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Schumacher snaps winless streak, regains Top Fuel lead

Tony Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster ae back in the winners circle and back at the top of the NHRA Top Fuel standings, thanks to a victory Sunday that ended a 32-race drought. (Photo By Ron Lewis)
Tony Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster ae back in the winners circle and back at the top of the NHRA Top Fuel standings, thanks to a victory Sunday that ended a 32-race drought. (Photo By Ron Lewis)

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Tony Schumacher could have grown surly toward fans and the media as his NHRA Top Fuel winless streak bulged to 32 races. Instead he inspired his U.S. Army Dragster team, continued to advance to final rounds, and finally found his reward Sunday at the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals.

Most obviously it came with his 68th career victory and fifth at Bristol Dragway. But the gratifying element to it all, the "gift" Schumacher spoke of, was in engaging veteran racer Doug Kalitta in the showdown that continued their rivalry and was destined to end a drought that for both stretched back to 2010.

Schumacher's holeshot triumph over Doug Kalitta in Sunday's final round -- a 3.819-second elapsed time to Kalitta's 3.802 in the Kalitta Air Dragster on the Bristol Dragway 1,000-foot course -- was more than another epic match-up between these two who had met five times in nine previous races this year.

A father of three, Schumacherwas able to join Funny Car teammate Ron Capps in presenting dad and team owner Don Schumacher (who won here in the Funny Car class in 1971) with two Wally trophies in one day. That marked a double-DSR triumph over Kalitta Motorsports, as Capps beat Kalitta driver Alexis DeJoria in the Funny Car final.

The winner's share of Sunday's purse was $50,000, but the victory was worth a million to Schumacher, for it also coincided with the U.S. Army's 237th birthday celebration.

(Schumacher even gave a shout-out to NASCAR's Dale Earnhart Jr., who also broke a long, overly scrutinized rough stretch Sunday, winning the Quicken Loans 400 Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway. Although Earnhardt Jr.'s breakthrough surely would overshadow his own accomplishment, the drag-racing headliner congratulated him and said, "For the National Guard [-sponsored driver] to go out there [and win] . . . that's pretty awesome.")

With his semifinal victory over Clay Millican, Schumacher became the points leader for the third time this season.

He and Capps joined Pro Stock's Mike Edwards in the winners circle, while Kalitta's winless streak extended to 40 events. The questions and examination from fans and media alike are like some white-elephant donations thrust upon Kalitta -- who has company enough with Brandon Bernstein, who has come up empty-handed since October 2009 and despite a full head of steam failed to qualify here.

Joining them in the circle of frustration are Morgan Lucas, whose strong first half has tipped into a ditch; Shawn Langdon, a three-time sportsman-level champion still waiting for his first Top Fuel victory; Clay Millican, the six-time IHRA champion who has no Wally states to go with his Ironman collection. That list goes on. And Schumacher understands and appreciates it, especially in Kalitta's case.

"It is unbelievable that two really good teams like us went that long," Schumacher said.

"One thing I have learned is that our Army car has made teams better. We have forced them [opponents] to do things, because we were so great for so long that we forced them to turn knobs that they never turned before."

Referring to the fact that in his winless span he advanced to 12 final round, he said, "For 12 races, the car in the other lane made it down the track. That's not even heard of, let alone making their low-E.T. runs of their careers against me.

"I take it as a compliment. Those guys are not taking us lightly," Schumacher said. "And [first-round Sunday victim] Dom Lagana, he ought to feel like we gave him some respect. We went out and laid down a (3).79 (-second pass) against him, because guess what --that's what you've got to do to win these things. That is how tight these fields are.

"You look back at our career -- six championships in a row -- and any one of those years, one thing goes wrong and you don't win," he said. "It's about being able to come up with the big moment at any given time."

As for his own drought, Schumacher said, "You get used to winning those races. We won 15 races in one year, and we're just not used to that. We had a great car, and more often than not, we got beat by some incredibly talented teams in very close races.

"It was tough to deal with," he said. "But it is what we do."

Said Schumacher, "We had the points lead already two times this season without winning a race. We keep our chin up. We don't fire people. We get through the adversity. We lead. We make them believe in themselves. I said all along, 'Have faith. We're going to go out and win these things.' "

He said what motivated him as much as anything was the will not to become the third racer, after Top Fuel's Rob Bruins and Pro Stock Motorcycle's Eddie Krawiec, to win a series title without winning a single race that same season.

"It's so much more fun to win and dominate," he said. "For a long time, we had a car that was a tenth-of-a-second quicker than everybody, but it's not out there anymore. It's very hard in any given day to outrun people four times in a row. You've got to go out and do your job.

"I'm very, very thankful that Mike [crew chief Green] and Neil [assistant Strasbaugh] and all nine guys did a phenomenal job."

As if beating the passionate Lagana, points leader and quickest-and-fastest dragster driver Spencer Massey, and long-overdue Millican weren't rough enough for a Sunday drive, Schumacher said, "It's one of those finals you dream about. None of us want that single in the final, as much as I was joking about it -- 'I hope his car doesn't start . . . because that's the kind of finals we've been needing -- you want to go out and run great cars and win all those very close ones. It makes what we do worth it."

Schumacher had split a pair of final-round meetings at Bristol with Kalitta, winning in 2009 and losing in 2001. He was making his fifth final of the year (after missing his chances at Phoenix, Gainesville, Charlotte, and Atlanta) and the 115th of his career.

Kalitta began this season losing to Schumacher -- in the opening round of the Winternationals and the next week in Round 2 at Phoenix. Schumacher ended Kalitta's day at three consecutive races (Charlotte, Houston, Atlanta). And this sixth meeting with Schumacher in 10 races so far this season denied him his fourth victory here and his 33rd victory in 65 final rounds.

A winner at Bristol in 2001 and back-to-back victories in 2005-06, Kalitta had made only one other final-round appearance since he won the July 2010 Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Denver. This was his first final of 2012.

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