US Nationals sets tone for Countdown to Four

Beautiful blue skies, hot temps and a consistent breeze set the scene for the 53rd Annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis. The NHRA's biggest race of the year showcased exciting side-by-side drag racing reaching...

Beautiful blue skies, hot temps and a consistent breeze set the scene for the 53rd Annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis. The NHRA's biggest race of the year showcased exciting side-by-side drag racing reaching top speeds over 300 MPH. Tony Schumacher, Mike Ashley, Dave Connolly and Craig Treble sped to victory lane early Monday evening to hoist coveted Nationals trophies into the air.

At the beginning of the day, there were new names and missing familiar faces in the starting lineup. By the end, all four 2006 Nationals winners were in the finals. But only one of those reigning champs was able to repeat, Top Fuel dominator Tony Schumacher, winning his sixth U.S. Nationals in eight years.

The final event of the 2007 Nationals before the strip is flooded with spectators, the Top Fuel final pitted "The Sarge" against a familiar foe and fellow former Nationals winner, Larry Dixon. Schumacher beat Dixon off the line and never looked back. Dixon flashed some flames near the finish and Schumacher got the win light with a 4.575 seconds E.T. and 331.94 MPH top speed .

"We're really good under pressure," Schumacher shared, trying to explain the secret to his team's success. "The guys are comfortable. They know they have a great crew chief. They know they have great teammates. They just step it up when it counts."

Friends tried to get Schumacher to go out on the town for dinner Sunday night, but he refused. He explained, "I'm not here as a spectator and I sure don't want to be. I'm here to win this race. I woke up this morning and I was just like [shivers]. I was 100% focused on the first round. It got me in a great state of mind and I stayed there all day."

Still overwhelmed after six victories, "I can't believe it," Schumacher said. "I told my team, someday it's got to end. These guys are so good it blows my mind. I wish I could bottle it."

The points battle in Top Fuel is looking to be intense especially since Rod Fuller's nearly 200 point advantage over Tony Schumacher was shaved down to 10 prior to this race. Indianapolis, which is widely considered the "superbowl" of drag racing, was given even more significance as the Countdown to the Championship -- a new format this year -- will dwindle from eight to four as the U.S. Nationals is the first race for the final four. The NHRA's new playoff format will determine the POWERade Champion in each of the four pro divisions.

Coming into Indy, the top eight drivers on the points list were locked into the countdown and the points were reset, giving the current leaders a meager 70 point advantage over eighth place. The countdown drivers now have four races, starting in Indianapolis, to be in the top four of their division in order to continue on in the chase for a championship.

Following the Indianapolis race, Schumacher now leads the Top Fuel countdown points over Dixon. Fuller and Brandon Bernstein complete the top four.

John Force didn't have a chance to earn championship points Monday having missed the Funny Car field of sixteen for the first time since 1984, but he received plentiful applause standing at the start line to support his daughter Ashley and son-in-law Robert Hight.

The Funny Car first round dished out a few surprises, some with championship implications, as Kenny Bernstein upset points leader Ron Capps, Ron's brother Jon took out number one qualifier Jeff Arend and countdown racers Gary Scelzi and Jim Head were eliminated early.

Hight met fellow championship contender Mike Ashley in the final. Ashley ran a special tribute car covered in children's handprints this weekend dedicated to the infant son of friends who passed away earlier this year. The race for the Wally lasted less than an eighth of a mile when Hight's car broke and Ashley's top speed of 323.74 MPH and 4.894 seconds E.T. got him the win.

"It was very, very emotional and I knew when I decided to do this tribute car that it would add a bunch of pressure to the day," Ashley shared. "I just wouldn't allow myself to think about what it all meant too much. I just did the best I could all weekend for Donnie and Holly.

"This is the Super Bowl of drag racing. To win Indy is unreal but then you add to it the recognition we can bring to the Eric Blake Faulkner Foundation and it makes it stratospheric. This is a day I'll always remember and appreciate." Ashley continued, "I'm so proud of my team. We've had big ups and downs this year but this is a team that goes for it every week. We started this team from nothing and just to make the Countdown field was impressive."

Hight, Ashley, Tony Pedregon and Ron Capps lead the Funny Car points.

Defending POWERade Champion Greg Anderson, who also saw his points advantage trimmed down, met foe Dave Connolly in the Pro Stock final. Anderson had the advantage off the light, but in a classic Pro Stock final round battle Connolly ran him down and pulled out his second straight win in 6.71 seconds, his top speed 206.32 MPH.

"To win back-to-back races for the first time it seems like we're peaking at the perfect place in the schedule, especially with the Countdown starting. It's just an awesome feeling right now," Connolly said.

"I knew Greg had won 19 rounds in a row at this race going into the final but I still felt pretty confident. That team has been the class of Pro Stock for four years so it's remarkable to get in front of them for once. It really hasn't sunk in yet."

Anderson gave up his Pro Stock points lead to Connolly followed by Allen Johnson and Kurt Johnson.

Craig Treble defeated Andrew Hines in the second round dashing any hope Hines had for a Ringers Pro Bike Battle "Double-Up" bonus. Treble went on to defeat Hector Arana to earn a spot in the Pro Stock Motorcycle finals. His opponent was defending Nationals champ Matt Smith.

Smith cut the battle short, fouling at the start line and handing Treble an early Christmas present in the form of a U.S. Nationals trophy. Treble saw his win light flashing at half track, but still got down the track in a quick 7.037 seconds at a top speed of 190.83 MPH.

"I'll take a win here however I can get it," Treble said. "I was lucky three out of four rounds today but all I know is that 20 years from now someone will look in the record books and say Craig Treble won in 2007. It's there forever now."

Acknowledging he needed help to make it into the race for the championship, Treble said, "I was one round win away from not even making the Countdown to Four but Matt Guidera beat Chris Rivas in Reading and saved me. He's my hero because now here I am number two in the [points]."

Smith was able to hold onto the Motorcycle points lead over Treble, Chip Ellis and Hines as the POWERade teams travel to Memphis, TN for the O'Reilly Midsouth Nationals held September 14-16 at Memphis Motorsports Park and the second round of the Countdown to the Championship.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Larry Dixon , Kenny Bernstein , Kurt Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Greg Anderson , Craig Treble , Brandon Bernstein , Chris Rivas , Mike Ashley , Andrew Hines , Matthew Smith , Jeff Arend , Robert Hight , Matt Guidera , Dave Connolly