Shawn Langdon simply wasn’t sure what to think. Al-Anabi/Toyota team manager Alan Johnson was pleased with his efforts, he had the respect of his peers, the media regarded him as a promising driver, and fans constantly sent him messages of encouragement.
 
But Langdon needed some proof he deserved all of that confidence.
 
The three Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel teams spent most of this National Hot Rod Association season passing the points lead and victories among themselves, yielding a race triumph now and again to Morgan Lucas or Steve Torrence and once to Dave Grubnic. So Langdon’s continued winless streak — for the Al-Anabi/Toyota team that won the past two championships — flew under the public radar.

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

But as the Countdown approached, fans started to wonder what was going on with the Al-Anabi team, as talented Top Fuel rookie Khalid al Balooshi was just beginning to win eliminations rounds. Finally Johnson — the mechanical magician who has won Top Fuel crowns and set performance milestones with Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, and Del Worsham — spoke up.
 
He said he knew other teams were catching up to some of his tuning secrets and decided to raise the bar for his own teams. He found it distasteful to step back in order to leap forward, using such wording as “resigned to the fact” and “knew we were going to have to take our lumps.” But he also used language such as “this would pay off in the end” and “the top of our game when we got to Indy.” He even used the words “Countdown” and “win it” in the same thought. Alan Johnson knew it would pay off.
 
Meanwhile, Shawn Langdon stewed about his performance.
 
“I raced with the Lucas team for three years and we didn’t win. And I’m coming over here (to Al-Anabi/Toyota Racing), where you should win, and we’re not winning,” Langdon told WFO Radio’s Joe Castello. He said he kept asking Johnson, “Is there something I’m doing wrong? Is there something I need to change as a driver?”
 
He said Johnson kept reassuring him: “We’re heading in the right direction. Don’t change a thing. You keep doing what you’re doing. The car’s going to come around, and we’re going to be better. We’re going to be better than we’ve ever been.”
 
So when Langdon won the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway to kick off the Countdown — from his second straight No. 1 qualifying spot and in his second final-round appearance in the past four races — huge stacks of bricks slid off his shoulders.

He had won in his 87th race since turning pro. He had earned back-to-back national championships in the Super Comp class in 2007 and 2008, after capturing the Jr. Dragster national crown in 1997, yet this Top Fuel journey took longer than anyone expected.
 
“I’m really happy for the guys on the team. Their heads were never down, although we struggled a little bit early in the year. Everybody kept going with the plan of attack. I just listened to Alan all year and he said we’d be there in the Countdown. I wasn’t worried because those guys know how to win,” he said following his victory.

 Langdon this past Sunday called Johnson “a man with a plan” and said, “You never doubt Alan. That’s one thing I learned in the past, racing against him, and I’ve continued to learn being on the same team as him. He’s always got a plan. He’s always moving in the right direction, moving forward to progress this team to be better. He proved that today.”

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

 
The Al-Anabi/Toyota team built the victory exactly according to Johnson’s blueprint.
 
“We had a good car in qualifying, but we had a good car when it counted, in eliminations,” Langdon said. “This is just what we were looking for.”

Instead of being 80 points off Antron Brown’s pace, as he was coming into the Countdown, Langdon will open this weekend’s AAA Texas Fall Nationals near Dallas just 19 points behind new leader Tony Schumacher and only nine points behind No. 2-ranked Spencer Massey.

“Now we’re within a round of the lead,” Langdon said, his voice telegraphing the thrill of knowing not only that he could — he did — earn that first Wally statue but that he has an excellent chance to win the series championship.
 
“It just goes to show you how close everything is this year,” Langdon said. The competition level is out of control. It’s so crazy. It’s so tight. In the final round (at Charlotte), I beat Tony Schumacher by 10-thousandths of a second. The week before, I lose to Tony Schumacher by seven-thousandths of a second. I’m .046 and .049 on the tree, and I get treed both times. He’s like .035 and .033 on the tree. The competition level has risen so much in these last couple of years.”

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

 
Langdon said he’s “loving every second” of his victory “and hopefully the next one won’t take another 87 races.” However, he knows the task isn’t going to get any easier.
 
“It’s very important for us to follow the Charlotte win with a good performance this weekend in Dallas,” he said. “We’re in third place in points and a round out of the lead. But with only six races in the Countdown, it’s crucial for us to make every race count. If you have a bad race, you can drop down as fast as we jumped up. So it’s crucial for us to keep our momentum up.
 
“We made a great jump in points, but I really believe this championship battle will come down to Pomona with a couple of different drivers,” Langdon said. “It’s great to get the first win out of the way at the first Countdown event, but it’s no time to slack off. We have to keep working hard, keep getting stronger and keep getting better. The Al-Anabi team has a great race car, but we know the other guys in the Countdown do, too.”
 
He knows a handful of drivers not qualified for the Countdown do, as well. And one is his teammate.

Once I started running Super Comp and I got out of high school and all that, it kind of got to the point where I thought, ‘You know, this is something I enjoy and something I’d like to do for the rest of my life.

“He may not be in the Countdown, but al Balooshi’s car is running really well now, too,” Langdon said. “So al Balooshi can definitely play a role in deciding the championship this year. Those guys could definitely win one of these last five races.”
 
Judging by the 100 or so text messages Langdon had on his mobile phone following his Charlotte victory, the fans are elated to see him in the knot of serious contenders.
 
“With all of the positive responses from the fans out there, it’s clear a lot of people were excited for us. I have some fans who have followed my progress through the years, but there are a lot of Al-Anabi Racing fans out there that want to see another car in the mix for the championship. A lot of people are also Alan Johnson fans, and they like to see him continue to do well and challenge for a third straight Full Throttle championship.”
 
Langdon’s Charlotte victory is just the beginning of another journey that already has taken incredible turns for the self-described “shy kid sitting in the back of the classroom” and “not the type to get up in front of a crowd.”
 
The Mira Loma, Calif., native said, “When I first was doing Jr. Dragsters, I just kind of did it with my dad. It was something we enjoyed to do. It was a hobby of ours. It always interested me. My dream when I was really young was being a professional baseball player. But in ’97, when I won the Jr. Dragster national championship, I changed my mind on that a little bit. I got a little bit more interested in the racing. I always enjoyed it, but it was fun when I started having better results.
 
“Once I started running Super Comp and I got out of high school and all that, it kind of got to the point where I thought, ‘You know, this is something I enjoy and something I’d like to do for the rest of my life,’ ” he said.
 
Still, Langston said, “I’d always get nervous taking winners circle pictures. I never wanted to be in the spotlight. I just loved to do what I was doing.”
 
Morgan Lucas, his Jurupa Valley High School classmate, certainly noticed that and offered him his first Top Fuel ride, saying, “He’s a machine when he’s in a race car. The guy won the last two championships in Super Comp, which to me is easily one of the toughest categories in all of motorsports. To win that class in back-to-back years is darn near impossible. That’s how good Shawn is as a driver. That guy will drive circles around anybody else in this pit area –better than me, better than a lot of people. He’s competitive.  He’s very well-spoken. He’s very respectful, very stand-up. He’s a kind-hearted person.”
 
Said Langdon, “It’s weird for me to accept that.”
 
Schumacher told him last Sunday after their final round, “I’m glad I was in the other lane for your first victory.”
 
So his colleagues and team boss respect him. The fans love him. And he’s a winner now — and a legitimate championship contender. And Shawn Langdon will have to get used to being in the spotlight.