Friday, November 20, 2009
Schumacher vs. Johnson: It's no contest
Brad Keselowski is supposed to be the newest NASCAR super villain and all is right with the NASCAR world.
But what has Keselowski done? Won one race? Become the most avoided driver in NASCAR?
NASCAR doesn’t need a super villain. Jimmie Johnson needs a worthy adversary, a rival, a challenger.
After spending the weekend covering the National Hot Rod Assn. Auto Club Finals in Pomona, it is clear that a rivalry does exist there and it’s fueling the top fuel class.
Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon have a great rivalry brewing. Schumacher has won six straight top fuel championships. Dixon has finished second to Schumacher three times in that span. The latest showdown between the two came down to the semifinals of the last race of the year. Schumacher won by two points, the closest margin of victory in NHRA history.
“It was a classic example of a bases loaded, bottom of the ninth situation,” Schumacher said. “We needed to come up with the big hit and that’s exactly what happened.”
Add to the rivalry that Schumacher’s crew chief, Alan Johnson, left to lead Dixon’s team, and the intrigue increases.
Schumacher has dominated the top fuel class the same way Johnson has dominated the Sprint Cup Series. The only difference is Schumacher has done it longer and under more adverse circumstances. One year Schumacher had to win out in the season finale and set a national record to win the top fuel championship. He did both.
Johnson has not had to perform under such conditions. It’s no fault of his. The rest of the Sprint Cup Series field is just not good enough to challenge Johnson. This year, like most years in the Chase, is over before the season finale in Miami because Johnson built up such a huge lead.
He had one bad Chase race, won four Chase races, and no one else even came close to matching him. His one bad race came at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago, and Johnson is trying to sell that race as a reason for not celebrating too soon.
“Luckily Texas is still really close in my mind and something that I think about,” Johnson said. “And because of what happened in Texas I’m just not letting my guard down. I’m not letting my mind wander and think about the ‘what ifs.’ I'm trying to keep the same focus and mindset that I had in Phoenix. Things obviously went really well there for us.”
Johnson needs to finish 25th or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the Cup championship. Even though he’s not admitting it, he should have no problem being in the top 25 at Miami.
“I am just dying to get in the race car,” Johnson said. “I’m pouring through my notes. I’ve driven hundreds of laps in my mind before I go to bed each night, worrying about qualifying trim, worrying about race trim, all the things I can do to prepare myself on my side. I’m there.”
Schumacher has won his championships with Dixon close on his heels. He’s done it with a different crew chief, having to break records and making clutch runs in the most pressure-packed situations.
“Of all of the championships, this one ranks pretty far up there,” Schumacher said. “Nobody expected us to win a race no less a title. Boy, did we prove them all wrong. I'm already looking forward to the 2010 season.”
The interesting things is, the NHRA could manufacture an element of the Schumacher-Dixon rivalry, but either haven’t noticed it or choose not to notice it.
Schumacher is sponsored by the U.S. Army. Dixon’s team is funded by a sheik from Qatar. There has never been a better time for a natural rivalry between the United States and an Arab nation. But the NHRA isn’t going there. It doesn’t have to. Schumacher and Dixon have a great rivalry without any added manufacturing.
Keselowski is not the savior NASCAR is looking for. He’s not good enough to challenge Johnson. But that’s not a knock on Keselowski. No one in the Sprint Cup Series is good enough to challenge Johnson.
Photo: At top, Tony Schumacher has won six straight NHRA top fuel championships. (NHRA)
At bottom, Jimmie Johnson celebrates winning the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 presented by Pennzoil at Phoenix International Raceway, his seventh victory of 2009. Johnson is on the verge of winning his fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. (Photo Credit: Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)