LAS VEGAS – Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and his teammate Antron Brown head to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for this weekend’s 16th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals on the brink of the U.S. Army’s fourth Top Fuel world championship in the last five seasons.
While Schumacher and the U.S. Army Dragster team for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) find themselves among a pack of five drivers fighting for positions two through six at the final two NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events of the season, Brown looks to close out his second consecutive and third career title this weekend by leaving Las Vegas with a 130-point margin or better over the rest of the Countdown to the Championship field.
Schumacher, the winningest Top Fuel driver in history who scored his most recent of eight career championships in 2014, hits The Strip sixth in this year’s standings, 209 points behind the red-hot Brown with Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon, Brittany Force and Steve Torrence occupying positions two through five. Brown leads Kalitta by 150 points after his third victory in this year’s first four of six Countdown events two weekends ago at the Texas Motorplex near Dallas. Should he reach Sunday’s semifinal round of eliminations – something he’s done at 14 of the 22 events this season – Brown is a sure bet to clinch the Top Fuel championship at the penultimate event for the second year in a row.
With a series-high eight career event titles at Las Vegas, Schumacher and his U.S. Army team look to close out the season with back-to-back wins and valuable momentum heading into 2017. The 209-point deficit to Brown atop the Top Fuel standings is still a mathematical possibility to overcome but, with a maximum 130 points available each of the next two race weekends, it would take a total meltdown by Brown and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team for DSR and an almost equal measure of bad luck for each of the other four drivers ahead of Schumacher.
On the contrary, such a meltdown would seem to be highly unlikely for Brown, who’s posted performance statistics since his first world-title season in 2012 that haven’t been seen in the Top Fuel ranks since Schumacher and the U.S. Army team mounted their remarkable run of six championships in a row from 2004 through 2009. “The Sarge” won 50 of 140 events – 35.7 percent – during his record title streak while Brown has won 30 of 118 events – 25.4 percent – since the outset of the 2012 campaign.
Those numbers put the U.S. Army duo in the rarified air of some of the best multiyear performances in all of motorsports. Formula One’s Michael Schumacher would top that list after winning five championships in a row from 2000 through 2004, a run that included 48 Grand Prix wins in 86 events – or 55.8 percent. A.J. Foyt logged 32 USAC Champ Car wins in 79 races – 40.5 percent – during his run of four championships and two runner-up finishes from 1960 through 1965. Ayrton Senna scored 38 wins in 96 races – 39.6 percent – while capturing three Formula One titles and two runner-up finishes from 1988 through 1993. And Jimmie Johnson won 35 of 180 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races – 19.4 percent – during his run of five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010.
Statistics aside, Brown knows better than to bank on history to carry him through to his third career title over the next two events. In 2012, he arrived in Las Vegas with a 136-point lead over second-place Schumacher in the championship, promptly dropped his first-round matchups at both Las Vegas and the season finale at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, then had to watch helplessly as “The Sarge” marched all the way to the Top Fuel final at Pomona before coming up just seven points short of overcoming Brown.
This year, like 2015, Brown and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team have been on a mission during the Countdown, thundering to a 12-1 win-loss record in elimination rounds and having scored event titles at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pennsylvania, and two weekends ago in Texas.
Count on Schumacher and Brown to try and put the ultimate exclamation point on 2016 with a pair of wins to accompany the U.S. Army’s fourth Top Fuel world title in the last five seasons.
Friday qualifying from the NHRA Toyota Nationals will be broadcast live by FS1 at 6 p.m. EDT while Saturday’s qualifying highlights are set for a delayed FS1 broadcast Sunday at 10 a.m. Sunday’s elimination rounds will also be broadcast live by FS1 beginning at 4 p.m.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
Your overall thoughts as you and the U.S. Army team head to Las Vegas for the next-to-last event of the 2016 season?
“Well, the championship for us is out of reach, but we still head to Las Vegas the same way we do for every single event during the season, each and every year, with our U.S. Army team. No matter what happens out there in the big picture, our ultimate fate always comes down to our ability to execute – to take care of business. Like we do every weekend, we’ll go out and try to get the best possible qualifying position on Friday and Saturday, and then you just get up Sunday morning and see what happens. If we do all that we can do, there’s a good chance we can finish the season with a couple more wins and a few places higher up in the standings. Like I’ve always said, you’ve got to be the winningest team at these last six Countdown events. We had a relatively solid regular season, but things really haven’t gone our way during the Countdown while Antron and his team have been on fire. So, for Vegas and Pomona, we will show up like we always do and represent the U.S. Army to the best of our ability. Our goal is to win these last two races and, assuming Antron can close out the championship, we’ll be first ones there to shake his hand and congratulate him on a stellar year. They will have earned it and it’s great for the U.S. Army.”
You’re the winningest Top Fuel driver at Las Vegas with eight career event titles. What makes you and the U.S. Army team better than everybody else there?
“A lot has to do with where the Las Vegas races fall on the calendar. In the spring, we’ve got three weekends under our belts by the time we get there and we’re typically in a groove, by then. When it comes to the fall race, the playoff atmosphere and the sense of urgency you have when there are only two events to go, that’s when the U.S. Army team tends to thrive. We have proven to be a high-pressure team over the years, time and time again. I’ve always believed we’re way better under pressure. We live for these final Countdown races and our U.S. Army team has proven that. We’ve been really good at getting the results we need when they have to happen. If all goes according to plan, we’ll win Vegas, and hope to make it two in a row to close out the season at Pomona. So much of the final outcome is totally out of our hands, though, so what we need to do is put all our focus looking forward and really put the hammer down these last two weekends of the season.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
What is your approach this weekend at Las Vegas as you take a 150-point lead over second place into the penultimate round of the season?
“The thing about it is, our heads are really focused on the end and the end is not until they say, ‘This is the 2016 world-championship winner.’ Yeah, we’re in a great situation right now, but we don’t feel comfortable, yet, and our work is not done, yet. We’re not going in defensive mode. We’re just going to try to keep doing the same things we’ve done to get to this point. It would be great to close this out in Vegas and that’s our hope. We want to win it and we want to win it as quickly as possible. But you can’t take any of this for granted and that’s why we all work so hard to get to this point.”
You’ve had an impressive Countdown for the second year in a row, three wins in four playoff events with the lone blemish being your first-round exit at St. Louis. How does the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team do it?
“When you get into the Countdown, the bar gets raised and we’re ready for that challenge. Our mindset is always striving to be better and trying to be more efficient, and I’m always doing something because I know my guys are doing the same thing. When we get to the racetrack, you can look everyone in the eye and know we’re all ready. You can feel that emotion in our trailer and that’s the coolest part. St. Louis was definitely a wake-up call. We had a lot of mishaps in qualifying and we knew we had to go back to work and qualify better. We couldn’t afford to do that again. We stayed after and made some quality laps and we figured it out. We did that because we prepared ourselves. We feed off of each other. Everybody puts in the work and that attitude is contagious.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine