Dialing up a record speed in the fastest category in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series is no easy feat, especially when things aren’t going as planned. Spencer Massey headed to the semifinal round in Top Fuel with no computer data from the previous run, and his dragster burned two more gallons of the nitromethane/methanol blend from its fuel tank than anticipated before the run. The FRAM/Prestone team overcame both obstacles on a 3.745-second, 328.62-mph moon shot that put teammate Tony Schumacher on the trailer and enabled Massey to later claim the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries title.

Crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler now lay claim to three of the four quickest runs in history in addition to the fastest. Massey spoke with Shuler before the semifinal round and was taken aback by their gutsy approach following a 3.776-second run that was not recorded by their data acquisition system.

“They just looked at the [spark] plugs and [rod] bearings and did it like it was a Top Fuel car in 1968,” said Massey. “I asked Phil what they were going to do, and he just shrugged and said, ‘Turn it up more.’ I was like, ‘Really, you're going to get after it more after a .77 with no computer? You’re the boss.’

“They are very smart and knowledgeable, and it shows. They found the numbers we’ve been looking for out of this car since testing.”

Massey did his normal routine in the semi’s and began to anticipate having to manage a light front end when it took Tony Schumacher extra time before he was able to roll into the prestage beams. The fuel tank is located just behind the nose of the dragster chassis underneath the air vent that is visible atop the body, and the approximated 20 seconds added to Massey’s standard return burned roughly two extra gallons of fuel, taking 18 pounds of weight off the nose that are necessary to keep it planted on the racing surface.

Making the car lighter at stage and changing the transfer of weight toward the rear wheels can increase performance so long it doesn’t upset the setup and/or break traction by gaining too much wheel speed when hitting the wheelie bar or driving itself out of the groove.

“It picked the wheels up, sat 'em down, and picked them back up again,” said Massey. “I was actually able to look at the scoreboard and saw what it ran. I couldn’t believe it. I had to get out at the top end and ask, ‘Did it really go 3.74 and 328 mph?’ ”

On the 3.74, Massey went 3.007 seconds at 288.09 mph to the 660-foot timers. To put those numbers in perspective, the only sub-three-second 660-foot clocking last season occurred on Del Worsham’s 3.735 in the Reading final. The next fastest speed by a competitor to 660 feet at this event was 286 mph.

Massey made another outstanding run in the final when he went 3.750 at 325 mph to best the 3.79-second effort of teammate Antron Brown.

It promises to be a long, competitive season in the Top Fuel ranks. 10 drivers ran low 3.80s or quicker in the opening round, and three matchups were decided on the starting line. That being said, half of the last 12 drivers to win the opening race of the season in Top Fuel went on to win the championship, so Massey is off to a solid start.

“Coming up a little short and ending up in second place last year made us that much more hungry and motivated to win a championship, so we focused this winter and acted like there wasn’t an off-season,” said Massey. “Coming off this win, we have the momentum going into Phoenix, where we had the DNQ last year that kind of killed us in the championship.”

Massey is prepared to exorcise the demons that haunted him last October at the NHRA Arizona Nationals. Since his DNQ at that event, his two losses at the end of the 2011 season were by a combined margin of .005-second (both to Worsham), and he won this event in record-setting fashion.

The Fast Five

In winning the season-opening event for the sixth time in his career, John Force broke a slump of eight consecutive races without a round-win. Force didn’t have a dominant car by any stretch, but crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli kept it consistently in the 4-teens while the 15-time champion went to work on the Christmas Tree. He stepped up to a 4.08 in the final opposite teammate Mike Neff, who had the most consistently fast car on Sunday before his work was undid with a .175 light that couldn’t be buoyed with a low. e.t. of the event 4.03. Force’s last win was at the Denver event in 2011, his only victory of the season. Force also got to witness daughter Courtney net her first Professional round-win when Bob Tasca III broke traction against her in the opening round.

The least satisfied of any opening-race winner, Greg Anderson redirected the Summit Racing Equipment Pro Stock teams to Las Vegas to test for two days before going to Phoenix. He and teammate Jason Line had the two strongest cars on Sunday, but they met before the final due to Anderson’s No. 5 position on the qualifying order. The team clearly did its homework at the shop over the winter as evidenced by their big speeds, though they feel like they can execute their setups better in the coming races. This was Anderson’s fifth victory at this event and KB Racing’s seventh in the last nine years.

