While the buzz after qualifying was that Alan Johnson and the Al-Anabi/Toyota team had positioned themselves as the ones to beat in the Top Fuel championship, Don Schumacher Racing took the forefront once again Sunday at the AAA Texas Fall Nationals.
Antron Brown, in the Matco Tools Dragster, beat DSR colleague and FRAM/Prestone Dragster driver Spencer Massey in the final round to pull into a tie with Massey for the points lead as the National Hot Rod Association's Countdown shifts to suburban St. Louis this next weekend.
Brown ran his quickest time and fastest speed during eliminations - 3.898 seconds at 311.49 mph on the 1,000-foot course -- to hand homestate favorite Massey his second straight runner-up finish at this facility where he first watched drag racing as a kid in Fort Worth. Massey, runner-up here to Bob Vandergriff last season, countered with a 3.945-second, 300.60-mph effort.
As temperatures approached 100 degrees even as evening set in, the DSR already had burned six Countdown hopefuls and were turning the heat on each other.
Brown defeated Dave Grubnic, No. 1 qualifier Shawn Langdon, and Morgan Lucas to advance to the showdown of this 27th annual race at Ennis, Texas. He notched his fifth victory of the season and 20th of his Top Fuel career. It gives him another Dallas trophy to match his first-ever, on a Pro Stock Motorcycle, in 1999.
Massey eliminated fellow Texan Steve Torrence, entering points leader Tony Schumacher, and rapidly improving Brandon Bernstein for his eighth final-round appearance of the year. Massey beat Brown in the finals at Pomona, Las Vegas, and the Charlotte 4-Wide Nationals and lost to Brown in the Sonoma final.
Brown's first words were to praise his Brian Corradi- and Mark Oswald-led crew who rebounded beautifully after they lost in the first round at Charlotte because of a broken input shaft that damaged a dozen key parts on the car and tumbled from the lead to fourth place. That led to them battling their own car as well as the lineup they faced.
He said the team "stuck together" -- remarkable "because it was so easy to get down." He said the malfunction "wiped" out everything behind the motor plate back: the bellhousing, the clutch, the levers -- There was nothing we could use -- even the reverser was gone. The only thing that was still good was the rear end, from the motor back. So we saw that and were like, 'Oh, man, now we have to start from scratch, with a clutch that we never ran."
He said the dragster "was throwing us fits where it was being really aggressive, like it was trying to run faster than we wanted it to run. My boys just stuck with it. We kept believing. Lord knows that were all like, 'What do we got to do to get this thing to go?!' We kept on backing it off and it kept on trying to run fast. In the semis, that's where we got a little peace of mind -- it went down the track . . . It did it real easy. It did an A-to-Z back-off. It wasn't a little increment. Once it did that, you could see the smiles on our faces [as if to say,] 'We can make this better.' You can see the crew chiefs' minds. You can see the gears start rolling because now they can make it.
"In the final, we had to give everything we got, because you're racing the FRAM car. And those have been running good since Indy to here and we've been going back and forth all year [for the top spot in the standings]. We had to give it our all, and we just edged him out. And it felt really good to bounce back up," Brown said. "We're tied for the lead with four races to go, and its going to be a slugfest to the end. You've just got to keep doin' what we're doin'."
With the level of competition so intense, perhaps more so than ever before, it's maybe a positive sign that only four more races remain on the schedule. Otherwise, crews would be frazzled beyond fixing.
"Everybody's throwing haymakers. You look at everybody's lights -- everybody's pushing the tree. Everybody's running exceptionally well. It's an all-out battle royal out there right now. It's going to be some tough racing till the end."
His own strategy is relatively simple. "We just worry about each round," he said.
That certainly is a cliché, but it's truly what he and his team had to do to survive this elimination bracket, considering their own car was almost as much the enemy as any other racer.
"The other teams don't take us lightly. They don't think we're going to smoke the tires, so they go out there and run hard to beat us. This weekend, before we knew it, we were in the final and we actually felt confident that we had a good chance to win. The guys went out there and made the car do exactly what they wanted it to do."
All that troubles Brown is that the other nine teams in the Countdown are capable of finding that same charm.
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