Parity Reigns As NHRA Opens Season With Winternationals

Tony Schumacher and John Force, two of drag racing’s biggest names, figure to remain prominent factors in the NHRA Full Throttle Series in 2012.

But an era of parity — brought on, in part, by the 6-year-old Countdown to the Championship — has settled into the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes.

That parity might not be immediately evident at this weekend’s season-opening O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., where past winners tend to reign. By the time the NHRA ends the season there in early November, don’t be surprised to see different names battling it out or championships decided in the final races.

“The last two years have been so incredible, it’s hard to say that we’re going to be more competitive,” seven-time champion Schumacher said. “Pro Stock, they’ve been doing that for years and years where there’s a whole group of cars that can run within a hundredth of a second. The guy who leads first wins.

“It’s awesome. I’ve said this for years: I don’t race because I need that trophy; I race because I need the competition. I love a good battle, and right now we have it (in) all four of our classes. I would be proud to be an NHRA fan right now, pay my money and sit in the stands because I’m going to get one heck of a race.”

Consider that since ending a dominant six-year title run in 2009, Schumacher has been shut out and is coming off his first winless season since 2001. Over that span, Larry Dixon and then-teammate Del Worsham have won consecutive Top Fuel dragster titles for 3-year-old Al-Anabi Racing, not entirely coincidental since former Schumacher crew chief Alan Johnson left to become team manager of the team after the 2009 season.

The class is even more wide open now that defending champion Worsham retired after his lone Top Fuel season, while Dixon left soon after and is seeking another ride. While it’s tempting to project Don Schumacher Racing’s trio of Schumacher, Antron Brown and 2011 runner-up Spencer Massey as favorites, that would overlook others such as Kalitta Motorsports (Doug Kalitta, David Grubnic), Morgan Lucas Racing (Lucas, Brandon Bernstein) and driver-owner Bob Vandergriff, a journeyman who earned his first career victory last fall in a Countdown event near Dallas.

And don’t forget Al-Anabi Racing, where Shawn Langdon and rookie Khalid alBalooshi have replaced Worsham and Dixon. To hear Langdon, it’s not a reach to suggest both could be serious players right away.

“I kind of look at it as we’re the team to beat, and I mean that in the most humble way possible,” said Langdon, a three-year veteran of the Countdown seeking his first career victory. “The teams we have and the crew chiefs we have (Brian Husen and Jason McCulloch) have won championships in this class, and going into the season we’re kind of the front-runners and they’re going to have to catch up to us. I think we’re both up to the task of holding up our end of the bargain.”

Similar balance reigns in Funny Car, where Matt Hagan won the title last year after being edged by Force on the final day in 2010. Two Countdown victories helped him earn the title by 72 points over Jack Beckman with two-time champion Cruz Pedregon 75 back, but the telling statistic is that nine of 10 drivers in the playoff earned wins last year.

In Funny Car, a dozen drivers have legitimate title prospects, including teammates Hagan, Beckman and Ron Capps.

“I know everyone says this, but there really are so many good teams and drivers out here that you just can’t afford to have the slightest slip-up,” Beckman said. “And none are tougher than my teammates.”

That’s a familiar story in Pro Stock, where KB Racing teammates Greg Anderson andJason Line have won the past two titles in dominating fashion., just as Mike Edwards did in 2009. All had to do it given the competition, even tougher with the return of four-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. from a one-year sabbatical to build an in-house operation.

And as recent history suggest in all four classes — motorcycles won’t begin until March in Gainesville, Fla. — the whole season is necessary to sift through the myriad scenarios.

“The true measure of the season is in the Countdown,” Coughlin Jr. said, “but you have to be one of the 10 that make it. You have to be consistent in the regular season, because without that there is no Countdown.”




By: Gary Graves

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