Jeg Coughlin Jr.
has done what he did this weekend too many times for it to be considered lucky. In the first race of his return to the Pro Stock ranks with an upstart program, he reached the final round from the No. 14 qualifying position in a performance that was Tebow-esque. Other than outrunning Vincent Nobile in the second round, the legwork of his round-wins occurred on the starting line. He opened eliminations with a holeshot win over Ronnie Humphrey and drew a foul against Mike Edwards in the semi’s. Coughlin has stated that it will take time for his new engine program to reach the levels of the top teams. His driving will provide the JEGS/Mopar outfit more opportunities on race day in the interim.

It was the Morgan Lucas Show for the first three days of Top Fuel racing at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries. Lucas revamped his team during the off-season by hiring Aaron Brooks and Rod Centorbi while keeping his core group intact, and he led all three qualifying sessions. He was in position to advance to the final round and potentially defend his event title until he broke a two-run-old rear end opposite Antron Brown in the semifinal round.

Gary Densham
is set to run a very limited schedule unless he can acquire more funding, and he’s making each appearance count. There was never a dull moment for the former schoolteacher at this event. He missed the first run when his car’s CO2 bottle exploded in the staging lanes but collected bonus points on Friday with a third-best-of-the-round 4.17 that he improved with a 4.15 on Saturday. He upset Jeff Arend in the first round with a 4.10 at a career-best 304 mph before a wild second-round matchup with Jack Beckman. Beckman was pulling away from Densham before his car made a sudden right turn that brought him into Densham’s lane. (The reason for the car’s sudden move has yet to be determined as of this posting.) Fortunately, Densham had seen Beckman pulling away and was already getting off the throttle to save parts, so he wasn’t at full power when he made contact with the back of Beckman’s Charger. Impressively, Densham’s Greg Amaral- and Ed Boytim-led team were the first to get to the staging lanes for the semifinal round despite having to repair the damage to the front of the body. Their efforts were rewarded with a Full Throttle Hard-Working Crew Award.

Special Awards

Stats of the race: When John Force cinched his 134th career win in the Funny Car final, he also achieved a milestone in earning his 1,100th round-win. The closest Funny Car driver to Force is Tony Pedregon, who has 500 round-wins. Warren Johnson ranks second to Force among all Pro drivers with 869.

Robert Hight
has qualified in the No. 1 spot 40 times during his career that began in 2005, but he hasn’t had much luck from that spot. From the No. 1 position, he has 16 second-round losses and seven first-round losses, including being upset by Todd Lesenko in the first round at the 2012 season-opener when the Auto Club Mustang hydraulicked the No. 7 cylinder.

After title contender Cruz Pedregon was left outside the 16-car field when qualifying was cut short due to rain, ESPN statistician Lewis Bloom researched how many times a driver who DNQ'd at this event went on to win the championship. It only happened one time when Jeg Coughlin Jr. failed to qualify at the 2002 season opener but went on to capture the Pro Stock crown.

Crew chiefs of the race: Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler took advantage of the conditions in a standout performance; Mike Neff tuned the best car in eliminations and set low e.t. in the final round; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley did their thing to field the two toughest cars on Sunday.

Best races: Morgan Lucas vs. Shawn Langdon, Top Fuel round two: The former teammates squared off in the second round with Lucas winning the race on a holeshot. It was the first holeshot loss of Langdon’s career. He has 11 holeshot wins to his credit, including one against Steve Torrence in the first round.

Mike Neff vs. Ron Capps, Funny Car semifinal: Capps got off the line first but couldn’t withstand Neff’s top-end charge.

Rodger Brogdon vs. Kurt Johnson, Pro Stock round one:
K.J. got off the line first, but Brogdon’s MavTV GXP prevailed by a .003-second margin at the stripe.

Quotes of the race: “We’re taking a few weeks off to give the guys behind us a chance to catch up.” — Densham Motorsports crew chief Greg Amaral, wisecracking about the No. 3 points position of the cash-strapped team that won’t compete again until the Las Vegas event

“If I was inside there, I could tell you what happened, but I can’t quite fit.” — Al-Anabi gold crew chief Jason McCulloch on the reason why the dragster driven by Khalid alBalooshi damaged a piston in the first round

I’d like to acknowledge two things that happened over the past week. First, I wish to offer my condolences to the Manton family after Terry Manton passed away on Thursday, Feb. 9. He would have turned 45 years old on Sunday. Manton was a respected industry figure who founded Manton Pushrods. Six-time Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson thought enough of him that he tried to hire him several years ago. He was a friend to many racers and manufacturers and will be missed.

