Dramatic Saturday sets up championship Sunday at NHRA Finals
Tony Schumacher, Ashley Force Hood, Mike Edwards, and Hector Arana locked up the top qualifying spots on a dramatic and championship-crowning Saturday at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.
Half of the Full Throttle championship battle drama was concluded with the close of qualifying as Funny Car racer Robert Hight and Pro Stock veteran Mike Edwards had gained enough points even prior to Sunday’s final eliminations to lock out all pursuers. The focus on Sunday now turns to the remaining two classes, Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle, where the battle rages on. In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon are separated by just two points in a war that surely will be decided solely based on who goes the most rounds on race day with Cory McClenathan still maintaining an outside shot. The fight in Pro Stock Motorcycle is a little more one-sided as points leader Hector Arana needs only to win one round Sunday to become the third first-time NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series champion crowned this season.
Schumacher and Dixon brought an oft-delayed day to a stunning conclusion under the lights at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona when Schumacher took away Dixon’s low qualifying berth and his two-point point lead with a wild 3.772, the second quickest pass in NHRA history behind his own 3.771 from last year’s Richmond, race. Schumacher’s speed, 320.58 mph, was the second fastest in history, behind the 321.58 Dixon recorded earlier in the day to reset the national speed record. Although just two points separate them, both also have backups for new national records that would earn 20 bonus points and could complicate the situation.
"We’ve only had one other No. 1 this year and I think Larry has had nine, but if I had to pick one this was so monumental and so important at that exact time," said Schumacher, "but neither of us wants to win it by the other guy going out. It would be great to win, but not the gratifying moments we’ve experienced in the past from winning the race. I think that both is us plan and anticipate on digging deep and meeting in the final to crown a world champion. This is the ultimate dream for us to be in this position. We’re both going to have to get in the car and cowboy up."
Addressing the possibility of an all-or-nothing final, Dixon commented, "There are 14 other guys out there racing for trophies and cash, and I wouldn’t take anyone for granted because neither of us has won in a couple of races. There are good cars out there and a tight field. And drivers are chopping Trees. A perfect scenario for me is that I still have a chance to win the championship. Neither of us is looking past first round, but tomorrow when they pull the mag wires and light ‘em up, it’s game on."
Schumacher owns the national e.t. record with that 3.771-second pass and obviously has a backup to better it, but Dixon’s second-place 3.801 also could potentially be used as a backup towards breaking Schumacher’s record — he could run anywhere between 3.770 and 3.762 to get what could be 20 very important points. Schumacher will face No. 16 qualifier Mike Strasburg, while Dixon will take on Del Cox Jr.
Spencer Massey did not to hurt his rookie of the year bid by qualifying No. 3 with a 3.809, while Antron Brown finally overcame an event-long series of woes to take the No. 4 spot with a 3.813. Brandon Bernstein (3.832), Doug Kalitta (3.836), Cory McClenathan (3.838), and Morgan Lucas (3.844) round out the top eight. McClenathan also still has a shot at the title, but he’s 61 points behind Schumacher. Cory Mac could face Dixon in round two if they both win their first-round matches.
Strasburg held onto the final spot in the field with a 3.995 that was matched by Troy Buff, but Strasburg’s better speed, 300.66 to 274.50, earned him the final spot.
Rookie of the year contender Shawn Langdon suffered his first DNQ of the season after posting just a 4.016 best. He had lots of company as 24 Top Fuel dragster tried to make the 16-car field.
Ashley Force Hood
Force Hood may have seen her dreams of a first Funny Car championship end when her teammate, Hight, locked her out with a solid qualifying performance of his own, but she can have some solace in being the No. 1 qualifier at the season finale and leading a John Force Racing sweep of the first three spots after punching out a dramatic 4.059 on her final pass. Her father matched her e.t. a few seconds later, but her superior speed, 310.20 to 309.20, earned her the top spot, her sixth of the season.
“I told my team tonight, ‘This is so bittersweet, isn’t it? We just ran our best time and we’re No. 1 at the last race of the year and yet we missed [the championship],’ ” said Force Hood. “Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Robert could win the race and we could go out first round, but there’s a chance if we do well we could have missed it by that much. We’ve never been in this situation before where we’re right at the end fighting for it. We didn’t buckle under the pressure. We had a slump in Vegas, but it was all a mechanical thing. It wasn’t the guys messing up or me messing up. It just happened. It happened to us at the wrong time of the year. I told them, ‘We can do it. We can run with the big guys and stick with it right to the end.’
