Top guns gear up for Gatornationals

Top Fuel pilot Tony Schumacher backed up a runner-up effort at Pomona with a victory in Arizona. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Florida is king for auto racing in the pre-spring, and an early-season tradition is the 44th annual Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals, Round 3 of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Along with the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., and the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the Gatornationals ranks as one of drag racing's most enduring and popular events. There's a decidedly old-school feel to Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville, Fla., which opened in 1969 and has become known as a particularly fast track for the cars and stars of the NHRA. The 260, 270 and 300 mph barriers were all broken at Gainesville.

Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners at the event, as track records were set in all four pro categories a year ago. The Gatornationals is the opening event of the season for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.

While Danica Patrick generated an enormous amount of hype for claiming pole position and driving the best race of her stock car career on the way to eighth place at NASCAR's Daytona 500, the NHRA already has two female race winners in 2013: Courtney Force took Funny Car honors at the season-opening Winternationals, while Erica Enders-Stevens picked up on her breakout 2012 campaign with a win in Pro Stock three weeks ago at the Arizona Nationals.

"Girl Power" truly is a movement in a sport that boasts the highest-powered cars in the world. Force and Enders-Stevens are the latest among a dozen different female race winners since Shirley Muldowney's historic breakthrough triumph in 1976.

Force was recently honored as Rookie Racer of the Year by Racer magazine. Meanwhile, 2012 Top Fuel class champion Antron Brown, the most successful African-American racer of all time, highlighted another aspect of the NHRA's rich tradition of diversity by earning the magazine's Drag Racer of the Year honors.

Brown could help Don Schumacher Racing reach a milestone this weekend at Gainesville. Victories by Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel) and Ron Capps (Funny Car) pushed DSR's win tally to 198, and a similar performance by the Brownsburg, Ind.-based team this weekend in Florida would put the team at the historic double century.

Tony Schumacher is the hottest driver in the sport right now, the seven-time Top Fuel champion backing up a runner-up finish at Pomona with an exciting, tire-smoking win in Arizona. Schumacher has been fastest qualifier in two of the past four NHRA events dating to last year, with four consecutive final-round appearances, and he holds an early 79-point margin over Shawn Langdon in the Top Fuel standings.

Brown, who had a scary crash in the opener at Pomona, is just one point behind Langdon in the early going.

"I think what we enjoy about this year, what we're seeing, is that when we make changes to a car, the car's result reflects it," Schumacher said. "A lot of teams go out there and they go fantastic but they don't know why they did it. That's not what we're seeing. We're seeing educated decisions that are making the results reflect them.

"I'm excited, man," added the man called "The Sarge," thanks to his longtime association with the U.S. Army. "We've got a great car, a great team, and I'm looking forward to 22 more fantastic races starting at Gainesville -- one of my favorite places, ever, to race."

Capps has also started the 2013 season on a roll in his NAPA Automotive Dodge. He's 45 points up on Force following his Arizona Nationals win and a final-round loss against Force at Pomona.

It can be a very tricky racetrack. You have to be able to adapt to conditions; the track could go from being one that could produce a national record to one that is hard to get down.

-- Ron Capps

"Gainesville is one of the big four races that NHRA has," said Capps, who is looking for a third Gatornationals win to match those he earned in 2006 and '07. "It was a huge race when I was growing up and it still is. You get pumped up when you're driving to the track and see all those campers. It's a destination race where a lot of fans attend as part of a vacation.

"It can be a very tricky racetrack," he added. "You have to be able to adapt to conditions; the track could go from being one that could produce a national record to one that is hard to get down."

Pro Stock has been the most wide-open category in the NHRA in 2013, with nine drivers clustered within 67 points of category leader (and Pomona winner) Vincent Nobile. Enders-Stevens, 16 points back, is Nobile's closest challenger so far. 2009 Pro Stock champion Edwards is 18 off the pace. Jason Line, sixth in the standings, is a four-time winner of the event.

Meanwhile, the two-wheeled set is eager to get its 2013 season under way, led by 2012 Pro Stock Motorcycle class champion Eddie Krawiec.

The New Jersey native has won the PSM category the past three years at Gainesville and is looking to get his campaign to win a fourth overall season championship off to a strong start. However, Krawiec is keeping his expectations in check because he will be racing with a new Harley-Davidson engine and a substantially revised chassis.

"We're excited, and looking forward to Gainesville," said Krawiec, who set the PSM national-record speed of 199.26 mph at the 2011 Gatornationals. "I know the target is on my back, and everybody's after me. They want my No. 1 plate. The hardest thing is to maintain it. When you're in the No. 1 spot, the only place to go is backwards. From two on up, you can improve. From one, the only way to go is down.

"We always ran well towards the end of the year so we always tried to start off where we left off," he added. "But this year is going to be a little bit different, coming into it with a brand-new package, only into it for about six days total of R&D. Our intentions at Gainesville are right now to show up with our two Harley-Davidsons and qualify. Anything from there on would be a bonus."

ESPN2 will broadcast qualifying highlights at 1:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Sunday, with eliminations set to be shown at 7 p.m. later the same day.