Secondly, I was relieved to find out that Mike Austin walked away from a scary crash in his Top Alcohol Dragster on Saturday. I remember Mike from when he was a crewmember on the late John Shoemaker’s American Eagle dragster and would sleep in the camper of their tow truck. He’s one of those guys who loves racing so much that he’s always beaming when he’s at the track. I’m sure the wreck was a tough blow for him, but I hope he can make it back out there soon.

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.

Drivers in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series do not abide by the popular catchphrase that is used to promote tourism in Sin City. In their case, what happens in Vegas carries on to Pomona.

The stage is set for the 2011 champions to be determined in Pomona. Jason Line has officially conquered the Pro Stock crown for the second time in his career. Eddie Krawiec has some breathing room in the Pro Stock Motorcycle points over rookie Hector Arana Jr. The nitro classes, on the other hand, have thrilling conclusions on the horizon.

The top six Funny Car drivers are separated by 72 points after an event in which the field tightened with no top drivers capitalizing on the opportunity to distance themselves from the field. The Top Fuel class provided more of a preview of what’s to come with the three top-ranked drivers — Spencer Massey, Del Worsham, and Antron Brown — all reaching the semifinals and Worsham and Massey reaching the finals. Fourth-ranked Larry Dixon is only 44 points out of the lead.

The collision course between Worsham and Massey culminated in an epic bout that was decided by a thousandth of a second, and it revolved around two teams that were rallying around their leaders for different reasons.

Worsham and the majority of his crew hadn’t been in the position that they’re in before this season. They look to tuner Alan Johnson and crew chief Brian Husen, both of whom had been on six of the last seven Top Fuel championship-winning teams, and draw from their motivation and intense focus. Johnson, in particular, gives his team confidence that they have him on their side. He is the most successful active tuner in the fuel ranks with nine Top Fuel championships and four in Top Alcohol Dragster from 1990 to 1993 with his late brother, Blaine, driving.

“Alan Johnson is such a dedicated, motivated individual,” said Worsham. “He’s so good at what he does no matter what you’re doing with him. Whether it’s golfing, bowling, or whatever, he brings out the best in you. When I golf with him, I pick up five strokes. It’s unreal.

“He’s very motivational. You don’t want to let him down. He’s a great guy with a great family. I love his mom and dad. I knew his brother well. I basically talked him into going Top Fuel racing when I was a kid on my bicycle. It was like, ‘Hey, if we can do it, you can do it.’ ”

The Al-Anabi Racing team, for as serious and focused as they are when they’re racing, keep a loose, family atmosphere at the end of the day. Johnson’s parents, Everett and Agnes, are in their pits for the last three races of the year. They will also be hosting the 15th annual Blaine Johnson Memorial Golf Tournament in Santa Maria, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 16., a few days after the season-ending event in Pomona. Johnson’s sister, Pam, was there, too, helping promote breast cancer awareness, for which she is a survivor. Worsham was joined in Las Vegas by his dad, who was tuning the Todd Lesenko-driven Funny Car, and his wife and daughters, who were trick-or-treating in the pits.

Worsham is an excitable person, but I’ve never seen him as fired up after a win as he was in this instance. Two races after what might have been the most crushing loss of his career, losing on a holeshot to Massey in the Reading final while recording the quickest pass in Top Fuel history, Worsham redeemed himself with a good-enough .061 light to cover Massey in the final by a .001-second margin.

Worsham has the look of someone who is chomping at the bit for the chance to contend for his first title. He predicts that it will come down to the final round in Pomona and that the winner will be the champion. Coincidentally, his first race in competition was the 1990 NHRA Finals, at which Joe Amato beat Gary Ormsby in a Top Fuel final that determined the championship. When asked if he’s ready, Worsham said, “21 years of doing it, baby ... hell yeah, I’m ready.”

On the other side of the coin, or, in this case, a race decided by a scant .001-second, Massey and the FRAM team are rallying together for a championship push. The team bounced back from a surprise DNQ at the Phoenix event, after which they went to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to test that Monday in anticipation of this race.

Before the race began, the FRAM crew were informed by co-crew chief Phil Shuler that Tommy Okuhara, the father of crew chief Todd and car chief Scott, succumbed to pancreatic cancer early in the week. The Okuhara brothers learned their craft from working on race cars and engines at their father’s machine shop in their native Hawaii before Todd came to the mainland in 1993 to work on Roland Leong’s team and eventually ascend to the crew chief position at Don Schumacher Racing.

