, Forrest and Charlotte Lucas weren't in attendance because of work schedules, and the colors on the dragster weren't the Lucas red, white and blue of recent seasons but Geico black and yellow. Morgan Lucas had a hunch it might work out that way, he just didn't know when it would.
Krawiec was even more surprised to pick up event win No. 1 at the Commerce, Ga., drag strip. In his American Motorcyclist Association drag-racing career, he had no luck at the track, including one run that burned up a bike so badly that he had to pretty much toss it. In 2007, his first full NHRA campaign with the Vance & Hines team, he failed to qualify for only one race -- Atlanta.
But this time around, the quarter-mile welcomed his Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson with four straight Sunday runs in the 6.90-to-6.94-second range, and by day's end, he had a brass Wally to go with the gold Wally he claimed last year as the class champion with an asterisk.
Usually in sports a championship validates individual wins, but in this case it was almost as if a win validated a championship.
"I just wanted to get it out of the way so I never heard the 'champion without a win' deal again, so it was kind of cool," Krawiec said.
Not since Rob Bruins in a 10-race Top Fuel season in 1979 had a driver won a title without a win, and it may be another 29 years until someone duplicates Krawiec's 2008 feat in a 17-race PSM season. The 32-year-old was a semifinalist in five races and a runner-up in four, with three of the runner-ups coming in the final three events of the season.
Some called it a product of the Countdown format, but it was a championship nonetheless. But a win early in 2009 shows Krawiec now has Sunday mettle to go with the consistency.
"Now everybody's gunning for you and the only place to go is backwards," said Krawiec, fourth in points. "My main focus is just to make sure I'm in the top five going into this Countdown. From there on is where you start thinking about it a little more."
And now there's no need to think about when that little question about winning a race will be answered.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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