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Thursday, May 17, 2012
Expect the unexpected at Topeka

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Check out several little NHRA oddities in 2012:

• Tony Schumacher, the only Top Fuel driver ranked in the top five who hasn't won a race this season, is the man who leads the standings.

• Matt Hagan, the 2011 Funny Car champion, not only hasn't won a race this year, he doesn't even rank in the top 10 after seven events. And he garnered far more attention for a viral video of his car exploding last month at Charlotte than he did for winning the title.

• Al-Anabi Racing, the Top Fuel team that won the past two NHRA championships, hasn't even made it to a final round in 2012 with its two dragsters.

Steve Torrence
Steve Torrence jumped for joy after beating seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel final May 6 at Atlanta Dragway.

• Steve Torrence, a man with a one-dragster family operation, won for the first time in Top Fuel, proving it's still possible to beat the big-money, multicar teams in the nitro classes.

• One week after winning in Houston, Funny Car driver Mike Neff failed to qualify in Atlanta.

• After failing to qualify in Las Vegas, veteran Funny Car driver Ron Capps changed cars, teams and crew chief before winning one month later in Atlanta.

If you foresaw all those things coming to pass this season, have yourself registered as a psychic.

Almost every event this year has produced a few things that made you scratch your head and say, "Really?"

This weekend the NHRA teams are in Topeka, Kan., where guys like Torrence and Capps hope to keep surprising people.

"It was a confidence booster for me and for the team," Capps said of his win at Atlanta. "You can go all the way to the final round, but if you lose then it's just an OK day. When you win, it's a great day. It's about getting to the winner's circle. You have to close the deal."

One month ago, Don Schumacher Racing made a major move, swapping crews and cars between Capps and teammate Jack Beckman. Veteran Rahn Tobler replaced Tim Richards as Capps' crew chief.

Capps has been fast at every event since the change, and he has a strong history at Topeka. The three-time championship runner-up has three career wins at the Kansas track.

He also has been a thorn in the side of rival John Force Racing the past two events. Capps beat Robert Hight in the semifinals at Houston, stopping Hight's four-race winning streak. But JFR still was 6-0 this season before Capps defeated Hight in the final at Atlanta.

"It showed that we could challenge them," Capps said. "We believe we'll be in the championship hunt until the last race."

Torrence won't predict he'll make a championship run, but he is the surprise of the season with his success in Top Fuel. Everyone could see he was on the verge of something big.

The 29-year-old Kilgore, Texas, native reached the semifinals in two of the previous three events before stopping Schumacher in the final at Atlanta with a 3.893-second elapsed time at 320.66 mph.

You can go all the way to the final round, but if you lose then it's just an OK day. When you win, it's a great day. It's about getting to the winner's circle. You have to close the deal.

-- Ron Capps

"Beating Tony in the finals was pretty special," Torrence said. "I've looked up to that man for quite some time. He sets the bar for what a driver should be and do, in the car and the way he conducts himself at the tracks."

Torrence, the 2005 Top Alcohol Dragster champion, made some major changes a year ago that have paid off.

Torrence formed his own Top Fuel team after leaving Dexter Tuttle's operation last May. Torrence's best decision was hiring veteran crew chief Richard Hogan to tune the car.

"Our goal is to field a competitive race car," Torrence said. "It would be awesome if we could win a race or two more and get established as a good team. We want to keep going. If anything, it's made us hungry for another win."

It's a feel-good moment for Torrence, but Hagan would take any feel-good news at this point, as would the Al-Anabi duo of Shawn Langdon and rookie Khalid alBalooshi.

"It's time for the Al-Anabi team to turn it around," Langdon said. "Both cars have struggled a little bit. Hopefully, we can hit our stride in these summer months."

Langdon has lost in the first round in three of the past four events and alBalooshi has yet to make it past the first round.

"I don't think there's any reason to hit the panic button," Langdon said. "We can run with them, but we just need to do it consistently and do it on Sunday."

Hagan, who is 12th in the Funny Car standings, knows the feeling. He has yet to make it out of the second round this season, having lost four times in the first round and failing to qualify after his car exploded in Charlotte.

"Our first step is getting more speed so we can qualify better, and that will help us win rounds," Hagan said. "We're ready to turn the corner. We've been taking baby steps and making some improvement, but we need to make a pretty big move soon."

Considering how the first seven races have gone, expect the unexpected at Topeka. Some good teams have struggled and some struggling teams have turned things around and won.