“He was diagnosed around the time when were racing here in April,” said Scott. “He was our biggest influence. We still use his advice even with the computers and technology that we have today. It’s kind of strange to be here right now because our family usually comes out here to Vegas and Pomona before we all go back to Hawaii for Thanksgiving.”

Holding off plans to hold services until the week after the Pomona event, Todd stayed focused on getting their dragster back on track. The team rallied around their quiet leader by working diligently and keeping the mood light. They shook off the Phoenix DNQ with a No. 2 qualifying position in a quick field that 27 cars tried to be a part of.

Massey had two drivers foul against him on Sunday, and his .056 light in the second round kept Rod Fuller at bay in a race between two cars that ran .008-second apart from one another. He put a hundredth on Worsham in the final but lost by inches. He leaves with a lead of two points over Worsham.

What may be the most competitive season of Top Fuel in history will conclude at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in two weeks. The fortunes of Worsham, Massey, Brown, and Dixon will be decided with each team digging deep for those extra thousandths of a second that can seal their fates.

The Fast Five

Like DSR teammate Spencer Massey, Ron Capps bounced back from a DNQ in Phoenix in a big way. The NAPA team tested in Las Vegas immediately after the Phoenix event, and the extra laps to sort out their problems and get a baseline for this event helped give crew chief Tim Richards the opportunity to put Capps in the winner’s circle. Capps qualified No. 1 and scored big wins over title contenders Jack Beckman and Cruz Pedregon in the second round and semifinals, respectively. With NAPA brass on hand to watch the event, Capps strapped a holeshot on Johnny Gray in the final and ran low e.t. of eliminations to score his second win of the season and keep himself in the running for a title.

Mike Edwards loves Las Vegas. Half of his four 2011 wins have occurred at The Strip at LVMS. The round-win that really propelled the No. 1 qualifier to victory was a 6.66 to 6.64 holeshot win over Greg Anderson in the semifinals. Edwards had a .001 light. It should be noted that Edwards, a historically good leaver who has struggled on the Tree since his in-house engine program helped give him a top-tier car over the past four years, has three holeshot wins vs. one such loss in 2011. He left first in a 6.64 to 6.66 decision over Allen Johnson in the final round.

Eddie Krawiec
can sleep a little more soundly heading into the final race of the season now that a win along with a second-round loss by Hector Arana Jr. has given him a 69-point lead. Krawiec relied on his Vance & Hines/Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson to overcome holeshots by David Hope and LE Tonglet in the first two rounds. He took care of business against Hector Arana Sr. in the semi’s to set up an all-Harley final against teammate Andrew Hines. Krawiec was more than a half-tenth quicker than Hines on the Tree and won a 6.93 to 6.99 contest comfortably.

Johnny Gray has been in each of the last three final rounds. The Service Central driver made things exciting when he pitched all but the nose of his body off during Saturday qualifying due to a series of events that likely began with a broken intake valve. It was the second time the team had to switch bodies during the event in Las Vegas this season – they swapped shells after the car hit a foam block on the centerline during qualifying at the spring event. Gray made three runs between 4.12 and 4.15 heading into the final. Gray put a hole out at the hit in the money round. His 443 points earned during the Countdown events is the most in the class. The next most is the 376 points earned by points leader Matt Hagan.

Three champions were decided at this event. Pro Stock champ Jason Line, Get Screened America Pro Mod champion Khalid Balooshi, and Super Comp champ Gary Stinnett all locked up their respective classes. It’s Line’s second title and the sixth for Ken Black Racing. Black, who lives in Las Vegas, has seen his drivers, Greg Anderson and Line, score titles in consecutive seasons while he has battled courageously to recover from a stroke suffered two years ago. Balooshi won the first two events of the season in his Speedtech-backed nitrous entry and fended off blown challenger Danny Rowe. Stinnett built a big lead, and he clinched his second consecutive Super Comp title when Aaron Kinard lost in round four.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
If Johnny Gray had qualified for the No. 10 spot in the Countdown to the Championship, he would currently be in the No. 5 position and just 35 points out of the No. 1 spot heading into the season-ending event in Pomona.

The last Funny Car driver to follow a DNQ with a win before Ron Capps was Tony Bartone, who followed a Denver DNQ with a Seattle win in 2008. Bartone happened to win in Top Alcohol Funny Car at this event. Before Bartone, Mike Ashley was the last to bounce back from a DNQ with a win. Oddly, he did so twice in 2007, following an Englishtown DNQ with a Norwalk win and a Reading DNQ with an Indy win. Ashley was on the premises and ran a 3.91 while licensing in Dexter Tuttle's dragster during Monday testing. Capps’ last DNQ before the Phoenix event was in Topeka in 2007. One race later, he reached the final round in Chicago.

