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Trick-or-treating stakes high in Top Fuel finale


LAS VEGAS -- Like rambunctious boys in the schoolyard, sneaking up on each other and swiping the other's Halloween candy, Don Schumacher Racing colleagues Antron Brown and Spencer Massey have been trading the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel lead since the Countdown to the Championship began in mid-September.

The bag of loot is more loaded as the tour winds down Nov. 10-13 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif. And especially with Sunday's victory here in the Big O Tires Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Al-Anabi / Toyota Dragster driver Del Worsham has a sweet tooth for that first championship, too.

At stake is the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Top Fuel title and its half-million-dollar prize, as well as a $50,000 victory in the Finals to savor until the Winternationals next February.

Worsham thrust his name back into the mix Sunday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when he eliminated victory-starved Shawn Langdon, always-capable-of-a-surprise Dave Grubnic, and relentless Brown.

Then he avenged the Oct. 3 final-round loss at Reading, Pa., to Massey. On that run, Worsham ran the quickest pass in Top Fuel (and NHRA) history but lost the race on a holeshot from Massey, notoriously one of the quickest leavers from the starting line. At Las Vegas, Worsham won by one-thousandth of a second.

So FRAM/Prestone-sponsored Massey -- who once again took the points lead from Brown, as he did at Dallas in the second of six Countdown events -- tops the standings. Worsham trails by two points. Brown, who won three straight at pre-Countdown races Brainerd (Minn.) and Indianapolis and in the playoff opener at Charlotte among his six victories this year, is ranked third. The Matco Tools / Aaron's Dragster driver is 14 points out of the lead.

Larry Dixon, the reigning champion who often has found himself overlooked this year in a back-seat role to "regular-season" dominator and Al-Anabi / Toyota teammate Worsham, is 30 points behind Brown and 44 off the lead. Dixon won at Phoenix, two races ago.

Seven-time champion Tony Schumacher, who'll be looking for his first victory of the season at Pomona, dropped from contention Sunday after a first-round loss to Brown.

Massey's comeback from a failure to qualify at Phoenix (like that of DSR colleague Ron Capps, who won the Funny Car trophy Sunday here) gave him fresh hope.

"Obviously, I wanted to win, but considering where we've come since packing up on Saturday night in Phoenix, we know we're heading in the right direction," Massey said. "If we had said, as we packed up in Phoenix, we'd be runner up in Vegas and leave town with the points lead, we'd have been ecstatic.

"We came to Vegas from Phoenix and spent that Monday testing. Obviously Phil and Todd (crew chiefs Shuler and Okuhara) and the FRAM/Prestone guys figured out what was wrong and corrected it,": Massey said. "We're thrilled to be going into the final race of the year in first place with a great chance of winning the championship."

So as the top four racers in this class are separated by less than three round wins, Massey heads to the Finals knowing that "close" is the appropriate word.

"That final round against Del showed just how close this entire Top Fuel group is – we lost the race by one-thousandth of a second, which is unbelievable," Massey said.

Also shocking was Brown's red-light DQ (by .032 of a second) in the semifinals against Worsham. Even more startling was it came immediately after Brandon Bernstein's foul out by .073 of a second) against Massey.

It cost Brown his points lead, and he said, "I feel horrible. Given that we ended up smoking the tires, I'm not so sure we would have beaten Del, but you certainly don't want to give it away at the hit of the throttle."

But that's the risk in amped-up races with much on the line. With emotions on edge, this final race of the 23-event season is one in which Brown said he'll need to concentrate even more intensely.

"We definitely have to put this one aside," he said. "It’s going to come down to the last race of the year, which is not that all surprising, given how competitive the Top Fuel class has been all year. We'll just have to re-focus and take it to them in Pomona."

The normally talkative-but-composed Worsham, who gave Toyota its 16th Top Fuel victory in 22 races, was whooping and cheering loudly as he showed off his class-best (and NHRA pro-best) seventh pewter 60th Anniversary Wally statue.

He has the momentum to win a championship, after a longtime run in the Funny Car category and in his return to Top Fuel after a 15-year absence. He said he's ready to compete one last race this season, that his title hopes have been "21 years in building. My whole career has come down to one race right now. I'm looking forward to it. I've never been at this level before. I'm a lucky guy.

"Coming off a win, going in with momentum, is probably the biggest advantage I have right now," Worsham said. "Mark my words -- It's going to come down to the final round. Whoever wins is going to be the champion."

It was Las Vegas. He had won again, for the first time since early August at Seattle. His adrenalin was pumping. He felt like being bold.

But with four of the NHRA's hottest racers eager to hit the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona for all the honors -- three of them aiming for a first NHRA championship, one of them seeking a third -- AND a two-week head of steam building up for them -- it might not be wise to make any bets about the Top Fuel class.


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