Familiar faces star at U.S. Nationals

CLERMONT, Ind. -- Fans hoping for female fireworks at the NHRA Mac Tools U.S. Nationals after a weeklong weather postponement were left disappointed Sunday at Lucas Oil Raceway.

Popular favorite Courtney Force was eliminated by Johnny Gray in the second round of Funny Car competition, while Erica Enders' bid for a third consecutive Pro Stock event win was dashed by her Victor Cagnazzi Racing teammate Dave Connolly in the finals.

Instead, the winner's circle was dominated by familiar faces, as Tony Schumacher won his ninth U.S. Nationals title in Top Fuel and Mike Neff saved the day for John Force Racing in Funny Car by repeating his victory from a year ago in the NHRA Full Throttle Series' marquee event.

Schumacher surpassed drag racing legend Don "Big Daddy" Garlits by earning his ninth "Wally" trophy at the U.S. Nationals. In the final, Schumacher's unique U.S. Army dragster with an enclosed cockpit ran a 3.806-second pass at 315.34 mph to edge his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Spencer Massey, who clocked a 3.828/319.37 in his FRAM/Prestone-sponsored machine.

Seven-time Top Fuel champion Schumacher scored his second event win of 2012 in five final-round appearances, and he couldn't have picked a better place to emerge on top. He'll enter the NHRA's Countdown playoff system seeded third behind his DSR teammates Massey and Antron Brown, who clinched the No. 1 seed despite losing in the semifinals Sunday to Massey.

Schumacher's pro career started at the U.S. Nationals in 1996, and nine of his 69 career event wins have come on drag racing's biggest stage.

"It's more difficult to win a race, by far, than it has probably ever been," said Schumacher of his second victory of the season and 69th of his career. "There was a time where we were a tenth [of a second] ahead of everybody and just needed to not make any mistakes, but the top seven cars are all so close that it's pretty gratifying."

Schumacher has advanced to the finals in 11 of 17 years at the U.S. Nationals, winning on nine of those occasions.

"To have a chance to win a ninth against my teammate who was running as good if not better, and who also had lane choice, made it a perfect moment," Schumacher said. "I didn't feel like I was stellar on the lights, but I left on everybody, [crew chief] Mike Green made the car run fast, and we got the trophy."

Courtney Force made history by becoming the first female racer to earn the No. 1 qualifying spot at the U.S. Nationals. Her father, 15-time Funny Car titlist John Force, required 11 years to earn the top spot at Indy.

Courtney was hoping to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Ashley Force Hood, who took Funny Car honors at the Nationals in 2009 and 2010. But her dream was dashed when she smoked the tires midway through her second-round tilt against Gray.

Gray lost to Tim Wilkerson in the semis, and Wilkerson then was defeated by JFR's Neff in the final.

"Being No. 1 qualifier was such a huge accomplishment for our Traxxas Ford Mustang team so I'm very proud of my guys," Force said. "My team gave me an amazing race car all weekend long and I really couldn't be happier.

"Going out in the second round was definitely a bummer," she added. "It kind of drove over to the centerline and it spun the tires. So, it's unfortunate, but on the brighter side of things we had a good car and we are capable of going out there next weekend and making it to the final round."

Neff was the No. 10 qualifier at Indianapolis and caught a break when his scheduled second-round opponent, Todd Lesenko, was unable to make the start line after suffering a major engine explosion in his first-round victory over Jack Beckman.

Neff defeated fellow Ford driver Wilkerson in the final, 4.079/311.05 to 4.152/286.13, to earn the No. 4 seed in the Countdown. Ron Capps, a first-round loser at Indianapolis to defending Funny Car season champion Matt Hagan, clinched the No. 1 spot, while Hagan failed to qualify for the Countdown after being bested by Neff on Sunday in the semis.

"There was a lot of emotion going on there," Neff said. "I knew it was so close and I didn't know if I got there first. I could see the finish line coming and I could not have pushed on the gas any harder. I didn't even know who won."

Coming into the Nationals, Enders was the hottest driver in the NHRA, but she fell agonizingly short of clinching her first win at the "Big Go," losing out on a holeshot to teammate Connolly, 6.589/210.05 to 6.580/210.31.

Adding to the intrigue, Connolly ran a part-time schedule for the Cagnazzi team this year while undertaking full-time tuning duties for Enders. It was Connolly's third U.S. Nationals win and the 23rd event win of his career.

"It was definitely bittersweet in the final, to run Erica," Connolly said. "She drives incredibly consistent and she's hard to rattle. She had a .026 [reaction time] in the final, and that should have been enough for sure. I feel for her. There was no reason why she shouldn't have run a 6.55 again and turned on the win light, so I don't know what happened. Don't ask me how, but we managed to win."

Allen Johnson earned the No. 1 seed for the Countdown despite bowing out in the second round at the U.S. Nationals.

Andrew Hines triumphed over Hector Arana for the Pro Stock Motorcycle title.

"This is really satisfying," Hines said. "We've struggled here, so to finally get the Indy win and stand in the U.S. Nationals winner's circle is something I can look back on years from now. This trophy means the world to me."

Hines heads into the Countdown seeded second behind his team owner, Eddie Krawiec.