Schumacher, Hight, Edwards in championship form; Stoffer also leads
Mike Edwards inched closer to locking up his first NHRA Full Throttle world championship by qualifying No. 1 in Pro Stock and is joined atop the leaderboard at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals by Tony Schumacher, Robert Hight, and Karen Stoffer.
The event, at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, is the final race not only of the 24-event NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, but also the sixth and final event of the Countdown to 1 playoffs and will determine the four Professional-class champions. Edwards had the Pro Stock crown all but mathematically locked up entering the event, and Hight in Funny Car also needs only a few good passes to score his first championship. The scenarios are a little different in Top Fuel, where Schumacher came into qualifying leading Larry Dixon by just one point and Cory McClenathan by just 48, and in Pro Stock Motorcycle, where Hector Arana entered with a lead of just 55 points.
Schumacher and Dixon entered qualifying one point apart and finished the first qualifying session one-thousandth of a second apart, underscoring the tightness of their battle for the final Top Fuel championship of the decade. Schumacher’s U.S. Army dragster doubled his points lead — to two — by outqualifying Dixon’s Alan Johnson/Al-Anabi dragster, 3.832 to 3.833, to pick up three bonus points to Dixon’s two.
"If you had asked me earlier this year to write a script to surpass ‘The Run’ [his record-breaking, championship-clinching pass in the final round of the 2006 Finals], I wouldn’t have thought there was one, but here we are, 23 races later with a one-point lead coming in going against my old team. Two great teams, two great drivers, two great crew chiefs, and a rivalry you couldn’t have written or faked.
"We’ve been just missing it all year, down 6-7 mph on most cars at the eighth-mile, and gave up a lot of races that way, but we stayed and tested in Vegas and figured it out, made some huge changes, and it ran great. Every point right now is so important. One point is a round now, really. If we go out in the same round, that’s the championship."
Doug Kalitta, who opened the season in Pomona with a Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals victory, continued to show some SoCal magic by qualifying third with a 3.836. He’s just two-thousandths in front of McClenathan, who clocked a solid 3.881 for the fourth spot. Behind them are Bob Vandergriff Jr. (3.881), Steve Torrence (3.891), Morgan Lucas (3.909), and Brandon Bernstein, whose 3.919 in his last event in Budweiser livery has him qualified eighth.
European ace Urs Erbacher has the 12th position with a 4.033. Twenty Top Fuelers made passes, though more are on the grounds. Among those needing major improvements Friday are perennial qualifiers Antron Brown and Shawn Langdon, who are 14th and 19th, respectively.
Looking every bit like the champion he probably will be crowned by the end of the weekend, Hight fronts the Funny Car field with his Jimmy Prock-tuned Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang after pounding out a 4.093 at 3.09.34 mph, more than four-hundredths ahead of his closest pursuer. Hight has four previous No. 1 qualifying spots this season and 32 in his career.
"That was huge; I’m pretty sure that 4.09 will stay in the show, and that’s the first step," said Hight. "This last week and a half has gone by so slow since Vegas. We want to get out there and get going. We’re focused – Jimmy Prock and my whole team is – and we’re not going to let our guard down and act like we have this all sewn up because that’s when you make mistakes.
"Jimmy did something on that run that he’s never done before. He opened the box and changed some clutch settings after the burnout. He’s never done that before. He just really knows what he’s doing right now, and his confidence is what I’m feeding off of now. As a driver, I can see he knows it’s going to run well, and I can go out there and do my job."
Hight’s teammate Mike Neff is second with a 4.137 from his Drive One Mustang, and he’s followed on the grid by Jack Beckman’s Valvoline/MTS Dodge, which ran 4.145. Beckman’s teammate Ron Capps is right behind him with a 4.149 in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge. Tim Wilkerson clocked the fifth-best pass of the session, a 4.154 in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang, and John Force occupies the No. 6 spot with a 4.165. Hight’s other teammate, Ashley Force Hood, the only person who can get past him for the championship, opened with a disappointing 4.21, good only for the No. 8 position.
Del Worsham holds down the 12th spot with the Al-Anabi Toyota at 4.541. Among those on the outside are Memphis winner Jeff Arend, Jerry Toliver, and five others who will need to bump their way into the quick 16.
Edwards unofficially locked up his first Pro Stock championship after posting a solid 6.637-second pass in his Young Life/ART Pontiac. Edwards needed only to be one of the top three runners in any qualifying session to attain an insurmountable lead, and he got the drama over by leading the first session and picking up three bonus points. The results of qualifying won’t be official until the end of business Saturday, so, barring an event disqualification or otherwise unlikely scenario, his official coronation will come Saturday evening.
"It’s good to qualify No. 1 and get those precious bonus points, which have really helped us in the Countdown," said Edwards. "We still have a ways to go to get that, but it’s been a huge part of racking up those points.
"The pressure’s off a little. I had a week to think about the disappointment I had in [not wrapping up the championship] in Vegas and get my stuff together and do a better job and hopefully win our first championship. It’s not officially done, but I’ve never been this close in my dreams, and it’s pretty special."
As he is now in the points and has he has been most of the season, Greg Anderson is second behind Edwards after powering his Summit Pontiac to a 6.647. Behind him is Rodger Brogdon and the Charter Communications Pontiac with a 6.648.
The Dodges of Johnny Gray and hometown favorite Vinnie Deceglie break up the Pontiac lovefest at the top after qualifying fourth and fifth. Gray, in his last event in a Dodge before switching to Pontiac next season, placed his SKI Racing Stratus in the No. 4 spot with a 6.649, and Deceglie cracked off a 6.652 for fifth with Nick Mitsos’ Mountain View Tire Stratus.
The 12-car cutoff after one session is a healthy 6.663, held by Ronnie Humphrey. Among those who will need to fight their way into the top 16 in the next two days are perennial qualifiers such as Las Vegas runner-up Rickie Jones, Warren Johnson, and Ron Krisher.
After charting a field-leading 6.982, Stoffer is looking for her first No. 1 qualifying berth of what has been a disappointing season for her GEICO Powersports Suzuki, and she’s simultaneously trying to fend off Shawn Gann in their battle for seventh place. He began the event four points behind her, but the three points she earned as the session’s best qualifier nearly doubled the gap.
"Those three points are nice, but it’s kind of a melancholy feeling because this is the last race, and we want it to be good," said Stoffer, who has one No. 1 qualifying berth. "And we’re just getting our momentum up, so we wish there was another pass today and another race next weekend so we can maintain that. I’m proud of the team, and the GEICO Powersports bike is running good right now, and, although this isn’t a home race, we have the conditions down because it’s on the West Coast, so I hope these conditions continue.
"That’s just one hit and the first time out and a lot of people were spinning the tire, so I don’t think this really shows anything about the potential. But the next three qualifying runs will show us more. Our Suzuki inline fours can do better in these conditions than we do in the hot, sticky stuff, so there’s going to be more parity."
Andrew Hines placed his Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson No. 2 with a 6.986, just ahead of points leader Arana, who ran a 6.997 aboard his Lucas Oil Buell. Arana earned one bonus point for the session’s third-best run and upped his lead over Hines’ teammate, defending world champ Eddie Krawiec, to 55 points. Krawiec is a disappointing 14th after a 7.16 opener.
Countdown runner Michael Phillips continued his strong playoff effort with a fourth-best pass of 7.021, but there’s more than three-hundredths-of-a-second gap between him and fifth-place David Hope’s 7.054.
The 12-bike cutoff after one session is 7.142 by Bailey Whitaker. Joining Krawiec on the outside looking in are notables such as rookie of the year contender Doug Horne and former world champ Matt Smith.