No A.J., no problem for Schumacher

Hard to believe a five-time defending champion team could be written off for dead coming into 2009. But with all-world tuner Alan Johnson off to start his own program, the prevailing thought was that Tony Schumacher and the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster would fall into rebuilding mode, far from championship-caliber.

After last weekend, that's far from the truth.

"The Sarge" turned in a silence-the-doubters effort in Houston, winning the O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals. But career Wally No. 57 was almost an afterthought as Schumacher made the statement run of the year in Top Fuel in the semifinals, beating his former mates in Round 1 of what could be a season-long title fight.

For the first time, the 39-year-old and his new Army team faced off against Johnson and his old Army team, now running under the Al-Anabi Racing banner and driver Larry Dixon. This was the pairing everyone longed for, though most figured a predetermined outcome: Johnson and his tuning wizardry (channeled through crew chief Jason McCulloch, his assistant for the past six years), not to mention a two-time champion driver in Dixon and the championship-acclimated crew, would be too powerful for Schumacher, new tuner Mike Green and the new Army hands.

"Everybody assumes A.J.'s the only guy out there who can do this, and if you got him you're just locked up," Schumacher said.

Not Sunday. In front of grandstands where fans were on their feet before the dragsters fired, Schumacher -- relishing a new underdog role -- ousted Dixon on a holeshot, 3.895 seconds at 310.91 mph to 3.889/307.02.

Schumacher's .082 reaction time to Dixon's .104 was the difference, and there couldn't have been a sweeter way to win.

"It was more special because I didn't go in deep [staged], I didn't do anything to make the numbers look better. I just dug and had a good light," Schumacher said. "It was very special. You're never going to have a second chance at the first time you race, and the fans waited to see this.

"Well, I showed you that there's a shot. For him to win a championship he's going to have to beat us. For us to win a championship, we're going to have to beat him. I don't want anyone to ever think anyone is unbeatable."

Schumacher was as unbeatable in 2008 as a racer can be, tallying a record-tying 15 event wins and 76 round wins in winning the fifth consecutive (sixth overall) championship. He was named driver of the year by a national media panel, only the third drag racer to do so.

Yet in the midst of it all, at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Johnson announced his departure at year's end to align with Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani and his Qatar-based team. Schumacher, driving for his father, Don Schumacher, and practically synonymous with U.S. Army Racing, wasn't going to follow Johnson.

Schumacher did, however, briefly consider moving to Funny Car and a new racing challenge, with DSR going so far as to create renderings of the Army colors on a Funny Car. In the end he stayed in Top Fuel with a new team built around him, led by crew chief Mike Green, who in 2008 tuned Cory McClenathan's third-place dragster.

"People said to me, 'You sure you want to go do that? They won 15 races last year; how you going to top that?'" Green said. "I said, 'We're not going to top that, but it's the best opportunity for a crew chief to go win races and go win a championship.

"It's one of the best opportunities I've had, just because Tony is the driver. He's at the top of his game now."

It's inaccurate to say the new-generation Army team started from scratch this season, with Green's expertise and his role last year on a DSR teammate car to Schumacher's. Green knows Johnson's style as well as anyone, most recently as teammates but also in working with McClenathan in the late 1990s when their Joe Gibbs-owned dragster finished second two years in a row to Gary Scelzi's Johnson-tuned car.

"I'd be stupid to say that I wouldn't emulate some of the things that Alan did as far as setup of the car," Green said. "It's just a combination of what I've done and what he's done, the best stuff on the car for Tony to drive."

Schumacher put on a display of driving throughout eliminations at Houston. In the second round he pedaled and got off the line first to beat Morgan Lucas (both clocked 4.434/230.37), then won by holeshot over Dixon and McClenathan in the all-DSR (and somewhat anticlimactic) final.

That goes against the grain of recent years when Schumacher wasn't viewed as a strong driver in his own right but as more of a chauffeur for a rocket ship, a portrayal even he wouldn't completely argue with.

"You've got a car that's really good; you don't want to give it up. You don't want to get beat by a red light. You become a little more cautious. It doesn't mean you're doing a bad job, it means you're playing it smart," Schumacher said. "I won five championships in a row playing it smart, knowing what we had, knowing how not to get beat. The only thing you can do as a driver is screw it up.

"Now, while we're trying to figure out how to catch an extra hundredth or two, I'm going to have to do my job. You win races by winning one pedaling contest per weekend, a lot more than being stellar on a tree. [On Sunday] I did what I was supposed to do. I was a machine; I did the exact same thing every time. That allows the crew and the crew chief to look at the data and go, 'Here's where we're at,' and make adjustments for it."

Not only did Schumacher return to the winner's circle, but his fans did, too. The driver said he felt a backlash late last year as even his most ardent supporters said, in Tony's words, "Dude, you've got to lose." Indeed, Schumacher's last pass of 2008 was a rare loser in the second round of the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., and the man who took him down that day, Rod Fuller, got booming ovations from the grandstands.

Just five months later, Schumacher and the Army car is seen as an underdog against the maroon and gold Al-Anabi Racing machine, which runs devoid of decals except the team name on the sidewalls and "Qatar" on the wing. It's not exactly a mom-and-pop operation against the Sheikh's endless riches (multicar juggernaut DSR doesn't lack for dollars), nor is it America versus the old Soviet Union (Qatar is a U.S. ally), but it is a rivalry with undercurrents new to the NHRA.

"You can buy Budweiser [Brandon Bernstein's sponsor], you can buy Matco tools [Antron Brown's], you can't buy Qatar. People just don't get it," said Schumacher, who is second in points behind Brown and 18 ahead of fourth-place Dixon. "This is an American sport, as American as apple pie and baseball -- drag racing. When the Army car goes up against them, whether I win or lose, you know who they're pulling for. Larry Dixon has fans, A.J. has fans, but it's a hard one to stomach -- I don't care if they're allies or not. This is the United States Army they're pulling for.

"My career just went from winning all these races and having people sick of watching me win to going to the next year and having people pull for me again, just because the whole team left. It created this awesome battle."

The battle is just beginning, and score the first round for Schumacher.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.