CHICAGO NATIVE STAYS FOCUSED ON TOP FUEL TITLE CHASE

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It wasn't long after Tony "The Sarge" Schumacher captured the O'Reilly Fall Nationals in Dallas last Sunday that his cell phone began ringing in earnest.

With a hometown race looming here this weekend - the CARQUEST Auto Parts Nationals at Route 66 Raceway - the driver of the United States Army Top Fuel dragster suddenly became a marked man.

"You can't imagine," the Chicago native said. "Between winning races and being a serious contender to win the (Top Fuel) world championship, everyone wants to come out to the race this weekend."

Of course, Schumacher is not complaining. After all, success does breed team popularity.

"This is great for the entire team," he added. "I'd rather have it this way than having to go out and beg people to watch us. But, if you let it, all of that attention can be distracting as well. We have to keep reminding ourselves that there's still plenty of work to do."

The work Schumacher references is connected to the continued pursuit of the 2004 NHRA Top Fuel world title. Presently, he leads second-place Doug Kalitta by 217 points with but four races remaining on the schedule, including the Joliet stop.

"We can't rest for a minute," he said. "We have to stay focused 100 percent of the time. The championship race is not over until the NHRA says it's over. Until then, there are races to be won and points to total."

Schumacher has been on top of the standings for 17 of the opening 19 weeks. He'd like nothing better than to leave his home track still firmly attached to that perch.

"We definitely need to widen the gap even more," said the 1999 Top Fuel world champ. "Winning again at Route 66 Raceway (he captured the spring race last year) would be real special for a lot of reasons."

While the Top Fuel world championship remains the primary objective for Schumacher and his U.S. Army team, setting the record for the most wins in a season in Top Fuel is not far behind.

"We have eight so far and all we need are two more over these final four races," said Schumacher. "It will be tough, no doubt about it, but I believe we have just as good a shot to win those races as anyone else."

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