NHRA Top Fuel preview: A rivalry where ‘the Dark Side’ resides

Take Brandon Bernstein, Antron Brown, Cory McClenathan and J.R. Todd and place them all on one side of the street.

Then look to the other side where Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon are standing because that’s where the action is.

Schumacher alone won 15 races in 2008, and now his crew chief, Alan Johnson, formed his own team and not only hired the best driver in the division, but also brought 15 of the 16 members from last year’s team that gave Schumacher a season for the ages.

Is it possible for that team, with first-time crew chief Jason McCulloch handling the major decisions under Johnson’s guidance, to repeat what Schumacher did a  year ago? Probably not.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to understand why Dixon bought out his contract from Don “the Snake” Prudhomme: These opportunities A) don’t come around often, and B) are too good to pass up.

No one has ever had a season like Schumacher did last year in the U.S. Army dragster owned by Don Schumacher and tuned by Johnson. Ever.

Tony “the Sarge” Schumacher won his fifth consecutive Top Fuel championship with Johnson calling the shots, and Johnson leveraged that into an ownership deal with unlimited resources thanks to a sheik in Qatar.

Yes, Johnson admits, his team is the New York Yankees.

So now we really have to wonder, in the words of Hot Rod  Fuller, where is “the dark side,” is it Schumacher’s pit or Dixon’s?

Chances are it’s Dixon’s. Everyone knows the Yankees are evil.

In 43-time winner Dixon, the Alan Johnson Al-Anabi team has the third-winningest driver in Top Fuel history, behind Schumacher with 56 victories and Joe Amato with 52. It was Dixon who won the last two championships before Schumacher went on his half-decade roll. Schumacher himself says that Dixon is the best driver around, along with Doug Kalitta, who is only running a partial schedule because of sponsor issues.

For a guy who likes challenges, this is a rivalry that couldn’t be better.

“I’m fortunate that they put Dixon in that car, because it’s going to be just a huge motivation to beat those guys and have fun,” said Schumacher, whose dragster will be tuned by Mike Green. “Let’s face it. We have to rise on Sunday morning, we have to dig deep to win a race, and do it against a group of guys that are outstanding.”

Even though the attention will be focused on Schumacher and Dixon, who finished 1-2 in the standings last season, there still remain those other drivers in the Top Fuel category. Brown was fastest in preseason testing, Bernstein has a new crew chief and is looking to rebound from a winless season, and McClenathan has joined Don Schumacher Racing and has the benefit of the notes left behind by Johnson. Rookie Spencer Massey, the defending IHRA champion, is now in Dixon’s vacated seat, which puts a capable driver in the No. 2 car who, on paper, could also challenge for the title.

Yet the 2009 season seems to come down to two men at the peak of their craft playing for teams that desperately want to prove itself to the other. Provided owner Don Schumacher has put together the team everyone thinks he is capable of putting together, the title still goes through the reigning champion’s Army squad. If not there, then the former champion backed by Army expatriates now representing the interests of Qatar.

Who will win?

“I think the hope is that we’ll get to battle constantly,” Schumacher said. “That’s why you watch the Super Bowl. You watch the two teams that have made it the furthest. And Larry Dixon and I have won championships. We’re not going to have to fake it or go out and pick on each other or poke each other in the chest. It’s going to be good.

“Larry and I don’t play games. We stage our cars, and we race. We’ve never held each other up or done anything wrong.

“It’s really who has the best tune‑up and car at that moment. I can’t wait to get it started. I hope it comes down to me and Larry in the finals of the first race and it gets people on their feet, and everything riding on that moment will make me and Larry do our jobs just a little better than we normally would.”

The pressure though is on Dixon. Anything less than a championship from that team will be a major disappointment. Any champion outside of the Schumacher or Dixon camp will be a major upset.

Even the Sarge knows that.

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