Fans who witnessed the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals were present for one of the most thrilling races in the history of the fuel classes. Championship contenders all rose to the occasion, and the difference between those whose dreams came true and those whose dreams were crushed literally came down to thousandths of a second.

In the football movie Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino played a coach who delivered a memorable halftime speech about how football is “a game of inches” and motivated his players to fight for every last inch. NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing is a game of thousandths. The competition at the top of the Top Fuel class is so level right now that drivers and tuners have to fight for every thousandth to elevate themselves above the competition.

The battles between Del Worsham and Spencer Massey in Top Fuel this season are perfect examples. Both drivers have had to dig deep against each other to try to get the edge in evenly matched encounters. Worsham is a very good leaver in the best car this season, and Massey is the best leaver this season in a very good car. They raced each other at three of the last four events of the season, and each matchup lived up to the marquee billing.

Massey beat Worsham on a holeshot in the quickest side-by-side race in the history of the sport in the Reading final. Both were disappointed in their Phoenix outings, especially Massey after logging a surprise DNQ, and both teams had parallel comeback stories while regrouping for Las Vegas and Pomona. Massey left Phoenix on Sunday to test in Las Vegas the very next day, and Worsham’s team abandoned the chassis they had been running all season, which is the same pipe that Larry Dixon drove to 12 wins and a championship in 2010.

“I was really down after Reading,” said Worsham. “I really felt bad. It was only one round that we lost, but we set the record, and I let everybody down. We went to Phoenix after that and weren’t very good there. [Team manager] Alan Johnson called me and [crew chief] Brian Husen into the trailer after Phoenix, and I was a little nervous. He said, ‘Hey, we’re bringing out a new car. We’ve been running that old car of Larry’s. It’s worn out. It’s not acting right. Let’s bust out a new chassis for Q1 [in Las Vegas]. New cars are always better than old cars.”

The new Al-Anabi Gold dragster was the quickest car in Las Vegas, and Worsham controlled it with newfound confidence. Worsham and Massey faced each other in the final round, and Worsham was able to run him down by just .001-second to take the win. That helped set the stage for a winner-take-all showdown in the semifinal round in Pomona.

Worsham went to bed early but was wide awake by 4:30 a.m. in anticipation of the biggest day of his racing career. He and Massey both got by their respective opponents in the first two rounds. Antron Brown’s second-round loss to Dixon made the race between Worsham and Massey the decider for the championship.

Massey and the FRAM team had drama in the pits before the big matchup. Massey had a big engine explosion during his second-round win against Morgan Lucas, so his crew had to thrash to turn the car around in time. U.S. Army crew chief Mike Green aided them by deciding to run in the first pair rather than the second to give them extra time.

The race played out as good as advertised. Massey got a slight .046 to .050 jump, but Worsham was slightly quicker between the 330- and 660-foot increments to make the difference in a race decided by .004-second. Both teams had valiant efforts in their last two matchups that were decided by a combined .005-second, but the day belonged to Worsham. Worsham clinched his first Full Throttle championship at the same event where he made his competitive debut in a Funny Car 21 years ago. On top of that, he went on to win the event by beating Tony Schumacher in a final where they both ran 3.79s.

Worsham is one of four drivers to win a Top Fuel championship under the guide of tuner Alan Johnson, who now has 10 championships dating back to 1997. First-year crew chief Brian Husen and the crew came a long way in a short time to become a championship team. Many fans and fellow racers clamored to congratulate Worsham, whose championship provides validation for a stellar driving career.

Worsham’s victory paralleled Matt Hagan’s in the Funny Car class. Both drivers clinched titles with semifinal victories before going on to win the event. They also both drove lights-out throughout the event to help their teams win.

Hagan had as good a performance behind the wheel at this event as anyone has ever had in the history of the class. His reaction times were deadly, and he accomplished them without the aid of pulling deep into the staging beams. This was evidenced when he maintained .89-.90-second 60-foot times while cutting lights of .045, .064, .029, and .038.

Though Hagan is in just his third full season compared to 21 for Worsham, the circumstances of his career gave him a similar hunger coming into this race. In his first full season, he barely missed the Countdown. In his second season, he barely missed winning the championship when he entered the final race with the points lead but lost to Bob Tasca III in the opening round. He used that disappointment as motivation to capitalize on his next opportunity to win the big prize.

Hagan knocked Jon Capps off in the opening round and met title contender and teammate Jack Beckman in round two. A 4.10 to 4.14 victory over Beckman set up a matchup with Cruz Pedregon in which Hagan could clinch the title with a win or have to wait to see if Pedregon could win the race and the championship. Hagan came through with an exceptional .029 light that provided the difference in a 4.09 to 4.11 win.

With the championship wrapped up, Hagan wasn’t done just yet. Crew chief Tommy DeLago and the DieHard crew turned up the wick for the final round and ended the season with a win against Robert Hight in the quickest side-by-side race in Funny Car history, 4.00 to 4.03. DeLago says that it was in their game plan to be aggressive in the final anyway in anticipation of the ladder playing out to put them in a position of racing for the championship in that round, but having won the title already gave them the leeway to push it even further.

“We probably did about 95 percent of what we planned to do anyway,” said DeLago. “It was neat to end the year with our cars being the last two down the track because you knew Jimmy [Prock, Hight’s crew chief] and I were both going to go for it.”

