- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tony Schumacher has gone from the biggest NHRA winner of his generation to the ultimate runner-up.
The man known as "The Sarge" is winless the past nine times he made it to the final round in the Army dragster -- 0-for-7 last season and in the past two events this year.
It now is 17 months and counting for Schumacher, a shocking winless streak for the man who has won more NHRA Top Fuel events than any other driver in history.
However, if Schumacher just keeps doing what he's doing, that streak is bound to end soon.
At age 42, Schumacher is back on top of the Top Fuel standings, a place where he finished the season an NHRA record seven times during his remarkable career.
The last time was 2009, when he won his sixth consecutive championship. He's still a title contender and he knows it, but he needs to win again. It must seem like a long time ago, considering his 67 Top Fuel victories are more than any other driver ever to sit in a nitro-burning dragster.
The last win came in 2010 on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the NHRA stops this weekend in the fourth event of 2012. Schumacher has six victories at Vegas, more than any other driver. He also has qualified No. 1 eight times at LVMS.
"Anytime you race at a track where you've won multiple times, you feel good about going there," Schumacher said. "We just want to do what we've been doing to date -- qualify well and then go rounds on race day. Of course, my biggest wish is to see that fourth win light come on this time around."
The first three events have seen three winners in Top Fuel -- Spencer Massey, Antron Brown and Morgan Lucas.
Schumacher has lost to each of them in final rounds over the past two years -- four to Brown, one to Massey and one to Lucas. And, believe it or not, Schumacher is OK with it. Well, not OK, but he's not frustrated about consistently falling one round short.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I know what kind of team I have. They know how to win races and we will do that very thing this year. You have to understand that winning in Top Fuel is not an easy task at all. Just getting to finals is a tremendous feat in itself."
Two of the biggest problems for Schumacher are Massey and Brown -- his teammates at Don Schumacher Racing. Five of his nine final-round losses the past two years came against them.
Massey, the championship runner-up last season, is fourth in the 2012 standings, only 58 points behind Schumacher. Massey won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Brown, who beat Schumacher in the final at Phoenix last month, is third, only 18 points back. Brown won at Vegas one year ago.
The top spot in the Top Fuel standings has changed after each race this season.
Believe me, it's great. We know it's early, but it's nice to be the team being chased.
”-- Tony Schumacher on leading
the Top Fuel standings
"With all of the great teams in Top Fuel now, who knows how many different times this year we'll have a new [points] leader," Brown said. "It's an unbelievable battle at the moment. I don't see it changing the rest of the season."
The new player near the top of the standings is Lucas, who beat Schumacher in the final of the Gatornationals two weeks ago at Gainesville, Fla.
"The competition is as good as it's been in a long time," Lucas said. "You are starting to see a lot more cars on tour and more cars with the potential to win races. It makes it exciting, and I don't think there's going to be one person who's going to run away with it. It'll be a fight all the way to the end."
The biggest surprise so far is seeing Alan Johnson's two drivers at Al Anabi Racing go winless in the first three events. Johnson's team won the past two championships, with Larry Dixon in 2010 and Del Worsham last year. But Al Anabi Racing has two new drivers this season in Khalid alBalooshi and Shawn Langdon.
"I think we'll see more winners in Top Fuel this season than we've seen in the last few years," said Langdon, who is fifth in the standings. "It seemed like three or four cars were winning all of the races. I think that will expand quite a bit this year with a lot more cars capable of putting four strong runs together on race day."
For now, it's the old guy in the top five who leads the pack, the man who has 39 more Top Fuel victories than the other four guys combined.
"Believe me, it's great," Schumacher said about leading the standings. "We know it's early, but it's nice to be the team being chased. Mentally, it's definitely good for the guys. We're always striving for more, and that's exactly what we'll be looking to do when we get to Las Vegas."
Does that mean winning for the first time in 17 months?
"That's exactly what I mean," Schumacher said. "We've been to two consecutive final rounds but have not been able to close the deal. There's no question we've been real consistent so far this season, but we still have to clear that one last hurdle by getting our first win."
8dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz