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Schumacher’s streak could be tougher to extend than build

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Ron Capps remembers seeing his Don Schumacher Racing teammates on the starting line last year before the Gatornationals finale.

Capps welcomed the extra support, but he couldn’t figure out why they were on hand for a non-championship event. Capps edged Tim Wilkerson in that race and ended up celebrating with fellow DSR drivers Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr.

“Afterwards, they’re like, ‘You kept the streak alive!’” Capps recalled Saturday. “That’s when it hit me. I’m like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’”

DRS won four more times to close out 2020 – Hagan took the championship during the season finale in Las Vegas – and now the heavyweight team has an NHRA-record 14-race winning streak in the Funny Car class entering the season-opening Gatornationals.

Extending it might be more daunting than building it.

The team entered the opener at half strength after Schumacher shuttered two of his four cars because of funding issues, parting ways with Johnson and 2012 champion Beckman.

“Very weird,” Capps said. “It’s tough. Those guys are teammates and longtime friends. Two guys you hate to race on top of that. It’s just weird.”

The 54-year-old Beckman returned to work at Schindler Elevator last November, rejoining the company after more than two decades away. The Gatornationals is the first NHRA national event he’s missed since 2006.

The 52-year-old Johnson is selling candles on Etsy and building handcrafted furniture while trying to keep afloat his main business of selling racing parts and supplies to teams with budgets tighter than they’ve been in years.

Capps and Hagan were left to handle the streak.

“I’m very confident that we can go out here and keep the streak alive for however long it will go,” Hagan said. “And if it doesn’t, then so what? It’s not the end of the world.”

There are some who already questioned the validity of DSR’s record run since most of it came without fellow powerhouse John Force Racing. Owner/driver John Force, a 16-time Funny Car champion, made a financial decision to take 2020 off. He parked himself and three-time champ Robert Hight because of the uncertainty of racing amid a pandemic.

Force is back now, and his first challenge is loosening Schumacher’s stranglehold on the division. Capps was the top qualifier in Friday and Saturday sessions.

“The reality is (Force) had an opportunity to show up just like anybody else,” Hagan said. “It’s just one of those things where he didn’t for whatever reason.

“I heard people saying things like, “It don’t count if Force wasn’t there.’ I think that’s so disrespectful to all the cars that showed up.”

Hagan called last year the “most challenging championship” he’s even been involved in because of all the unknowns. The schedule was in flux, with some states allowing races and others refusing to host events.

“We’d book plane tickets and then you’d be canceling them and redoing them,” Hagan said. “Mentally, you were just all over the place trying to figure out what was next and where it was going and how we’re going to do it. It was just draining.”

Hagan, Johnson, Beckman and Capps gave DSR a 1-2-3-4 finish in the championship. The same four drivers combined to win 10 consecutive races for DSR in 2017.

Capps’ victory in Gainesville last September tied that mark. Johnson’s victory the following week in Illinois broke it.

Capps shies away from the streak now, partly because two of his teammates who helped build it are no longer around and partly because he doesn’t want to rile up any competitors, most notably those at Force.

“You don’t (pee) on Superman’s cape,” said Capps, who quickly realized he botched the lyrics to the Jim Croce classic “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”

Force was around for the first five events of the streak, which started in Texas in October 2019. It includes the final three races that season, the first two last year before the coronavirus shut down the series and the nine after a five-month hiatus.

Hagan notched five wins during the streak. Beckman (4), Johnson (3) and Capps (2) also won multiple times. But Beckman and Johnson lost their funding at the end of last season, three years after longtime benefactor Terry Chandler died from brain cancer. Chandler sponsored both cars to help raise money for the Make-A-Wish and the Infinite Hero foundations.

“A streak is a streak,” Capps said. “It’s not a joke: the toughest cars I always talk about beating are my teammates. But those Force cars, they change the dynamic that’s for sure.”

___

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer

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