Patient Langdon scores first Top Fuel victory at crucial time

While the Don Schumacher Racing crew chiefs were attracting the spotlight for most of this National Hot Rod Association season, Alan Johnson was plotting and planning how he would orchestrate his Al-Anabi/Toyota Racing teams flying in from the wings and taking center stage in this Countdown.

Al-Anabi hadn't won a single race with new charges Shawn Langdon and Khalid al Balooshi, this team that had boasted first dominator Larry Dixon then destroyer Del Worsham to seize the past two series championships. Both Langdon and al Balooshi were proven winners in other series and classes but hadn't found Top Fuel success. They trusted Johnson and their respective crew chiefs, Brian Husen and Jason McCulloch, and slowly their new tune-ups started to produce eyebrow-raising results.

Finally, in his 87th start, Langdon made a bold statement to the class Sunday at the O'Reilly Nationals at Charlotte's zMAX Dragway, winning his first Top Fuel Wally trophy from the No. 1 position. He leaped from seventh place to third in the standings and pulled to within 19 points of new leader Tony Schumacher.

Also getting off to a terrific start in the six-race Countdown were winners circle veterans Ron Capps (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Langdon, who masked any frustration this season remarkably well, said, "I'm really a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I always kind of wondered, 'Man, what does it feel like? Why haven't I won? Am I doing something wrong?' I raced for the Lucas team for three years and we had a good car at times [that was] capable of winning. I came here to [team manager] Alan Johnson's and you know the team's based around winning. The way I look at it right now is I couldn't have scripted it any better. It's a surreal feeling."

He said, "I just listened to Alan all year, and he said we'd be there in the Countdown. I wasn't worried because those guys know how to win." He called Johnson "a man with a plan" and said, "You never doubt Alan. That's one thing I learned in the past, racing against him, and I've continued to learn being on the same team as him. He's always moving in the right direction."

"Regular-season winner" Antron Brown had one of his worst weekends of the season. He qualified 10th in the Matco/Aaron's/Toyota Dragster, then squandered his points lead with a first-round loss attributed to a broken input shaft.

"We were going down the racetrack fine," Brown said. "We just broke an input shaft. We just don't know why. It's the second one we broke this year. It didn't have many runs on it at all -- practically brand new. We broke one earlier in the year, but it had almost 25 runs on it. We used to run them 40 times before you change them. The one we broke today had maybe 12 runs on it. It was just checked, so it was just one of those deals that happens. We're going to investigate it and do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen again. That's how drag racing goes. You can go from a hero to zero pretty quickly. It just wasn't our weekend."

But everything was in a familiar orbit in Funny Car action. Ron Capps, driving Don Schumacher Racing's NAPA Dodge Charger, extended his points lead to 70 over John Force Racing's Mike Neff, the man he beat in the final round Sunday. Capps earned his fourth victory of the season as Neff's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang lost traction immediately. Meanwhile, Capps clocked a sizzling 4.067-second elapsed time at 315.49 mph.

"The car gives me confidence, but I learned a long time ago not to get overconfident," Capps said. "I was still a nervous wreck before the first round. I don't take anything for granted." He said final-round foe Neff "is a guy who can throw down at any time."

Pro Stock elimination highlights were less about how Line got the best of nemesis Allen Johnson in the final round and more about how lucky they might have been to survive zMAX's left-lane racing surface.

Johnson kept a three-point lead in the standings but had to concede the race victory to KB/Summit Camaro driver Line. His Dodge Avenger drifted toward the center line in a pedalfest and he had to shut off the engine early.

Said Johnson, "Neither one of us had moved three feet before we both lost traction, and he just got it back into gear a bit quicker than I did. We had a great day and we're still happy with it. We have a good car and we're still in the points lead. We'll take that."

For Line, it was the second victory this season. But he wasn't bragging, rather saying, "Winning this race is a big way for us to start the Countdown, but it doesn't mean a whole lot unless you can keep going. We haven't had one [a victory] for a while, so it feels pretty good. We ran [the final round] out of sequence because of the weather and ended up following the fuel cars, which can be a tough situation. You have to deal with it the best you can. Obviously it’s easy for me to say, since things worked out well for us, but we made the best of a not-so-great situation."

The frightening highlight of Pro Stock competition was Shane Gray's wall-banging flip that sent him skidding on the roof of his Tire Kingdom/Service Central Camaro in the second round. He was uninjured. "Other than being a little sore, I'm OK," he said. And he was angry.

But perhaps Erica Enders, who like Gray was well on her way to defeating Warren Johnson when she had costly issues with the track preparation in the opening round, spoke strongly enough for the both of them. She blasted the conditions, calling them "unsafe" and "the worst surface I've been on in thousands of runs."

Her GK Motorsports Chevy slid around in the left lane enough to force her pull the parachutes and slow her car early.

"I didn't have a choice. I hung on to it longer than I should've. At the end of the day, my job is to get the car back to this trailer safely. We've got a car in one piece to go on in the Countdown (to the Championship). That's the only good thing about that," she said. "Just extreme and utter disappointment in the preparation.

"It was extremely loose," Enders said. "My rear end was going side-to-side-to-side, and I'm trying to chase the car the whole way down the race track. When we're in high gear, the car is up on the tire, and we have no downforce. That's the most dangerous part of the run. It made two big swings, and coming around on that third swing, it was the same feeling I had when I crashed in Bradenton due to lack of experience. I got the 'chutes out to get the car straight, and Warren came around us."

After Gray crashed and Enders teammate and crew chief Dave Connolly also had to abort his run when he slid in the same area of that left lane, the NHRA decided to work on the track. That was of little solace to Enders.

She knew her car had plenty of horsepower to beat Johnson. "I left on him, and we were .988 down low," Enders said of her .020-second reaction time and 60-foot time. "Providing we had a good race track, we were going to the next round to race Shane Gray and not Greg Anderson. That was a big, big mistake - not on our part."

The Pro Stock Motorcycle class produced a yawner of a final round, yet one that had some beauty in its own monotony.

Top qualifier Andrew Hines nicked Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec in the final round by.0042 of a second, or about 14 inches. That gave the team a tie with the Pro Stock tandem of Greg Anderson and Jason Line for the NHRA record of consecutive victories for a team. They have 11 this year and 13 overall, dating back to last season.

Hines also took a huge stride toward catching up with Krawiec, the current champion who still leads the standings by 10 points as the tour heads to the Texas Motorplex, south of Dallas, at Ennis, this weekend.

 

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