Nine months ago, the biggest storyline entering the 2009 season revolved around Larry Dixon and Tony Schumacher, who had combined to win the last seven Top Fuel titles and nine of the last 10.
In what was as compelling an off-season as the NHRA had seen in some time, decorated crew chief Alan Johnson parted ways with the U.S. Army team to create his own team with the backing of Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani. Johnson brought most of the U.S. Army crew with him and he hired Dixon, who'd won back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003 with NHRA icon Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, to take the seat.
The questions swirled as to how this would affect the balance of power in Top Fuel: Would Schumacher and the new U.S. Army team with crew chief Mike Green continue to dominate or would Alan Johnson and Dixon assume the Alpha position in Top Fuel?
With one race left in the 24-race NHRA Full Throttle Series season – the 45th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals Nov. 12-15 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona – it's as close to a toss-up as you can get: Schumacher and the Army team have 2,485 points as they seek to win a sixth straight title; Dixon and the Al-Anabi team have 2,484 as they seek to unseat The Sarge.
And by no means out of the mix – lurking 48 points back – is the David against those two Goliaths, FRAM Tough Guard dragster driver Cory McClenathan, whose 31 career wins make him the second winningest driver in NHRA history to have not yet won a championship.
Schumacher and then-crew chief Alan Johnson delivered arguably the greatest single performance in NHRA history at the Auto Club Finals in 2006 to win what was, at the time, their third straight championship.
Schumacher never led the points during the entire 2006 season and he still trailed rival Doug Kalitta by 26 points as he staged against Melanie Troxel in the final round of the final race of the season. Drivers earn 20 points per round win, so the only way he could get past Kalitta was to win the race and set the national record (and earn the 20-point bonus).
Known simply as “The Run,” Schumacher delivered a stunning 4.428-second pass as dusk fell at Auto Club Raceway to win the race (earning 20 points) and set the national record (earning a 20-point bonus) to win the championship.
Now, Johnson and Schumacher are on opposite sides of the starting line and it would seem only fitting that the two rivals should begin the race on opposite sides of the ladder and meet in a winner-take-all final for the ages as dusk falls on Auto Club Raceway on Nov. 15.
In Funny Car, Robert Hight and the Auto Club Ford Mustang team have all but wrapped up their first championship. Hight leads teammate Ashley Force Hood by 105 points and if he maintains at least a 101-point lead through qualifying he would be the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Series Funny Car champion.
In Pro Stock, Mike Edwards and the A.R.T./Young Life Pontiac team have, for all intents and purposes, an insurmountable 139-point lead over three-time champ Greg Anderson. Edwards, who leads all drivers with 15 No. 1 qualifiers this season, just needs to qualify to clinch his first championship.
And, in Pro Stock Motorcycle, it's a two-man race between Hector Arana and defending champion Eddie Krawiec, who trails Arana by 54 points.