Worsham dominates again, when it counts the most

At the start of October, Del Worsham was so low he had to reach up to pick up a dime from the ground.

He had dominated the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel class throughout the so-called regular season, and once the Countdown began, his lead evaporated and he dropped to third place in the standings with thee races left in the season. He had just made a huge statement by reaching the final round at Reading, Pa., and recording the quickest pass in NHRA history. But upstart Spencer Massey upstaged him, winning that final round on a holeshot (using a better reaction time at the starting line to win with a slower elapsed time).

Worsham had to be wondering what to do to prove he belonged in the championship chase. And his next race, at Phoenix, ended early and he fell to fourth place in points.

Team manager Alan Johnson brought out a new car at the next race, at Las Vegas, and told Worsham, "We'll just go win Las Vegas and Pomona, and it won't matter."

"And he was right," Worsham said Sunday after claiming his first NHRA championship in 21 years of trying and going on to win the Auto Club of Southern California Finals.

Worsham had dug himself into a sizeable hole, but with fresh equipment and Alan Johnson's calmness under pressure, he quickly climbed out of it and ended the season standing at the peak of the Top Fuel mountain. And the final shovel of dirt Worsham threw on the competition was on Massey's effort, for that's who he bet in the semifinal round Sunday to clinch the title.

It had been a dogfight to the finish for Worsham and Massey, who closed the season as runner-up in the final standings.

While Worsham was regaining his winning form, Massey was flexing his muscles in the FRAM Dragster that Cory McClenatahan used to challenge Worsham's Al-Anabi-Toyota teammate Larry Dixon for the 2010 championship. Massey, who had failed to qualify at Phoenix, rebounded to reach that Las Vegas final against Worsham and reclaim the points lead. He was in the driver's seat for his first NHRA Top Fuel title heading into the last race of the year, leaving the once-unstoppable Worsham playing catch-up.

But Worsham said Johnson kept his spirits up during that stretch: "He's a motivator. I don’t care if you’re golfing or bowling, the guy makes you better than what you are or at least brings out all the ability in you."

It had occurred to Del Worsham even before the season started in February at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona that he would have an excellent chance to battle for the Top Fuel championship, never mind that he hadn't driven a dragster in 15 years.

 

How could he not feel that way, with Alan Johnson as his team manager and tuner, arguably the best equipment the sport has available, generous funding for Sheik Khalid Al Thani of Qatar, a three-time champion in teammate Dixon, and a crew that had no fear of winning or of losing or pulling off the impossible? Who couldn't mount a strong championship charge in the Al-Anabi-Toyota Dragster?

But Worsham, known for his Funny Car prowess, also predicted that whoever was in the thick of the fight, the fight would come full circle back to Pomona, for the season-closing Automobile Club of Southern California Finals.

His intuition was completely right. And on a Sunday that saw epic battles among the four ultimate contenders for the NHRA's Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Top Fuel title and some of the most thrilling side-by-side races, Worsham achieved that goal he had worked for more than two decades.

He thought it would come with his father, Chuck, working alongside him like they had all their racing lives. He thought it would come in a Funny Car. But he accomplished his lifelong ambition. He is an NHRA champion. A Top Fuel champion. A Top Fuel champion from the Alan Johnson mold, just like class icons Gary Scelzi and Tony Schumacher.

It came at Schumacher's expense in the final round. Worsham earned not only the $500,000 winner's share of the Full Throttle purse but also the $50,000 payout for the race victory, his eighth in 11 final-round appearances this year with a 3.796-second elapsed time at 318.02 mph. Schumacher challenged in the U.S. Army Dragster with a 3.799, 321.50 on the 1,000-foot course.

Although Schumacher wasn't in the running for the championship this weekend like he has been for most of the past decade, he did have some milestones at stake in his seventh final round of the season and first since the August race at Brainerd, Minn.

A victory in this 110th career final round would have been his first of the season and ensured him a 10th consecutive season with at least one triumph. The last time he blanked was 2001.

Also in this third final-round meeting with Worsham, Schumacher was seeking his seventh career victory at this storied dragstrip, which would break his tie with Don Garlits to become the facility's leading Top Fuel racer.

But Worsham didn't let Schumacher have even a crumb. The day was all his.

"There was really no pressure [in the final]. That semifinal round against Spencer Massey was, by far, the biggest round of my 21-year career, as far as what was at stake. Once we beat Spencer Massey, the championship was handled.," Worsham said. "It was really neat to go out there and get to race."

Talk of his "dream season," he said, didn't do his season justice. "Those words aren't even close to what has taken place this season. We've had some highs and lows this year, and I learned a lot. After 21 years of racing, I'm by far a student of Alan Johnson. What he can do and his abilities are unmatched and unbelievable. He's a special man."

He also thanked the sheik for his support and marveled at crew chief Brian Husen, who won this title in his first year at the helm. "We started out pretty rough. We were far from where we are today. That team, they pulled together."

Worsham said he wasn't sure right away that he had won the race. Schumacher, too, thought it might have gone his way.

"It was a close race and I thought we just may have finally gotten one there," Schumacher said. "We really wanted to win bad this weekend for the Vietnam Veterans. We had a terrific paint scheme to honor those brave soldiers ,and it would have been nice to get a trophy for them.

"We may not have won a race, but that's not to say we didn't have a good season," he said. "I wouldn't trade my crew chief [Mike Green] and team for anyone. We are going to work hard these next couple of months and come out swinging again in February."

Schumacher finished fifth in the standings.

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