Antron Brown’s defense of his NHRA Top Fuel world championship began with the letters DNQ scribbled next to his name, and a Sunday spent as a reluctant spectator.
Brown “Did Not Qualify” for the 16-car field during last weekend’s Carlyle Tools Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., Round 1 of the six-race Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
That playoff pratfall dropped Brown from sixth to ninth among the 10 drivers eligible to win this year’s Top Fuel championship, 124 points behind Don Schumacher Racing teammate and points leader Spencer Massey of Fort Worth.
“Trust me, it caught all of us by surprise but it can happen,” said Brown, who had been working on a streak that had seen him qualify for 110 consecutive races dating to November 2008. “We always knew this sport was humbling. I don’t think it was embarrassing. Our deal would be different if we were out there goofing off.
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“All these teams put all they have into it every week and that’s what makes our sport so rewarding, because it is tough. There’s no magic; you have to be precise every time you go out and execute a run. You don’t have that mulligan. Once you’re done, you’re done.”
After spending an afternoon with his fans at zMax Dragway on Sunday, Brown and his Matco Tools dragster team spent Monday testing there in anticipation of this weekend’s 28th annual AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex.
Brown won the event last year en route to a historic championship. Brown, who competed in the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle class from 1998-2007, became the first African-American to win a major motorsports championship. As such, Brown remains one of the most popular athletes in big-time drag racing.
“We spent time Sunday with a lot of the fans, who actually helped pick my chin up a little bit saying, ‘You’re going to be all right, champ. You’re gonna go get ’em,’” Brown said during a media tour stop Thursday afternoon. “We just had a mishap. We went out on Monday to test … and it gets your confidence back.
“We know what we’re capable of because we qualified No. 1 at the U.S. Nationals, the race before. We got into trouble because we pressed too hard [at zMAX], and we did too much and were on the outside looking in. We’ve got the performance; the performance ain’t the problem. It’s just being in the right spot at the right time.”
Despite trailing Massey by six rounds of racing (at 20 points per round), Brown insisted the confidence level of a team led by co-crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald remains championship-caliber.
“Absolutely,” said Brown, a 37-year-old native of Chesterfield, N.J., who lives in Pittsboro, Ind. “You look at it, we’re 124 points out of first — that’s one race. I had a 120-point lead coming into the second-to-last race last year and only won the championship by seven points. We’ve got five races left. We’ve still got plenty of time but we can’t make any more mistakes.
“It’s frustrating because you know what your team is capable of. We know we’re capable of better things. We know we’re capable of winning races. We know we’re capable of winning the championship like we did last year. It’s just getting off on the right footing and getting it done. We always start off on the wrong foot, it seems. Hopefully, we can swing it around and change it here.”
In addition to Brown, returning event winners are Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), 2012 world champion Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Texan Michael Ray (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Former world champion Robert Hight (Funny Car) made it back-to-back wins at zMAX Sunday and was joined in the Winner’s Circle by Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel), former four-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and former three-time world champion Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
In addition to Massey, current points leaders are former world champion Matt Hagan (Funny Car), former world champion Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
John Sturbin is a senior writer at RacinToday.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.