Date published: June 24, 2011
Journal code: NDRG
The leader: Del Worsham
The early successes of Worsham in his return to Top Fuel have been a bit of a surprise, but, perhaps, it shouldn't be. The prevailing thought was that taking a driver and crew out of their natural element - Funny Car - and pairing them with a rookie crew chief - Brian Husen - might take some time to develop. However, Worsham, who never drove a race car before earning his Funny Car license at age 20, is a naturally gifted driver, and Husen is under the tutelage of all-time great tuner Alan Johnson, and the crew hasn't missed a beat.
Worsham's season began with three wins and two semifinal finishes, and his Gainesville win made him the 15th driver in NHRA history to earn wins in both nitro categories. His wins in Charlotte and Houston featured the first of two all-Al-Anabi finals in which he raced teammate Larry Dixon. Worsham's last three events have been marred by two close losses to Shawn Langdon and Spencer Massey and one tire-smoking effort in Topeka. Worsham enjoys a 64-point cushion over second place at the halfway point of the regular season.
2. Spencer Massey
If Del Worsham has been the best driver of the first half of the regular season, Massey is the hottest driver when it drew to a close. The performance of the Todd Okuhara- and Phil Shuler-tuned Fram dragster has been more consistent than its colors, which have been orange, yellow, and green at different times this season. Massey has yet to lose in the first round and has only qualified lower than sixth on one occasion. He scored back-to-back wins in Topeka and Englishtown, and he showed why he was chosen for the Fram ride when he won the latter on a final-round holeshot against Worsham.
3. Larry Dixon
The quiet first eight races of Dixon's 2011 season are reminiscent of 2009, his first season with Al-Anabi Racing. In 2009, he had 10 round-wins after eight races with one win; this year, he has 12 round-wins with no event wins so far. There were some events at which Dixon had the best car but fell victim to poor racing luck, like when he blew a big lead against Tony Schumacher in the semifinals in Gainesville due to a broken input shaft. Crew chief Jason McCulloch has been more involved with the tune-up of Dixon's dragster with Alan Johnson focusing more on the Del Worshamdriven dragster. Dixon is the only driver to qualify in the top four at every event, and he set the national e.t. record at the season opener in Pomona.
4. Tony Schumacher
Although Schumacher's U.S. Army dragster is the only Don Schumacher Racing entry that hasn't won an event in Top Fuel yet this season, he has tallied 14 round-wins, three No. 1 qualifying positions, and hasn't fallen victim in the early rounds. Big speeds have been his calling card so far in 2011. "The Sarge" set top speed at six of the eight events, including running a national record 327 mph in Pomona. Schumacher lost close contests in his final-round appearances in Gainesville and Atlanta to Del Worsham and Antron Brown, respectively.
5. Antron Brown
Brown's fifth-place standing divides the uppertier title contenders from those hoping to break in. The five combined DSR and Al-Anabi dragsters have dominated the early season, and Brown's Matco Tools team has gotten its licks in along the way. Brown scored big wins in Las Vegas and Atlanta, and in each instance, crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald threw out the old run logs and relied on new ideas to improve their performance during eliminations. Brown has pulled his weight in the cockpit, leaving first on his opponents during 16 of 19 runs.
6. Doug Kalitta
There isn't anything flashy about Kalitta's scorecard after eight races. He is far from fifth but well ahead of seventh in points after an early season full of constant, steady production. He has typically qualified in the middle of the pack and has won one or two rounds at every stop except Gainesville. The Kalitta Air team is working on closing the gap on the Al-Anabi and DSR cars without sacrificing consistency.
7. Brandon Bernstein
Bernstein has qualified in the top half of every field this season, so it's confounding that the Copart driver has racked up six first-round losses. In fairness, his team has done well with its pair of wins in the opening round. Bernstein advanced to the final round in Las Vegas and reached the semi's in Englishtown. Changes to the combination that crew chiefs Todd Smith and Donnie Bender initiated over the winter have taken longer to adapt to than they would have liked, but they appear to be on the right track after eight races and a handful of test days.
8. Morgan Lucas
In terms of a 1,000-foot run, Lucas' first eight races have been like dropping a cylinder after a sensational 60-foot time. He couldn't have begun the season on a higher note when he won the Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals and raced teammate Shawn Langdon in the final. However, he only has two round-wins since then, a holeshot win in a pedalfest against Terry McMillen in Houston and a race against Langdon in Englishtown. Lucas hasn't qualified in the top half all year and has burned through all four test days, but his improved performance at the last event gives him indication of better outings in the near future.
9. Shawn Langdon
Though he's 10 points behind his teammate, Langdon has been a steadier threat. His points total took a considerable blow in Houston when a qualifying run that was quick enough to put him in the field was thrown out in accordance with the NHRA oildown policy. Langdon has qualified in the top half more times than not, and tuner John Stewart has been able to complete successful Hail Mary runs, such as the 3.85 they used to upset Del Worsham in the first round in Atlanta.
10. Terry McMillen
McMillen and the Amalie Oil/UNOH team has improved from their 2010 full season debut. McMillen upset Larry Dixon at the season opener and followed a string of four first-round losses with a career outing in Atlanta. From the No. 14 qualifying position, McMillen scored two round-wins en route to a semifinal finish in Atlanta that placed him in the top 10. McMillen scored another round-win in Topeka and will need more such efforts to distance him from close opposition outside the top 10 or move up in the standings.
In the mix: Bob Vandergriff Jr. and Dave Grubnic are the only two touring drivers not currently in the top 10 who have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. Vandergriff is only 10 points out of the top 10. Despite a slow start that included a DNQ in Gainesville, Vandergriff's C&J Energy Services team broke its long eliminations drought with a round-win in Atlanta and followed that with a final-round appearance in Topeka. Grubnic, meanwhile, scored his only two round-wins in Las Vegas and Houston, but his team knows the drill. His Connie Kalittaowned and -tuned dragster snuck into the playoffs last year with a season-best effort in Brainerd.