In a photo provided to The Associated Press by the NHRA, Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher races to victory Sunday in the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tenn. Schumacher defeated Brandon Bernstein in the final round.
BRISTOL, Tenn. — His daughter may have been the No. 1 qualifier, but John Force found enough horsepower in his Ford Mustang on Sunday to steal the headlines.
Some might say that it was fitting that Force won the Funny Car division in the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals on Father’s Day. He said his win was preordained.
“Can you believe this old man just won it,” Force asked. “The good Lord just looked down and says, ‘I just need an old fool to win this thing to sell papers.’ ”
After Ashley Force Hood was eliminated in the semifinals, Force picked up the family banner, outlasted a faltering Tim Wilkerson in the finals and cruised into victory circle for the 130th time in his storied career. Force came in as the sixth qualifier, but put together a string of impressive runs in the final eliminations to make this Father’s Day a memorable one.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Ashley was here and I dedicated this race to my daughter Courtney. It was her birthday and she turned 22.”
With his fourth win of the season, Force retook the points lead from son-in-law Robert Hight, who bowed out to Del Worsham in the first round of eliminations. Force Hood won in the first round before falling to Wilkerson, who made it all the way to the finals before his dragster failed to make the full 1,000 feet under power.
After running up the stairs to the media center, the rejuvenated Force was doing his best to savor the moment.
“To get the win, it was really great for me because I ain’t quitting tomorrow and I’m not having a heart attack tomorrow,” Force said. “But there will be a day when I can’t come back or I won’t win a race.”
Tony Schumacher made his 100th career final-round appearance a memorable one by beating out Brandon Bernstein to lock up the victory in Top Fuel. Schumacher’s win was made even sweeter by points leader Larry Dixon’s shocking loss in the first round of final eliminations. Morgan Lucas opened the door for Schumacher to chew into Dixon’s sizable lead.
“When (Dixon) went out and got beat, a lot of people screw those moments up, but we got together and I said, ‘Let’s slow down and focus,’ ” Schumacher said. “This is it. This is a really good time to get after it.”
Schumacher’s U.S. Army team did just that, getting past Doug Herbert, Lucas and teammate Cory McClenathan before beating Bernstein in the finals.
Bernstein had been solid on the slick surface all weekend. That was apparent when he beat top qualifier Antron Brown in the semifinals. But in the finals, Bernstein stuck with Schumacher most of the way before his dragster belched fire in the homestretch as Schumacher surged to victory.
Though Schumacher was pleased to cut into Dixon’s lead, he was more concerned with getting his team in good form before the Countdown begins.
“Even if he finishes number one, they’re going to pull all the points away,” Schumacher said. “It happened to me last year. They just take them away and they’re gone. It takes a special kind of guy to forget about that.
“The stuff we’re learning now, and we’re learning a lot of stuff about parts and pieces, that will help us at the end of the year when we’re going to need it.”
For the father-son tandem of Roy and Allen Johnson, the feel-good story of the weekend ended in the semifinals.
For Allen, a hiccup against Rickie Jones ended his day in Pro Stock. Jones blew a motor near the end of the run, which gave him little chance of beating Mike Edwards in the final. Sure enough, Jones red-lighted, allowing Edwards to win the race and expand his points lead over the second-place Johnson.
Roy, meanwhile, saw his weekend end thanks to a red light in his Stock Eliminator semifinal.
Both men were disappointed, but said the happiness outweighed the disappointment.
“I’m kind of proud of myself even though I didn’t win,” Roy Johnson said. “Not many times at my age that you get to do this with your son. My whole family basically is here. All the old-timers that helped me be successful years ago are here. You can’t ask for much more.”
Allen Johnson said a small mistake cost him in his semifinal matchup with Jones.
“We just got a little overly aggressive and spun, shook the tires,” Johnson said. “It jumped out from under me. It’s just very frustrating.
“We had the best car here, but it’s a dream weekend for dad and myself.”
For Edwards, the dream season continued. Johnson knocked him off the pole Saturday, but a few adjustments put Edwards back at the head of the Pro Stock class.
“We really struggled, especially yesterday,” he said Sunday. “We were really bad when we left here last night, really scratching our heads. We made some wholesale changes this morning and we were low ET in every round this session.
“I don’t know what happened in the finals, but I was really fortunate to win that race.”