The season ended in storybook fashion for the Al-Anabi Top Fuel and DieHard Funny Car teams. Teams are already gearing up for when the reset button gets hit in 12 weeks at the start of the 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.

The Fast Five

Vance & Hines/Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson riders Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec starred in another all-Harley final to cap off Krawiec’s second Full Throttle Pro Stock Motorcycle championship. The title became official when Krawiec beat reigning champ LE Tonglet in the second round. The duo then fended off both Lucas Oil Buells in the semi’s to meet up in a final that was decided by Krawiec’s -.009 red-light. Krawiec rode an elite bike all season. His scorecard makes it appear as though he really came on during the second half of the season, but he had a bike capable of winning during the middle part of the year, even though circumstances on the starting line prevented that from happening more often.

There isn’t a better leaver in any Pro category than Pro Stock winner Greg Stanfield. The four-time Super Stock world champ recorded his seventh and eighth holeshot wins of the season in the first two rounds before capitalizing on the troubles of Allen and Kurt Johnson to win the event. Stanfield’s last win in the Nitro Fish Pontiac GXP was at last year’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil.

It seems shocking that Tony Schumacher didn’t win a pewter Wally in 2011 even though he didn’t experience a decline in performance. That says more about how competitive the upper echelon of the Top Fuel class has become than it does about the U.S. Army team. Schumacher nearly pulled it off at the eleventh hour. He had the best car early in qualifying and in the first two rounds on race day. He cut a good light and dipped into the 3.7-second range in the final, but it wasn’t quite enough to turn on the win light against Del Worsham.

Robert Hight nearly went undefeated in final rounds this season before losing to Matt Hagan in the quickest side-by-side race in Funny Car history. He added the first runner-up to his five-win season. The 4.031 that he ran against Hagan in the final is his quickest run of the 2011 season, and his 318.92-mph speed is the fourth fastest in history. Hight's five wins in 2011 is tied with teammate Mike Neff's total for the most in the Funny Car class.

Cruz Pedregon is the last driver who could have won the championship besides Matt Hagan. Needing to defeat Hagan in the semifinal round and win the final round to secure his third Full Throttle title, Cruzer made a great pass in the semi’s that made Hagan earn the No. 1 that will adorn his side window next season. Pedregon, crew chief Danny DeGennaro, and the Snap-on team had a fast car all season with loads of “what if?” potential that eventually materialized into a legitimate championship contender. Pedregon performed well in just his second season of calling the tune-up shots.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Antron Brown ended the season with 50 round-wins. It was only the third time in the history of the class that a driver scored 50 or more round-wins in a single season and didn’t win the championship. The other two instances occurred when Larry Dixon won 57 rounds but lost the title to Kenny Bernstein in 2001 and when Brown won 51 rounds in a third-place finish in 2009. It has never happened in Funny Car, but it has occurred often in the Pro Stock class during recent years.

Tony Schumacher extended his qualifying streak to 200 races, the second-longest active streak behind only Greg Anderson’s streak of 209 races. He hasn’t failed to make it in the show since the Englishtown event in 2003, which was two races before the start of his six-year run with crew chief Alan Johnson.

Crew chiefs of the race: Alan Johnson and Brian Husen came up big when the stakes were highest; Tommy DeLago closed his first championship with the quicker car in the quickest race in Funny Car history; Eddie Guarnaccia got Greg Stanfield’s car back to making consistently good runs, which enabled the team to capitalize on their driver’s great lights; Matt Hines put both Harley-Davidson riders in the final once again.

Best races: Del Worsham vs. Spencer Massey, Top Fuel semifinal: I can’t recall another instance when a race that mattered so much was decided by such a slim margin.

Larry Dixon vs. Antron Brown, Top Fuel round two: Dixon got Brown by .004-second while they were both very much still in the championship hunt.

Matt Hagan vs. Cruz Pedregon, Funny Car semifinal: Talk about a clutch performance. Hagan cut a .029 light without staging deep in the round that clinched his first Full Throttle championship.

Hagan vs. Robert Hight, Funny Car final:
The season ended with two of the most aggressive tuners in the pits staging the quickest side-by-side race in class history.

Greg Stanfield vs. Roger Brogdon, Pro Stock round two:
Stanfield scored his eighth holeshot win of the season to hold off Brogdon by .004-second.

Tough luck of the race: No single racer’s fortunes were negatively affected by the rainy weather on Saturday more than Funny Car driver Bob Bode. Bode was bumped from the show by Tony Pedregon and had his car fired up during his attempt to get back in before rain came down and he was given orders to shut off. “It’s one of those deals that makes you feel like you want to be mad, but who are you going to be mad at?” said Bode. “You can’t be mad at the racers who bumped you out or at NHRA for upholding the rules that are in place. It was just unlucky that the rain didn’t hold off for three more minutes.”

Though a red-light is a self-inflicted wound, Top Fuel rookie Keith Murt was unlucky that his premature start in the first round negated what would have been a sure upset in his first race-day start. Opponent Larry Dixon’s safety shutoff system was triggered at the hit of the throttle.

Quotes of the race: “We are now 100 percent out of ‘next weeks.’ ” — Neal Strausbaugh, assistant crew chief on the U.S. Army dragster

“Crew chiefs and drivers have good memories about racetracks. The championship was decided in the semi’s, but Matt and I didn’t forget about the final round at the Winternationals.” — Tommy DeLago, crew chief on the DieHard Dodge Charger. The team opened the year with a holeshot loss to Robert Hight in the final round but avenged it at the season closer.