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NHRA RACING

NHRA top-fuel season comes down to Larry Dixon chasing Tony Schumacher for the title

After an unimpressive beginning, Van Nuys' Dixon is now just one point behind five-time champion Schumacher as he returns to Pomona's Auto Club Raceway this weekend.

November 12, 2009|Jim Peltz

Drag racer Larry Dixon and his crew chief Alan Johnson will arrive in Pomona this weekend in much better spirits than when they left in February.

Dixon is only one point behind reigning champion Tony Schumacher as the National Hot Rod Assn.'s premier Full Throttle Series closes its season at Auto Club Raceway, with Dixon trying to snap Schumacher's remarkable streak of five consecutive titles.

The series also had opened its season in Pomona in February, when Dixon -- a two-time champion from Van Nuys -- and Johnson started with a whimper by failing to even qualify for the event's final eliminations.

Johnson had been Schumacher's crew chief during Schumacher's remarkable title run, but after last season Johnson formed his own team with Sheik Khalid Al Thani, 23, a member of the ruling family of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

The new Al-Anabi Racing team hired Dixon, and despite the slow start, he's won five times this season -- the same number as Schumacher -- as they head to Sunday's title showdown.

In the NHRA's other major class, funny cars, Robert Hight heads into this weekend's Auto Club NHRA Finals with a sizable 105-point lead over Ashley Force Hood, his teammate at John Force Racing of Yorba Linda.

Ashley Force Hood is the daughter of John Force, the 14-time champion, and Hight is his son-in-law.

Tony Pedregon is third in the funny-car standings, 113 points behind Hight, and Jack Beckman is 114 points back in fourth.

Among those top four, only Pedregon previously has won the title, so it's possible that a first-time funny-car champion could be crowned at Pomona.

And if Force Hood wins the title, she would become the first woman to win the funny-car championship.

But Force Hood recently discounted the novelty of achieving that feat, noting that she has "a team of 10 men that work on my car. It's them and me together as a team."

While Schumacher and Dixon are separated by a single point in the top-fuel standings, Cory McClenathan is 48 points behind Schumacher in third and Antron Brown trails by 80 points in fourth.

All are part of the NHRA's Countdown to 1, a late-season playoff among the top 10 drivers in each class, a format similar to NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Dixon's five wins this season came after his new team got off to its poor start in February.

As Dixon and his shiny maroon dragster waited at the starting line for their first qualifying run of the year -- and with Johnson and Sheik Khalid standing nearby -- Dixon's car shook so badly that it broke an ignition coil. Dixon then barely budged off the line, failed to qualify and ended the team's weekend before it had hardly started.

"[It] was severely disappointing. But we knew that we had a team that could turn it around," Johnson said.

And they did, winning the season's third race in Gainesville, Fla., and they've been able to keep pace with Schumacher, who has six top-fuel championships overall.

"Everybody still had their heads up because they weren't going to let that one run at Pomona determine the fate of our season," said Dixon, the defending winner of this weekend's race, who won his championships in 2002 and 2003.

Now, "we get to go out and pretty much have a winner-take-all kind of race" with Schumacher this weekend, Dixon said.

Why did Sheik Khalid -- whose team includes funny-car driver Del Worsham, seventh in the standings -- get involved in the NHRA? "My passion has always been drag racing, even as a younger adult," Sheik Khalid said via e-mail. "For us to go into the last race of the season in Pomona with five wins and a chance to finish No. 1 in top fuel is what the fans of Qatar have been waiting to celebrate."

But standing in their way is Schumacher, who has been to drag racing in recent years what three-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Three days of qualifying runs for the Auto Club Finals begin today, and the final eliminations that determine the race winners and season champions start Sunday at 11 a.m.

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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