Sonoma: Round 15 preview

SCHUMACHER NO SURPRISE IN TOP FUEL AS REIGNING CHAMP CONTINUES STRANGLEHOLD ON FASTEST CATEGORY SONOMA, Calif. -- There aren't many synonyms for the word "dominant" that haven't already been used to describe Tony Schumacher. Perhaps ...


SONOMA, Calif. -- There aren't many synonyms for the word "dominant" that haven't already been used to describe Tony Schumacher. Perhaps none exist.

Schumacher, the 38-year-old son of team owner and drag racing pioneer Don Schumacher, took only three years to prove himself as a professional driver after his Top Fuel debut in Indianapolis, the oldest and most storied stop on the NHRA POWERade Series tour, in 1996.

Maybe it was symbolic that the now five-time world champion -- he's won the last four titles and is working on a fifth consecutive, sixth overall -- started his career in Indy and advanced to the final round in his first ever start.

Schumacher and the rest of the elite drivers of the NHRA POWERade Series come to Infineon Raceway in Northern California for the 21st annual FRAM-Autolite NHRA Nationals July 25-27, televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD. It's the 15th of 24 events on the nationwide circuit and the third and final event of the Western Swing, the lauded and grueling summertime trek across the western U.S. The first stops are Denver and Seattle. After Sonoma, only three events remain in the regular season of the Countdown to the Championship and drivers will be scrambling for every extra point they can earn to make the playoffs and remain in the hunt for the 2008 NHRA POWERade Series world championship titles.

After winning in Seattle for the fourth time in his career, Schumacher enters Sonoma just two wins shy of earning his 50th trip to the Winner's Circle. Before Sonoma, he'd won a stellar seven of nine final-round appearances in 2008 behind the brainpower of crew chief Alan Johnson.

"I'm really at a loss for words to describe what we've accomplished to date," said Schumacher, prior to Sonoma's event. "We've managed to win seven races and advance to two other final rounds in 14 races. Those numbers are pretty good, if you ask me.

"We just want to maintain our consistency. That's how we won in Denver. We made sure we got down what was a very hot track each and every time. When we get to Indy we really have to have our game faces on. Assuming we're still on top of the points at that time, we'll have our lead shrunk to less than a couple of rounds of racing, which does not leave a lot of room for mistakes."

Especially when there's a pack of hungry and talented drivers just waiting to get in his way. Surprise talent Antron Brown sat second in the points after Seattle after switching from a Pro Stock Motorcycle to Top Fuel this season. He and Schumacher were teammates under the Don Schumacher Racing banner until 2008. Other threats include Brown's teammate Rod Fuller, who narrowly missed winning his first world championship in 2007, and Larry Dixon. And at Infineon, you can never count out five-time event winner Doug Kalitta -- who is getting inducted into the track's hall of fame over the weekend.

"In the end, we just want to keep winning for our Soldiers," said Schumacher, who with a victory in Sonoma could become the sixth driver to sweep the Western Swing in NHRA history, and the fourth in Top Fuel. "That's what this race program is all about. We want to put smiles on the faces of all of our hard-working men and women. If we accomplish that, then we've done our job."

The pack is no less hungry in Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

In Funny Car, independent team owner/driver Tim Wilkerson has kept the powerhouse teams guessing with an assist from team owner Don Prudhomme's stable. Hot on his trail is the four-car team of John Force Racing, with driver/team owner John Force, his daughter Ashley Force, Robert Hight and Mike Neff, a former crew chief for now friendly rival Gary Scelzi's entry, in the driver's seat. Also in the hunt are Tony and Cruz Pedregon, brothers, team owners and drivers who followed their father into the sport.

In Pro Stock, Greg Anderson has taken control of the category in the same manner as Schumacher, with Kurt Johnson, and Anderson's teammate Jason Line rounding out the top three after Seattle.

Pro Stock Motorcycle has been a battle between former world champion Andrew Hines and reigning title holder Matt Smith in the one and two spots, respectively, after the first stop of the Western Swing. Chip Ellis is third after eight of 17 events.

* SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3:15 and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 25. Qualifying continues at 11:15 and 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 26 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 27.

* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the FRAM-Autolite NHRA National. Call (800) 870-7223 or check for details.

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 26. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, July 27. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, July 27.

* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The FRAM-Autolite NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in six categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA POWERade Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8:15 a.m. on July 25, with eliminations starting on July 26 at 8:15 a.m.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Larry Dixon , Kurt Johnson , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Don Prudhomme , Tim Wilkerson , Ashley Force , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Matthew Smith , Don Schumacher , Rod Fuller , Mike Neff