Tony Schumacher never doubted himself or his team or Don Schumacher Racing’s ability to give him the right resources to compete for a record eighth Top Fuel championship. He struggled last season but vowed his U.S. Army Dragster was better than that. And he knew at some point he was going to have to deliver proof.

If a runner-up finish in the season-opening Winternationals weren’t evidence enough, Schumacher’s provisional No. 1 qualifying performance Friday at the Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park should be.

Schumacher registered his career-best elapsed time – a track-record 3.649-second pass that is fifth-quickest in history and just .021 of a second off the 3.628 standard Clay Millican set two weeks ago at Pomona.

Moreover, Schumacher rewrote his own national speed record from the opening session (334.65 mph) with the fastest pass in the NHRA’s 1,000-foot era at 336.57 mph.

He posted a 3.667-second E.T. in his second run on a night when few racers in the nitro classes could figure out the cold Chandler, Ariz., 1,000-foot racing surface.

Heading into Saturday’s final two days of qualifying for Sunday’s eliminations, Schumacher is six-thousandths of a second ahead of tentative No. 2 Steve Torrence. Three others – Millican (3.664), Richie Crampton (3.683), and Steve’s father, Billy Torrence (3.697) – also clocked E.T.s in the 3.6-second range.

“This track’s fast, even when we tested [three week ago]. Leah [Pritchett, his U.S. Army-sponsored teammate] made some great runs here. This track has always shown good numbers,” Schumacher said. “We ran 330 four years before anyone else had done it, in ’99. So this track – for me – has been a record-setting track. We’ve won this race quite a few times [five].

“This is like the perfect storm,” he said of Friday night’s environment. “You’ve got the right conditions. The track was smooth – they prepped it correctly. All this stuff happened. And we’ve got a car with good power. Everything’s working right.

“We came here and tested. Then we ran low E.T. every round at Pomona [except for the final round, when he was runner-up to Doug Kalitta]. So we’re bringing a tune-up that’s already good, and we’re being able to fine-tune it with these conditions,” he said. “We had a 50-50 chance of shaking [experiencing tire shake]. You were either going to shake or you were going to give it enough to go fast. And there’s really no in-between there. The cars that made mistakes tried to slide it down there and you’re going to be mid.[3.]70s on a track that’s .60s-capable.”    

All in all, he said, “It’s a Friday in Phoenix. There’s a lot more racing to be done. We ran good, and there were two or three other cars who ran outstanding. We’re all going to have data for tomorrow. What it tells me, though, is we got power in the car – 336 means we’ve got an awful lot of power.

“It’s a fine line between having all that power and hurting stuff,” Schumacher said.

He said he and new crew chief Mike Neff spoke before his final run, and Neff instructed him, “We’ve got this many blowers and this much stuff. Don’t drive past the finish line.”

Schumacher said, “We go over a lot of things like that, and I think that what makes me and Mike right now just a good team. We’re discussing, we’re talking about situations that could come about. And I think over the course of the season, that’s going to pay dividends.”

He said even “little things” are in the mix always. For example, he said that Friday, they went over whether the track had any problems spots that Schumacher needed to avoid.

“We can discuss it because he has driven. We can discuss what rights and wrongs can present themselves to me out here. So it has been fun. I mean, he’s a great guy.”

Years ago, when Neff was a crew chief at John Force Racing, Neff was in the “brain trust mix” with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, John Medlen, and Jimmy Prock. Coil was like a calculating snake, striking from unpredictable angles on his own timing. Fedderly was like an exuberant Labrador retriever: smart, loyal, and contented. Medlen was like a faithful cocker spaniel, and Prock as the pit bull of the bunch. Asked what kind of a dog Neff would call himself, the young crew chief said, “Aww, I’m probably a big, lazy St. Bernard.”

Neff is no lazy fellow. But he is easygoing, for sure. And at this point in his career, Schumacher seems to relish the carefree style Neff brings to his team.

“He’s so laid back. I’m kind of a hyper guy,” Schumacher said. “I said [Friday], ‘What do you think this car’s going to do?’”

Neff replied, “Going to go fast, man.”

“He’s just chill,” Schumacher said. “And he’s confidently chill. That’s cool. I’m enjoying it. He’s doing a great job with [co-crew chief] Phil Shuler. Those two guys are really gelling. We’ve got that old tune-up, which goes down the track, and Phil knows it well. He knows the car as well as anyone. And then we’ve got Mike, a Funny Car guy, doing different things. And it’s really showing some positive results.”

They’re the best of the class so far.