Crew chiefs of the race: Alan Johnson and Brian Husen guided Del Worsham to victory for the seventh time this season and the first time with the chassis they’re running; Tim Richards bounced back from a DNQ to score from the No. 1 spot; Terry Adams has shown particular aptitude for The Strip at LVMS in Pro Stock; Matt Hines put both Harleys in the final.

Best races:
Del Worsham vs. Spencer Massey, Top Fuel final: There was ample buildup between these two drivers in a race between the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers two events after they staged the quickest side-by-side race in history in the Reading final. With a 40-point swing in points at stake between two title contenders with one race to go in the season, they staged a helluva race that Worsham nabbed by .001-second.

Jason Line vs. V. Gaines, Pro Stock round one: Gaines almost stole one with a .009 reaction time. The 2012 Full Throttle Pro Stock champion ran him down by half of a thousandth of a second.

Quotes of the race: “There will be a lot of Alka-Seltzer consumed by crew chiefs that weekend.” — DieHard Funny Car crew chief Tommy DeLago, regarding the wide-open Funny Car title going down to the last race of the season

“It’s like any other round except that "we’ll get ’em next week’ is kind of out of the picture.” — U.S. Army crew chief Mike Green, before a crucial first-round matchup against Antron Brown

“Some people are saying it’s over. [Expletive] no, it’s just starting to get interesting.” — John Force, after all three of his cars smoked the tires in the first round

In a sport consisting of teams that are hell-bent on going as fast as possible, slowing down can be one of the most difficult things to do.

Two weeks prior to the Phoenix event, temperatures in the 50s at Maple Grove Raceway provided the stage for previous national records and personal best elapsed times and speeds to be annihilated. The track was so good and tight that tuners had to turn the wicks up on their motors even with the crisp air helping to provide plentiful power.

The racing conditions and collective mind-set of the crew chiefs made a figurative 180-degree turn when they arrived in the summer-like conditions of Arizona in October. The air temperature remained at 100 degrees throughout the afternoons at the event, the track temperature approached 130 degrees, and tuners had to take the combinations that they had developed for speed into places they had never been with them before.

Hot conditions have long been considered an equalizer, and it showed in the results. Several non-touring teams qualified in the middle of the Top Fuel and Funny Car fields, and Spencer Massey, Morgan Lucas, Ron Capps, and Tony Pedregon all failed to crack the quick 16. Massey entered the race with the points lead, but his team was unable to temper the power level down enough to make an A to B run despite making what they considered to be very large changes.

One of the success stories at the event was Top Fuel winner and No. 1 qualifier Larry Dixon. His crew chief, Jason McCulloch, pulled off a challenging feat in getting the Al-Anabi dragster to make consistent, 3.9-second runs to net their second win of the season.

“We’ve spent all year trying to make more power, and we had to figure out how to bring the power level down to keep it from wearing through the clutch,” said McCulloch.

Dixon’s reaction after beating new points leader Antron Brown in the final round by eight-thousandths of a second was quite emotional for a driver who had won 61 times before. After his 12-0 run in final rounds in 2010, Dixon scored his second win of 2011 in the 20th race of the season. He had been shut out of the final round for 10 straight races prior to Phoenix.

Part of the reason Dixon’s season hasn’t been as successful is the unprecedented level of competition among the upper echelon in the class, particularly between the two Al-Anabi and three Don Schumacher Racing entries. Dixon’s performance level hadn’t fallen off, nor had that of rival Tony Schumacher, who has been winless thus far. The pie got smaller with Schumacher’s teammates, Brown and Massey, combining for 10 wins and Dixon’s teammate, Del Worsham, scoring six.

McCulloch has also adjusted to being a full-fledged tuner for the first time in his career. He has been a crew chief in name since the team formed in 2009, though Alan Johnson made decisions on the car until moving his focus to the Worsham-driven dragster this season while grooming crew chief Brian Husen. Earlier this season, Dixon painted the situation with the analogy of Luke Skywalker taking on Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Although McCulloch is a rookie tuner competing against crew chiefs with more experience, the drop-off in wins from last year still bothered him. He is acutely aware of his role in the performance of the car and feels empathy for a proven crew that has become accustomed to reaching the winner’s circle with great regularity. Other than assistant crew chief Ronnie Thompson, who was added to the team this season, the majority of the crew had been together since they were part of the championship-winning U.S. Army teams.

