DEFENDING TOP FUEL CHAMPION GETS OFF THE DECK WITH A VENGEANCE SCHUMACHER AWAKENS FROM DORMANT START; SUDDENLY IN CONTENTION TO WIN THIRD STRAIGHT AND FOURTH OVERALL POWERADE SERIES TOP FUEL WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP MILLINGTON, Tenn. -- They say you...
DEFENDING TOP FUEL CHAMPION GETS OFF THE DECK WITH A VENGEANCE
SCHUMACHER AWAKENS FROM DORMANT START; SUDDENLY IN CONTENTION TO WIN THIRD STRAIGHT AND FOURTH OVERALL POWERADE SERIES TOP FUEL WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
MILLINGTON, Tenn. -- They say you have to hit rock bottom before you can get up. For three-time and defending POWERade Series Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher, the bottoming out point unquestionably came at about half past 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 11.
That morning certainly favored an opening-round win for the three-time POWERade Series champion. He was the No. 1 qualifier at the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway near Chicago and was lined up against No. 16 qualifier Alan Bradshaw, whom he was almost two full tenths quicker and 15 mph faster than in qualifying.
But in a season of bitter Sunday disappointments, June 11 proved to be the exclamation point as Schumacher stumbled to a 4.603 with a .108 reaction time (to Bradshaw's 4.545 with a .066). It was his fifth first-round loss of 2006 and his fourth as No. 1 qualifier.
"I certainly didn't like the position we were in, that's for sure," said Schumacher, who exited Chicago in eighth place, 336 points behind teammate and then-POWERade Series points leader Melanie Troxel.
If that weren't bad enough news for Schumacher, the season was turning to the steamy summer months which, even in his championship seasons, had provided the only kryptonite to the otherwise unstoppable tandem of Schumacher and (crew chief) Alan Johnson.
But as it has turned out, rumors of Schumacher's demise were greatly exaggerated.
Schumacher has turned the tables on history with a torrid stretch of drag racing -- advancing to five consecutive final rounds with wins at St. Louis and Seattle -- to move up from eighth to a tie for second in the standings, and more importantly to within a very manageable 81 points of first place.
"We didn't leave any room for error in the summer heat since we started the first half of the season so slowly," Schumacher said. "Winning St. Louis was obviously a big plus and that got us kick-started. We've just been continually working on the car and, finally, we are where we want to be, challenging for another POWERade Series world championship."
Over the course of his three championship seasons, Schumacher has come from off the pace in the summer months with blistering finishes to put away the likes of Doug Kalitta, Larry Dixon and Mike Dunn and he will be in the same position again in 2006 as he heads to Memphis Motorsports Park on Aug. 18-20 for the 19th annual O'Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals presented by Pennzoil, the 17th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Series.
Following the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., Schumacher posted a runner-up effort to Brandon Bernstein to continue stalking the series lead. Doug Kalitta leads the way with 1,158 points and Schumacher is tied at second with Troxel at 1,077 points. Meanwhile, Bernstein has put the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster back in title contention as well, as he sits in fourth, 116 points back.
"We've got to make sure we take care of our own business and then we can look at what the other teams are doing," Schumacher said. "The points have a way of taking care of themselves when you take that approach. We're clearly excited to be back in contention."
The O'Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals mark the beginning of the home stretch as drivers in all four categories enter the final third of the 23-event season and time becomes a definite factor in their respective pursuits of POWERade Series world championships.
While 116 points separate the top four drivers in Top Fuel, only 48 points separate Ron Capps from John Force in Funny Car, 108 points separate the top three drivers in Pro Stock and in Pro Stock Motorcycle, leader Antron Brown is 15 points ahead of two-time defending champ Andrew Hines. Chip Ellis and Angelle Sampey, third and fourth respectively, are well within striking range of the lead.
The defending champion at the O'Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals in Funny Car, Eric Medlen, also won at Sonoma. The tour's most recent winner -- Tommy Johnson Jr. -- has won in both Funny Car and Top Fuel at Memphis. But the spotlight in the class will likely be shining on Capps and Force as that season-long two-man race between the man looking for his first championship (Capps) and the 13-time champ (Force) begins the turn for home.
In Pro Stock, 2005 Memphis winner Greg Anderson enters in a rare position -- second place. The winner of three straight POWERade Series world championships is 83 points behind teammate Jason Line and he will be a driver to watch along with Warren Johnson, the winningest Pro Stock driver in NHRA history who is looking for his second win of the 2006 season.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hines is the defending event champion on his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson. Other drivers to watch will be U POWERade Series points leader Brown and his U.S. Army Suzuki teammate Sampey as well as Brainerd runner-up Steve Johnson and Buell riders Ellis and Ryan Schnitz.
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18. Qualifying continues at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19 and final eliminations begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 20.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the O'Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals. Call Memphis Motorsports Park at (800) 40-SPEED for ticket information, or check online at memphismotorsportspark.com or ticketmaster.com.
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying of the O'Reilly Mid-South NHRA Nationals at 8 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, Aug. 19. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA 2Day, a 30-minute weekly news magazine show, at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 20. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise three hours of final eliminations beginning at 10 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 20.