“Tonight, the conditions set up perfect. I’m sure a lot of people were going for it, trying to get a record or just see what they could push it to do. You can’t lose anything by trying. We were real excited that it actually went and that we got No. 1 and that, most important, we got our car back on track. It might have been a little too late for the championship, but at least we got it back, that’s all that matters. We’ll go into tomorrow and try to get in that winner’s circle.”
Hight also improved in the final session with a 4.067 from his Auto Club Mustang and slid a spot to third, but still had the day’s biggest prize. Behind the Force triumvirate are a pair of Don Schumacher Racing cars of rookie of the year contender Matt Hagan (4.073) and Ron Capps (4.076).
Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang is qualified sixth with a 4.080, and he’s followed on the grid by Jim Head and outgoing world champ Cruz Pedregon to round out the top eight. Bob Bode qualified No. 16 with a 4.172 to seal the field and will race Force Hood in round one.
Edwards put the finishing touches on his first Pro Stock championship, a title that was a mere formality entering the event but needed to be seen through to the conclusion of qualifying for it to become official, and did that in emphatic style with a 6.562-second blast on his final qualifying pass to improve on his already field-leading 6.575. Edwards was officially crowned the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Pro Stock world champ in a ceremony after the conclusion of Pro Stock qualifying.
"We went into 2010 test mode for the run this morning," Edwards said of his first-pass 6.592, which was "only" the third-quickest pass of the round. "but we came back tonight and made an extremely good run, a nice clean run. It’s just everyone doing their job and trying to get another Wally.
"Right now, though, I’m not really thinking about 2010. I’m thinking about tomorrow and doing my job. Lane choice will absolutely be a priority tomorrow. I prefer the left lane – I think most guys do – because that lane has always been better here. Hopefully we can make good runs and keep lane choice all day."
Ron Krisher, who utilizes Edwards power, surprised a lot of people by leaping up to the No. 2 spot with his Valvoline Chevy in the day’s first run with a session-leading 6.587. Jason Line improved in the final session to a 6.589 that pushed his Summit Pontiac to the No. 3 position just in front of his teammate, Greg Anderson, who’s qualified fourth at 6.604. The Dodges of Allen Johnson and Johnny Gray are qualified sixth and seventh, while Ronnie Humphrey, in the third Summit entry, rounds out the top eight.
Las Vegas winner Larry Morgan, in his last event in a Dodge, made the field on his last run, bumping Warren Johnson’s 6.639 with a 6.637. W.J. had a chance in the next pair to get back around Morgan but ran another 6.639. Morgan will open eliminations Sunday against low qualifier Edwards.
Arana’s 6.918 in the opening session powered his Lucas Oil Buell to the top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field — and broke Chris Rivas’ 6.929 record set here last year. Arana then had the quickest run of the second session, a 6.943, to earn the maximum six bonus points on the day while his closest points pursuer, Eddie Krawiec, earned just one, extending Arana’s points lead to 62 entering race day. Although Arana and Krawiec are on the same side of the ladder, they couldn’t face one another until the semifinals, at which point the championship already would have been decided. Barring a national record, Arana would have to lose in the first round and Krawiec would have to win the race to steal the championship from Arana.
“To have a chance to win the championship, that’s what my dream, my focus point is,” said Arana. “It’s been a hell of a year, I know I’ve said it before. I’m just thankful for this opportunity to run for the Full Throttle championship, and I’m thankful to Full Throttle for sponsoring the NHRA and allowing us to do what we love. This is what we live for, what we breathe.
“I’m being surrounded by excellent people, not just Larry [Morgan] and Forrest [Lucas], but there’s a bunch of other people that has been there for me at all times. I’ve been the small guy, the underdog, but to win this race and win this championship, the biggest thing for me would be for Lucas Oil. They’re the ones that never gave up on me. I’ve struggled through many years, and he did sponsor other racers but he never abandoned me, he never let me go, he never said anything. He just kept pushing me. To win the championship for Forrest and Charlotte [Lucas] and everyone at the plant would be great.”
Shawn Gann has the second-quickest pass of the final session, a dazzling 6.951 aboard the RumBum Buell to take the No. 2 spot, while rookie of the year contender Doug Horne is third with a 6.956, also on a Buell. Krawiec, the reigning world champ, is fourth with a 6.959 recorded on his Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley Davidson in the final session.
In all, 11 riders qualified in the six-second zone. Bailey Whitaker’s career-best 7.047 wound up on the bubble, just shy of the record 7.033 bump established at the 2007 Englishtown event. His reward will be a first-round date Sunday with low qualifier Arana. Krawiec will race Steve Johnson.
Thursday: Schumacher, Hight, Edwards in championship form; Stoffer also leads
Friday: Dixon, Force jump to nitro leads; Edwards, Stoffer remain on point