U.S. Army driver Tony Schumacher reached his fourth Top Fuel final in seven NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events this season Sunday, but lost traction in his winner-take-all matchup against Steve Torrence and had to settle for his fifth career Lucas Oil NHRA Southern Nationals runner-up finish at Atlanta Dragway.
Fellow U.S. Army driver and Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) teammate Antron Brown, meanwhile, was relegated to his backup Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster after cracks were discovered in the chassis of the primary car he qualified third Saturday. The two-time-defending Top Fuel world champion nonetheless started the day on a strong note before being eliminated in the second round by third DSR driver and points leader Leah Pritchett.
Schumacher and the U.S. Army Dragster team for DSR turned in their second No. 1 qualifier effort of the season and the record 82nd of “The Sarge’s” illustrious career on Saturday, and he looked to up his record number of career event titles to 84 with his first-ever victory at Atlanta today. He survived his opening-round matchup against a tire-smoking Brittany Force despite blowing his engine approaching the finish line and coasting across in 5.191 seconds at 139.36 mph. Force smoked her tires at the starting line and slowly coasted to a stop well short of the finish line. The U.S. Army Dragster was docked 10 championship points for oiling down the track but advanced to a second-round matchup against Bob Vandergriff, who Schumacher eliminated with a solid run of 3.755 seconds at 318.62 mph. Vandergriff crossed the finish line in 3.886 seconds at 299.53 mph.
That set up a semifinal matchup against longtime rival Doug Kalitta. Schumacher turned in another solid run of 3.758 seconds at 320.13 mph while Kalitta smoked his tires midway down the track and clocked in at 4.089 seconds at 251.67 mph. With his stout run in the heat of the day, Schumacher earned lane choice against Torrence, who was the only driver to beat him in the final round at last week’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte.
Torrence turned in his best run of the day – 3.745 seconds at 320.81 mph – in scoring his second career Southern Nationals event title, his second of the season and the 10th of his career. Schumacher, meanwhile, struggled to get traction from the start and shut down the U.S. Army Dragster approaching the finish, crossing the line in 4.061 seconds at 243.28 mph.
“It started quivering pretty early and he was on a really good run, so that was it,” Schumacher said. “I tried to pedal it maybe once, maybe twice, but he was on a good run. But, otherwise, the car was running fine today. The round before, we beat him by 11-thousandths of a second. It’s all about timing, and that’s how this sport is. The first round, anybody else would’ve beaten me. When you get breaks, you get breaks. He made a great run. He made a good light and he made a good run, and he won the race. It’s all good and the big picture looks great. We’re going rounds and we’ve got a good U.S. Army car. There are a handful of good cars out there and we’re getting around some big boys and we’re gaining back the ground we lost in the championship a few weeks ago. We gained a little bit on Leah (Pritchett), but not enough. That oildown cost us 10 points and you hate to give those up. But it’s our job to keep the oil in the motor and not make mistakes. It’s on to Topeka.”
With his brand new backup car never having turned a wheel in competition, Brown started his day with a run of 3.702 seconds at 328.78 to beat Troy Coughlin Jr. The speed set the track record and the elapsed time would have, had it not been for Pritchett’s run of 3.699 seconds in her first-round victory. Brown upped the speed record with his run of 3.754 seconds at 329.91 mph against Pritchett, but the points leader beat him to the finish line in 3.723 seconds at 327.11 mph in that second-round matchup.
“It was just our fault, that run there – the track was a lot better than we thought it was,” said Brown, who’s won this event four times in the Top Fuel class and twice in Pro Stock Motorcycles. “We went out and tried to run a 74 (3.74 seconds) like we did in qualifying. We slipped to a 75, and our teammate went out and ran a 72 and did exactly what they needed to do to beat us. The bad part is, we could’ve beaten anybody else but her that round. But that’s how it goes. Nothing comes easy over here. I’m just really proud of our guys, all our fab shop boys for putting together a car that works so good, and being able to adapt and be versatile to the situation. We had a cracked chassis (Saturday). The track’s been a little rough out there, we hit those big bumps in the right lane, and we hit them that run, too. It cracked our other chassis (in qualifying), but it turned out to be a good deal because we brought out our brand new backup car and it ran flawlessly. We kept our heads down, we never gave up, we kept digging, we fought a tough fight this weekend and just came out on the short end of it. We can’t wait to get to Topeka right now. We’re creating a monster on this team – Brian Corradi, Mark Oswald (crew chiefs), Brad (Mason, assistant crew chief) and all these guys – it’s just getting us more determined, more hungry, and we’re getting ready to go and unleash and it’s going to be nothing nice.”
After seven of 24 events on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour for 2017, the top-10 drivers in the Top Fuel class are:
1. Leah Pritchett (641 points)
2. Tony Schumacher (627 points, -14)
3. Steve Torrence (592 points, -49)
4. Antron Brown (560 points, -81)
5. Doug Kalitta (486 points, -155)
6. Clay Millican (385 points, -256)
7. Brittany Force (347 points, -294)
8. Terry McMillen (301 points, - 340)
9. Troy Coughlin, Jr. (295 points, -346)
10. Scott Palmer (244 points, -397)
After taking next weekend off, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series resumes with round eight of 2017, the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka (Kansas). FS1’s live broadcast of elimination rounds Sunday, May 21, is set for 2 p.m. EDT.
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