U.S. Army Racing: 17th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals Advance

The odds of winning the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel world championship are a little longer than Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown were hoping they would be entering this weekend’s 17th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But if the winningest professional driver ever at the facility, Schumacher, and the most recent Las Vegas Top Fuel winner, Brown, can meet for the second time this season in final round at The Strip, the primary mission of the weekend will be accomplished. But a victory must also be coupled with difficulty for the competitors ahead of the U.S. Army tandem in the standings. That would open the door and provide a fighting chance for Schumacher or Brown to claim for the U.S. Army its fourth consecutive Top Fuel world title.

Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), enters the weekend sixth in the Countdown to the Championship standings, trailing leader Steve Torrence by 192 points with Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, Brown and DSR teammate Leah Pritchett occupying positions two through five.

Every potential point matters for the eight-time Top Fuel world champion and his U.S. Army Racing team led by crew chief Mike Green. The eight-time No. 1 qualifier at The Strip can point to his qualifying efforts during the first four races of this year’s Countdown as a positive trend. After opening the six-event playoffs by qualifying ninth in Charlotte, “The Sarge” has qualified fifth, third, and second at Reading, St. Louis and Dallas, respectively, gaining important qualifying points. Where Schumacher needs to make up ground is during eliminations. Through four events, he has just three elimination-round wins and four losses, winning first-round races at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pennsylvania, and Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis, before coming up short in second-round matchups with Kalitta, Force and Brown. He was eliminated in the first round two weekends ago at Dallas.

To maximize the weekend, four rounds of competition Sunday is a must and previous results at The Strip would indicate that Schumacher and the U.S. Army team have a chance. In April, Schumacher qualified second and raced his way to a final-round matchup with Brown. The eight-time Las Vegas winner was narrowly defeated in that final to end a seven-round winning streak for Schumacher. He entered the weekend coming off a record fifth Gatornationals triumph two weeks prior and was machine-like taking down Terry McMillen in the second round and Kalitta in the semifinal to set up a second consecutive final-round matchup with Brown. Schumacher wasn’t able to overcome a starting-line advantage by Brown and settled for his fourth career runner-up in Las Vegas. It was the 12th time he reached a final at The Strip.

The April victory for Brown at Las Vegas was the first of four in 2017 for the driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR. It was also his fourth career Las Vegas triumph in Top Fuel. The three-time and reigning Top Fuel world champion ranks fourth entering the weekend, 105 markers behind Torrence. He trails Force by 48 points and Kalitta by 29. After a tough loss to Clay Millican in the second round to open the Countdown at Charlotte, Brown has reached the semifinals at the following three events. In both Reading and St. Louis, he was defeated by the eventual event winner. Brown has earned at least one event title during the Countdown for eight consecutive seasons and a triumph Sunday would extend that streak to nine and enhance his chances of racing for a third consecutive Top Fuel world title in two weeks at the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, California.

The 2017 season has been quite a ride for you and U.S. Army team. With only two races remaining, what is the most important thing to accomplish at Las Vegas this weekend?

TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster: “Well, the reality is that we still have a shot at the championship and that’s been the goal from day one. It’s a longshot, for sure, but all we can do is control our part of it and hope for some help this weekend. There is no quit in this U.S. Army team and I’ve always said we perform our best when we absolutely have to – backs against the wall in the bottom of the ninth. I’ve been part of some incredible moments with the U.S. Army team and we’re just hoping to keep the dream alive. The first part of doing that is being fast right off the trailer. I know Mike (Green) and the guys have been working hard to make sure that happens. We’ve had so many good weekends racing at The Strip and, despite not having the success we were aiming for so far in the Countdown, we still have the chance to do something special here at the end of the season.”

You mentioned having a number of good weekends racing in Las Vegas. What makes you and the U.S. Army team so good at The Strip?

SCHUMACHER: “We have the opportunity to race in Las Vegas twice a year and timing always seems to play a factor. Our spring race typically is after we’ve had a handful of races and teams have a pretty good package under them. We started the season very consistent and the U.S. Army car was really good. We won the Gatornationals and came to Vegas on a roll and that continued. We qualified second and had a heck of a race in the final with Antron. We won the spring race there in 2013 and 2014, so we’ve been good there for quite some time. In the fall, it’s the crunch time, the second-to-last race of the Countdown, and we live for those opportunities. The U.S. Army team thrives in those high-pressure moments. We’ve proven it over the years and I’m excited we have another shot at it this weekend. Like I said, it’s a longshot right now to win the championship, but winning this weekend is first on the agenda.”

The last two seasons, you have been the one in the lead heading into Las Vegas and, this weekend, you’ll come in chasing. Does that change your approach?

ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster: “You certainly have a different mindset coming in when you are trying to protect a lead. I wish we were in that position right now, but we are on attack mode instead. We’ve had an extremely fast racecar and been consistent. We just have not had the luck we needed so far. If you look at the previous two years, we came to Las Vegas with the lead because we won three of the first four Countdown races. We’re still trying to get our first one of the Countdown this year. We just haven’t been able to get past the semifinal. Brittany (Force) beat us in Reading and went on to win. Steve (Torrence) took us out in St. Louis and went on to win. Those two are on top of the standings and you just never know how things would stack up right now if the results would have gone in our favor. We just have to press forward in Las Vegas and throw everything we have at it. I know (co-crew chiefs) Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald) and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army boys are going to come out swinging Friday. We have to grab every point we can in qualifying and complete the job on Sunday.”

Earlier this season, you scored your first win of 2017 at The Strip. Does that provide you and your team any advantage over the competition this weekend?

BROWN: “The only thing winning in April helps us with is coming in with a winning mindset. If we can sweep Las Vegas, we may have a chance at the big trophy. That’s all we can do right now – keep our heads down and work as hard as we can. It’s been a good track for us. Winning there earlier this year was a big moment for us. That first win is always tough to get and the next one is just as important. You have to win in the Countdown if you want to win the championship. The three drivers in front of us in the standings have all won at least one race. If we want to be part of the championship mix, we have to win this weekend. It’s just that simple. We had a tough battle with our U.S. Army teammate Tony Schumacher in the final there in April and hopefully it’s a rematch Sunday. We both have some ground to make up and we both need a win. I know we’re ready to get out there and get after it.”

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