Tony Schumacher, John Force, and Mike Edwards collected victories at the 10th annual NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee.
The event was the third straight of four in June, and the results produced a new points leader in Funny Car, a substantially tighter battle in Top Fuel, and additions to the all-important top 10s as the Countdown to the Championship regular season heads down the backstretch. Racers won’t have much time to celebrate nor lick their wounds as they load up and head for Norwalk for next weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, the 13th of 17 events in the Countdown's regular season leading up to the playoffs that begin at the annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil during Labor Day weekend.
The Top Fuel final featured the only two drivers to win here the last three years, Schumacher, the two-time and defending champ, and Brandon Bernstein, but the victory, for the third straight time and fourth overall at this race, went to Schumacher, 3.98 to 4.05, for his 64th win. It’s Schumacher's fourth victory of the season, following wins in Gainesville, Madison, and Topeka.
“I could see his car out there,” said Schumacher. “He did a good job leaving, a great job driving the car. I don’t know what it did, but it disappeared, and after the car’s gone, it ain’t catching you again unless you blow it up, so it was pretty awesome.”
Schumacher reached his milestone 100th final round and his fifth this season with a trio of high three-second passes in his Mike Green-tuned U.S. Army dragster, edging an engine-blowing Doug Herbert with a 3.99, then beating Morgan Lucas and his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Cory McClenathan with a pair of 3.97s, the latter of which earned him final-round lane choice against Bernstein. Lucas had upset points leader Larry Dixon in round one, allowing Schumacher to close to within 123 points of Dixon.
“Me, Dixon, and [Joe] Amato I think were all at 99, if I’m correct, and only one guy’s getting to 100 first,” added Schumacher. “To be the first guy to go to 100 finals in Top Fuel is awesome. It just puts so much pressure on you because you want it so bad, and the way Dixon’s running, you don’t have that many shots at being the first to get to that thing. We’re trading places in the finals. It’s just been a heck of a battle, and I think to get there we had to win a couple races by inches. I think Herbert was probably within a hundredth of a second, and Cory was probably within a hundredth of a second, too. It was just a great battle.”
Bernstein, runner-up in Atlanta, reached his second final of the season with the Todd Smith-wrenched Copart/Lucas Oil entry by defeating veteran Pat Dakin, upset-minded Troy Buff, and low qualifier Antron Brown, who hazed the tires in the semifinals. It was Bernstein’s 34th final-round appearance.
Force, the early-season points leader, hadn’t been to a final round since winning in Las Vegas in April, at which point he had won three of the year’s six races. He not only got back to the winner’s circle but also got back his points lead, capping a great day with an easy win against an engine-popping Tim Wilkerson. Force leads teammate Robert Hight by 58 points.
“Can you believe this old man just won it?” said Force. “To get the win is really great for me. I ain’t quitting tomorrow, and I ain’t gonna have a heart attack tomorrow, knock on wood, but there will be a day when I can’t come back, or there will be a day when I won’t win any race. I just keep praying to the Lord to keep me healthy and keep me fighting. I was in the gym last night because if I don’t keep working the legs, I can’t keep up with the kids. Look at those lights out there. [Bob] Tasca [III], Wilkerson, [Matt] Hagan all leaping up there, putting up those .04 numbers, and I was able to put them up there right with them.
“The racetrack can be tricky, and we were worried coming in here. We’re good on good racetracks. Like [Hight crew chief] Jimmy Prock, we make big thunder out there and run good, but boy, the last few races, we’ve been getting spanked, and we couldn’t get down the racetrack, Jimmy or us, but we adapted to it today.“
Force reached his fifth final of the season and 207th of his Hall of Fame career with a trio of 4.2-second passes to trailer Paul Lee, two-time season winner Hagan, and Englishtown champ Tasca. The victory over Hagan gave Force back the season-long points lead he had relinquished two events earlier.
Wilkerson, a winner this year in Gainesville, reached his 25th Funny Car final by guiding the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby past the field’s two female qualifiers – 2008 event winner Melanie Troxel and low qualifier Ashley Force Hood – and, in the semifinals, defending event champ Del Worsham’s Al-Anabi Racing Solara.
Edwards, the runaway Pro Stock points leader with seven wins and nine No. 1 qualifying berths in the season’s first 11 races, continued to run amok with the Penhall/Interstate/K&N Pontiac to collect his 28th Pro Stock title with a final-round conquest of red-lighting Rickie Jones and increase his monstrous lead to 452 points.
“There’s so much heritage around this track and that track over there, it’s a real honor to come here and run good and win this race,” said Edwards. “I’ve just got a great team, and I don’t know what to say other than I’m truly living my dream. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I never dreamed I could do this.
“We really struggled, especially yesterday. We were really, really bad. When we left here last night, we were really scratching our heads. We just made some wholesale changes this morning, and I think we were low of the round each session. I don’t know what happened in the finals, but I was very fortunate to win that race. I have to get back and look, but I don’t know what really happened, but it took a major right on me, and I was just very fortunate.”
Edwards, the defending event champ, reached his 48th Pro Stock final and milestone 50th overall with a trio of dominating passes that were the quickest of each round: a 6.72 in round one against Phoenix runner-up Bob Yonke, a 6.71 in round two against Jason Line, and a 6.73 in the semifinals against 2007 event winner Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Jones, who was runner-up in Atlanta in his second final, recovered from back-to-back DNQs in Chicago and Englishtown to reach title round No. 3 with his Elite Motorsports Pontiac and barged into the top 10. Jones reached the final thanks in part to problems from his foes: Rodger Brogdon rolled the beams and fouled against him in round one, and low qualifier Allen Johnson shook hard alongside him in the semifinals, which was fortuitous for Jones, who lost his engine farther downtrack. Sandwiched between those wins was a season-typical Jones triumph, a holeshot victory over Ron Krisher in round two, 6.75 to 6.73.
In Lucas Oil action, Bob Dennis won in Super Stock, shutting down red-hot Joe Santangelo, and Slate Cummings collected the win in Stock over Russell Johnson. Lloyd Parfait captured Super Comp gold by turning away Trevor Denton in the final, and Ed Apple titled in Super Gas over Billy Upton.
Von Smith won his second straight NHRA Get Screened America Pro Mod Drag Racing Series race in his Barwa/Al-Anabi Racing ’68 Camaro to take command of the points lead. He leads second-place Danny Rowe by 92 points.
In the final, Smith gave up 12-hundredths to Jay Payne at the Tree, but he tracked him down, 5.99, 241.54 to 6.03, 240.38 Smith qualified fifth, but because of a series upsets on his half of the ladder, he didn’t meet a higher-qualified driver until the final, No. 2 qualifier Payne. En route to the final, Smith defeated No. 12 qualifier Tony Pontieri, No. 13 Rick Stivers, and No. 8 Ray Commisso.
Friday: Brown, Force Hood, Edwards thunder in Bristol
Saturday: Final fields set at NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals