Cory Mac hopes to finally win a championship

Cory McClenathan is more than a drag racer. He is a service mark. His nickname may be the most recognizable in the Top Fuel class, more familiar to NHRA POWERade fans than Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher or Scott Kalitta -- who have all accomplished something that has stubbornly eluded Cory since he debuted in the Top Fuel class in 1991.

Winning a Top Fuel championship.

It hasn't been for a lack of effort. McClenathan has developed into one of the more consistent drivers and marketable commodities in the NHRA ranks. He is fifth on the all-time list of national event Top Fuel winners with 28 victories and only Scott Kalitta has equaled McClenathan's record for consecutive national event wins with four.

But perhaps the stat that most symbolizes the near-miss aspects of Cory Mac's Top Fuel career is this one: He has finished second in the championship standings four times in his career.

That reality came to light once again this weekend when he advanced to the final round of the 18th O'Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway Park, only to lose to reigning champion Schumacher in the finale. It was the second consecutive race in which Cory and his Fram Airhog team, led by tuner Todd Smith, looked as if they might be the ones to beat, after a semifinal loss at the Mac Tools Gatornationals three weeks ago. It has now been almost a year since his operation owned by Mark and Andy Carrier has scored a national event win, dating to last year's Summit Racing Southern Nationals in Atlanta.

The Houston final was one of the season's most spectacular races, with McClenathan falling short to Schumacher by a fraction of a second, 4.505 seconds at 335.32 MPH to 4.551/327.74.

"We had a good, consistent car," said McClenathan. "That final was just like it was scripted -- one and two qualifiers meet in the final round. The Tony Schumacher, Alan Johnson team is just stout but I have to say that Todd Smith and Bob Bauer (clutch specialist) are pretty stout, too. This FRAM AirHog dragster ran good and I'm really proud of the whole team."

Despite the loss, McClenathan's team owner, Andy Carrier, was upbeat.

"It's great to get the first final round for FRAM and Honeywell since we joined them at the beginning of this year," Carrier said. "As to the race, that final round was a drag race. That's what this sport is all about. We are still working on being consistent but today shows we are well on our way to realizing our goal. Each race we go one round additional, so now we're really looking forward to the next race in Las Vegas."

With 19 races remaining on the 2005 schedule, McClenathan's runner-up finish on Sunday moved him into fourth place in the Top Fuel standings, just three positions short of the one that he's been tirelessly chasing for 15 years.

Cory Mac isn't one to give up easily.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.