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Tony Schumacher hopes to get off to a fast start at NHRA Winternationals

Tony Schumacher, John Force
Top fuel driver Tony Schumacher gets a smooch from funny car driver John Force during the awards ceremony at the NHRA Mile High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway on July 24, 2016.
(Michael Reaves / Denver Post via Getty Images)

Top fuel drag racer Tony Schumacher had a solid 2016 season by any reasonable metric. He qualified for the Countdown to the Championship — the National Hot Rod Assn.’s playoffs exclusive to its 10 best drivers — and won two events, including the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Problem is, a solid season for most drivers is nothing short of a failure for Schumacher. He has eight top fuel titles, by far the most in the history of that category, and his eighth-place finish last year was his worst since 2001. It was just the third time since 2004 that he didn’t win a championship or come in second place.

Looking forward to a fresh start at Friday’s NHRA season opener, the Circle K Winternationals at Pomona, Schumacher  said he won’t forget about the disappointment he felt in 2016.

“I’ve learned one thing: 82 trophies sitting on the shelf, and what makes them so special are the hundreds and hundreds of losses,” Schumacher said. “For all those kids out there that think they should just buy a trophy and get over it, that ain’t how life works. What makes winning a trophy great is the sacrifice and the difficulties of not winning some others.”

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In the mid-2000s, Schumacher was so dominant that he had few rivals. But he now finds himself in a far more competitive top fuel field, led by back-to-back champion Antron Brown, also a member of Don Schumacher Racing.

“Antron is the kind of guy where me and him will battle until the end of eternity with absolute respect for each other. We get better when we drive against each other because we understand the greatness of the other person,” Schumacher said.

Antron Brown celebrates a victory in Mohnton, Pa., on Oct. 2.
Antron Brown celebrates a victory in Mohnton, Pa., on Oct. 2.
(Marc Gewertz / NHRA)

Brown won seven times last season, but got off to a bit of a slow start and didn’t emerge victorious at an event until April. He’s hoping to put less pressure on his team with a better opener. “We always focus on the winning the first race, so the main thing is we’ve got to go out there and push and try to make more history,” he said.

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Typically, a strong showing at Winternationals indicates good things to come. In February 2016, the top fuel, funny car, and pro stock winners at Pomona all finished the season in the top three of their classes, with Ron Capps taking his first funny car title. He’s still adjusting to knowing he has a target on his back in the same way that Schumacher and Brown do.

“I’d be interested to see how I feel after Pomona,” Capps said. “The first time I hear public address announcer Alan Reinhart introduce me as ‘your defending funny car world champion’ … that is going to be neat.”

Capps will likely be challenged for the entire year by a tightly contested group that includes the legendary John Force, Jack Beckman, Del Worsham, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Courtney Force.

In pro stock, defending NHRA champion Jason Line will have to hold off Greg Anderson, who finished three points back in the Countdown to the Championship and won last year at Winternationals.

Meanwhile, Brown, who has three championships overall, is the only top fuel driver currently with an outside shot at someday reaching Schumacher’s stratosphere. He’ll use that as motivation as he faces Schumacher and other respected drivers including 2016 runner-up Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence, and Shawn Langdon.

“We aren’t just satisfied going out there and racing,” Brown said. “Once we get to that point that we are just out there to be out there, that is the time to step aside and give somebody else their shot to do what they want to do and live their dream.”

Brown and Schumacher have never won at Winternationals, so this weekend offers them an opportunity to add to their respective legacies.

“You want to beat Antron? You better prepare, because that dude goes home and works out, practices and becomes a machine. I helped train him that way, I helped prepare him to beat me, and now I’ve got to catch back up and do the same thing to him,” Schumacher said.

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Circle K NHRA Winternationals

Where: Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

When: Friday through Sunday.

Defending winners: Steve Torrence, top fuel; Ron Capps, funny car; Greg Anderson, pro stock.

Schedule: Mello Yello Series qualifying rounds begin at 12:30 and 3:30 on Friday and Saturday. Elimination rounds begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday (pre-race ceremonies at 10 a.m.).

Live TV Coverage: Saturday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, 10-11 a.m.); Sunday, final eliminations (Fox, 1-4 p.m.).

sports@latimes.com

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