Considering the Army is the Nation's preeminent leadership experience, developing the Nation's future leaders and empowering them with the confidence to take decisive action when needed and the flexibility to excel in constantly evolving situations, it should come as no surprise that Schumacher, the seven-time Top Fuel world champion, and Brown, the defending series champion, are 1-2 in this year's championship chase separated by a mere five points after the season's first seven of 24 events.
After the points-leading Schumacher and his U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) were eliminated in the second round today by Doug Kalitta, Brown marched his way clean through today's final-round win over Brandon Bernstein to score his second event title of the season, the 39th Top Fuel event title of his career, and the 205th NHRA event title in the history of DSR - preceded today by DSR win No. 204 behind Johnny Gray's Funny Car victory.
Schumacher, who started the weekend 70 points ahead of the second-place Brown in the standings, disposed of Bob Vandergriff in today's opening round with a stout run of 3.799 seconds at 323.74 mph against Vandergriff's 3.893-second, 318.47-mph effort. The Top Fuel competitors were the first to hit the track for their second-round runs after a 90-minute rain delay. Schumacher and Doug Kalitta were the fourth and final pair to go, and the DSR driver clocked a solid run of 3.813 seconds at 323.04 mph. But Kalitta, beaten off the starting line by Schumacher, picked up a head of steam over the latter half of the 1,000-foot straightaway and crossed the finish line in 3.789 seconds at 325.61 mph, establishing a new track top-speed record.
"Plain and simple, we got beat by a great run," said Schumacher, for whom Atlanta Dragway is the only track on the current schedule where he has yet to score an event title in his illustrious career. "The level of engineering and teamwork on display at the racetrack is reflective of the Army's leading-edge technology and the powerful, realistic training of its Army Strong Soldiers. That was the case once again with our U.S. Army team and our racing machine. It just came down to the fact Kalitta laid down a great lap. I tried to speed it up in the middle of the track because the track was there, but the car actually did the opposite of what I wanted it to do. The car left good. It was just there in the middle of the track, we were down 3-4 mph to Kalitta. He made low ET of the round and set the track top-speed record. He left first. It was just a great race. We got down to the end and it was just 17 thousandths of a second that separated us. But it doesn't matter if it's one thousandth or two hours, you know - it's game over. We came here as the points leader, we got as many runs as everybody else on this shortened weekend. We just didn't get it done. It's unfortunate, but we'll go to Topeka and we'll get it together. At the end of the day, we're still in the points lead. We just should've qualified better, I guess."
Brown, Friday's No. 2 qualifier, began his march to the final round with a methodical first-round win over Pat Dakin, followed by a second-round win over DSR teammate Spencer Massey and a semifinal win over Kalitta. Both Massey and Kalitta smoked their tires early in their runs against Brown, who clocked in at 3.798 seconds at 318.24 mph against his teammate, and 3.788 seconds at 320.43 mph against Kalitta.
Ever-changing track conditions kept crew chiefs and their teams on their toes over this two-day event, which was originally scheduled to be a typical three-day NHRA show last weekend but was postponed due to persistent rain showers and shortened. Saturday began under mostly cloudy skies, and a brief but torrential rain shower between the first and second rounds led to the 90-minute delay just after the noon hour. The final round occurred under sunny skies and rapidly rising track temperatures, a factor which Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army team accounted for in setting up for the final round and which likely led to Bernstein's smoking tires at the outset of his final-round run. Brown's final run came in at 3.801 seconds at 321.35 mph while Bernstein crossed the finish line in 7.105 seconds at 90.64 mph.
"This is big, especially down here at the Southern Nationals," whose previous two Top Fuel wins at Atlanta came in 2008 and 2010, both ending with final-round wins over Schumacher. "This track has always been special to us. It's our fifth time winning - two times on bikes (Pro Stock Motorcycles) and three times in (Top) Fuel cars. So, we like this place a lot. It reminds me a lot of like where I grew up in my hometown, like one of the grassroots tracks that's been around forever. It's got that special atmosphere, and the fans here are just intense. The track was a challenge these last two days. We ran a 78 (3.78) in the semis, but Brandon threw the gauntlet out there with a 76 (3.76), so we thought we needed to set up (for speed) in the final. But then, like Atlanta does, the clouds went away and the sun came out and the track got temperature. So you see the crew chiefs popping open boxes on the car and changing things around. And after we saw what Johnny (Gray) ran in our lane, we knew what we needed to do to get the job done. If we got beat, we got beat, but we wanted to go A to B and put on a race and not throw it away. We were fortunate to get the job done."
Brown and Schumacher have combined to reach the final round of eliminations at six of this season's first seven events, and each has won twice.