It had been one year since Funny Car veteran Ron Capps last tasted champagne in the victory circle of an NHRA event and even he admits there were times when he felt it might not ever happen again.
But those thoughts were washed away by a cascade of the local product Sunday in Sonoma County's renowned wine country when the 46-year-old from San Luis Obispo successfully defended the title of the annual FRAM-Autolite NHRA Nationals with a thrilling win over Tim Wilkerson.
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also scored big wins at the event, the 13th of 22 on the 2011 schedule.
"You do start to wonder," Capps said. "Every race, I really started wondering, am I going to win again because it's so tough to do. It's not being cliché, it is tough. I was so sure every round something was going to go wrong because we had such a good car. You're the last thing that can make anything go wrong if something can go wrong.
"I struggled so much through some tough times and I started to doubt myself a little bit. But I've got great teammates who come pep you up, pat you on the butt, and tell you you're pretty good at what you do. Then you finally get a good car and you hope you can get back in the mode you started your career in. When you do, it's a neat feeling."
It was the 32nd victory of Capps' career and his first with crew chiefs Tim and Kim Richards, who joined the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger team eight races ago. Capps gave up a slight .005-second advantage at the starting line but quickly took control, zipping to a .02-second victory with a 4.145 at 303.57 mph to Wilkerson's 4.175 at 300.93 mph.
"It's the perfect time to bring in a guy like Tim," Capps said. "We're hitting our stride together and I'm so confident in everything the guy does. This won't be our only win together. There are going to be lots of them, I hope."
Another racer desperately looking for his first victory of the year, seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, was denied the win by his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Brown, who relegated Schumacher to his fourth runner-up result of the year with a .03-second trouncing.
Brown's Matco Tools dragster simply had too much power for Schumacher's U.S. Army rail, as he streaked to a 3.883 at 314.61 mph in a wire-to-wire job against Schumacher's 3.919 at 311.41 mph.
"Tony and that Army team, they've been on 'mean' lately," Brown said. "Denver, they had the car to beat. Spencer got around him because Tony smoked the tires. They came out here and have been on mean every round. We're like, 'Oh, here we go. This is going to be a teammate-to-teammate, mano y mano.'
"I'm his teammate, but you know deep down in his heart he wants to kick my butt. And I want to kick his butt. The Tree came down, we hit it, and it was a great drag race, an .88 to a .91. We stepped it up, the car stuck, and we snuck away with the win."
Schumacher took some solace in the fact he clinched a position in the Countdown to the Championship, as did fellow nitro drivers Brown, Del Worsham, Spencer Massey, Larry Dixon, and Mike Neff.
The Pro Stock final was a battle of heavyweights as Anderson faced fellow class champion Mike Edwards. The two veterans certainly didn't disappoint, staying door-handle-to-door-handle all the way down the strip with Anderson eking out a nine-inch victory, his third of the year and 68th of his illustrious career.
Edwards got the jump at the line, reacting to the green light in .031 seconds ahead of Anderson's .043-second launch, but Anderson's Summit Racing Pontiac GXP pulled even by the 330-foot timer and inched ahead from there.
"I'm just having a blast right now," Anderson said. "It's a lot of fun to race in this class. It's a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Anybody that qualifies can win the race. To come out on top at the end of the day is a great, great feeling. It's an incredible job that the crew has done when you can put it all together and win a race. I'm humbled.
"I didn't have a great day driving. I didn't let the clutch out very well all day; I was struggling. But the crew held me in the game. Somehow we found a way to win by .002 seconds in a great final round with Mike Edwards. Somebody had to win, somebody had to lose, and today was my day."
Anderson, Edwards, and Jason Line all earned spots in the playoffs this weekend.
Running a special Autolite design for this race, Tonglet pleased the event's title sponsor with his third victory of the season, catching and passing Michael Phillips just before halftrack to win by .007 seconds, or about 11 inches. Tonglet's 7.001 at 189.76 mph was just enough to beat Phillips' 7.016 at 192.63 mph.
"I grew up with Mike," Tonglet said. "He lives an hour away from us. It would've been a lot easier just to run the final an hour from home instead of coming 2,000 miles out here. But it's really fun to do it, and it's great to put on a show."
Points leader Karen Stoffer kept her No. 1 ranking despite losing in the second round on a red-light start. She and Eddie Krawiec clinched spots in the Countdown to the Championship this weekend.
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