Schumacher's historic season earns Top Fuel ace coveted trophy

To all the NASCAR fans, I have a confession to make: I voted for the NHRA guy for Driver of the Year.

A confession, but no apology.

In one of the closest votes in the 42-year history of the award, Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher edged Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards to win the prestigious honor.

I was one of the six journalists who selected Schumacher. It gave Schumacher one more vote than Johnson and Edwards, who received five votes each.

So Schumacher beat the guy who won his third consecutive Sprint Cup title, a feat that hadn't been accomplished in 30 years.

Johnson became only the second driver to win three consecutive Cup crowns, joining legendary racer Cale Yarborough.

But Schumacher won his fifth consecutive NHRA crown, including a Top Fuel record of 15 victories along the way in the U.S. Army dragster.

Nevertheless, NASCAR Nation (especially Johnson fans) might take offense at the decision of the panel, an 18-person selection committee of motorsports journalists.

Many people involved in racing will be surprised at the outcome. Schumacher is not one of them.

"It didn't surprise me because I think we had as great a year as anyone ever has experienced in the history of motorsports," Schumacher said.

"But I do understand how big NASCAR is. Jimmie and Carl also had a great year, but we were as close to perfect as a race team can be."

Schumacher won 10 of the last 12 NHRA events, including seven consecutive races from July through mid-September.

He also passed Joe Amato for the most Top Fuel victories in history. Schumacher now has a record six Top Fuel championships and 56 wins, including 45 in the past five seasons.

"Tony had the kind of dominant year that I think defines a driver and a sport," said Charlotte Observer writer David Poole, who voted for Schumacher. "He won at an historic level.

"And one thing people forget: By winning 15 events, he won 60 rounds of racing. That's 60 times he lined up head-to-head, took the other guy's best shot and beat him. It's a staggering statistical achievement that I found impossible to ignore."

Other voters beg to differ, including Nate Ryan of USA Today. His vote went to Johnson for equaling Yarborough's record.

"That's what decided it for me," Ryan said. "I appreciate what Tony accomplished and I have great respect for the NHRA guys.

"But Johnson did something that had only been done once in the 60-year history of NASCAR. And he did it at a time when competition has never been higher."

It wasn't Schumacher who kept Johnson from winning Driver of the Year. It was Edwards. The two Cup stars split the vote among the panelists who went with a NASCAR driver.

"What Carl did in two series [runner-up in Cup and Nationwide while winning the last race in both] swayed me quite a bit," said Jim Pedley of the Kansas City Star. "He raced hard all the way to the end and he raced all out. Basically, he raced his guts out."

My distinguished ESPN.com colleague Ed Hinton also was one of the Edwards voters.

"I go back to the spirit of this award when it was started," Hinton said. "It was about the guy who generated the most emotion and the most excitement all year.

"Carl did it wire to wire. He won at the start, he won in the summer and he won in the end. It was only one tiny, split-second mistake at Talladega [a wreck in the Chase event] that really cost him. I think he gave the fans the most entertainment all year."

But why did Pedley and Hinton vote for Edwards over Schumacher?

"If you look back, I don't think dominance is that rare a thing in drag racing," Hinton said. "I think it's harder to dominate in some other series."

"I thought long and hard about it," Pedley said. "I pondered it and pondered it. In the end, the reason I didn't vote for Tony is I felt the competition level was down in Top Fuel. Tony really only had to beat about five other quality dragsters."

The dragster count was down at many NHRA events in 2008, but Schumacher disagrees with those who feel the competition level was down.

"If you look at the tape of our 15 wins, I bet you can see the other car [at the finish line] in almost all of them," Schumacher said. "I won most of my races by a couple of feet or maybe half a car length at most.

"In past years, we were winning by a tenth of a second. This year we won by hundredths of a second. That shows how tough it was."

Some will argue that Schumacher's success wouldn't have happened without the guidance of crew chief Alan Johnson, whom many NHRA followers view as the top tuner in the sport.

But the same could be said of Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus.

Alan Johnson is moving on next year to run his own two-car operation. But Schumacher is proud of what they accomplished this season.

"Alan and I knew we were part of something special, something that may never happen again," Schumacher said. "So we kept winning after we clinched the title. We won every possible record we could win. It was just an amazing year."

Barry Schmoyer, president of the Driver of the Year Award Foundation, agrees, but he didn't see the vote going Schumacher's way.

"Honestly, I was surprised," said Schmoyer, who does not vote. "I truly thought it would come down to Johnson and Edwards.

Tony had the kind of dominant year that I think defines a driver and a sport. He won at an historic level.

-- David Poole

"But I really appreciate the way our voters go about this. They don't just look at the 400-pound gorilla out there, which is NASCAR. They look at every series."

Edwards' nine Cup victories were the most in the series this season, but Ryan didn't think Edwards could make up for the historic seasons of Johnson and Schumacher.

"Frankly, I was surprised at how many votes Carl received," Ryan said. "I thought it would come down to just Schumacher and Johnson."

You probably noticed the three drivers above account for only 16 of the 18 votes. One panelist selected Kyle Busch for his 21 wins across the three NASCAR series, and one chose Tony Stewart for his philanthropic efforts and his classy exit from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve Ballard of the Indianapolis Star voted for Schumacher because he saw the NASCAR guys as a toss-up.

"You could make a case for any of three guys in Cup -- Johnson, Edwards or Kyle Busch," Ballard said. "But Tony was so incredible in the NHRA that he stands out. It was arguably the most dominant performance in NHRA history."

A great point, but it's not the biggest reason I voted for Schumacher. I'll let Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press tell you about it. His reasoning is similar to mine.

It's about courage in the face of adversity.

"It's what Tony had to overcome," Brudenell said. "What swayed me was the way he dominated in one of the most difficult times in NHRA history."

Brudenell is referring to the death of Funny Car racer Scott Kalitta, who was killed in a crash at Englishtown, N.J., in June.

It came 15 months after Eric Medlen lost his life in a Funny Car accident at Gainesville, Fla., and nine months after legendary Funny Car racer John Force barely escaped death in a crash at Ennis, Texas.

The NHRA took swift action after Kalitta's death, shortening the distance of a pass from the traditional quarter-mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet.

"After Scott's death, there was so much uncertainty surrounding the sport," Brudenell said. "It had a huge impact on so many drivers. And Tony has been through a couple of big crashes himself, knowing he was flirting with death every time he got in the car.

"But Tony managed to keep his focus through the sadness of Scott's loss. It was a gutsy and determined effort. That's the type of guy Tony is. He is strong-willed, and he has a big heart."

Now he has a Driver of the Year trophy, something only two other drag racers (Force and Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson) can claim.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.