Dixon is 20 points, the equivalent of one round, out of first place with two races remaining. Any one of the top five drivers can conceivably be the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Top Fuel champion, and the Al-Anabi Silver team has shown that they are prepared to bring the heat regardless of what conditions come to them.

The Fast Five

The Funny Car winner for the second straight year and third time in the past four years is Jack Beckman. The Aaron’s/Valvoline driver netted his third win of the season, though he had been relatively quiet despite maintaining favorable standings in the points. His last win was in Atlanta and last final was during the Western Swing, but he’d hit enough singles and doubles along the way for the former Super Comp world champ to take the points lead for the first time in the Professional ranks. In addition to a deadly consistent car provided by crew chief Rahn Tobler, Beckman drove out of his mind with lights between .045 and .057 during clean starts.

Antron Brown is back in the points lead after his eighth final-round showing of the season. The Matco Tools driver made the quickest runs of both Saturday qualifying sessions and ran low e.t. of eliminations in the opening round, which set up a huge matchup against Del Worsham in round two. Worsham broke traction, and Brown’s winning e.t. didn’t earn him lane choice, but he put his starting-line prowess to use in a holeshot win over Tony Schumacher in the semi’s. Both of Brown's final-round losses this season occurred at the hands of Larry Dixon.

Vincent Nobile breathed life back into a fierce campaign for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that honors NHRA’s top rookie. He scored his third win of the season, and all three victories included a holeshot win in the final round. His 78 percent first-leave percentage leads all drivers in the Pro Stock ranks. It was anybody’s race once the top three qualifiers and three top performers at this point of the season — Jason Line, Greg Anderson, and Mike Edwards — were eliminated in the early rounds. Nobile’s four lights between .006 and .025 separated him from the remaining cars in the pack. His .009 light in the final was the difference in a 6.67 to 6.65 contest against Allen Johnson in an all-Mopar final.

Nobile kept pace with but didn’t pull away from friend and fellow rookie Hector Arana Jr. Arana kept up his torrid pace of late by securing his third win. The championship chase has shaped up to mirror the 2010 battle in which then-rookie LE Tonglet surprised Andrew Hines down the stretch. Arana is now within 10 points of event runner-up and points leader Eddie Krawiec, who is Hines’ teammate. Krawiec kept the final round from being a father-son affair by overcoming a .001 light by Hector Sr. in the semifinals, but he couldn’t touch Arana’s final-round package of a perfect light paired with a 6.884, .001-second off from his time in the first round that stood as low e.t. of the event.

The Service Central Dodge Charger driven by Johnny Gray has been the most competitive entry outside of the Countdown to the Championship in any category. Gray was the No. 1 qualifier in Reading with the third-quickest run in class history, and he didn’t falter in much warmer conditions. His 4.23 and 4.27 in the first two rounds were two of the three quickest runs of eliminations, and he won his semifinal race against Jim Head with an adept pedaljob in an incredibly close decision.

Special Awards

Stats of the race

NHRA announcer Bob Frey pointed out that Jack Beckman became the 39th driver in the history of the Funny Car class to lead the points in the championship era that began in 1974. That seems like a low number, but drivers such as Don Prudhomme, Raymond Beadle, Kenny Bernstein, and especially John Force dominated their respective eras.

Ron Capps
’ surprising DNQ ended the longest active qualifying streak in the Funny Car class at 105 races. He hadn’t failed to qualify since the Topeka event in 2007. He and Tony Pedregon entered the season with a tie for the longest active streak, and they were the only two nonqualifiers of the 18 Funny Cars entered at this event.

There were six total red-lights in the Funny Car class all season before drivers got jumpy in eliminations at this race. Jeff Diehl red-lighted in what would have been an upset over Jim Head in round one, Robert Hight uncharacteristically jumped the gun in round two, and Paul Lee left before the Tree was activated against Head in the second round.

Crew chiefs of the race: Jason McCulloch led his team to victory despite not having lane choice in the last two rounds; Rahn Tobler gave his driver the most consistent car of the event; Mark Ingersoll, Roy Johnson, and the newly-added Jim Yates gave Allen Johnson the quickest car of the last three rounds and had involvement with Nobile’s winning team, too; Hector Arana Sr. gave his kid the bike to beat and nearly put himself in the final against him.

Best races: Johnny Gray vs. Jim Head, Funny Car semifinal: It was difficult to distinguish the winner of this one with the naked eye, and even a photo finish required the viewer to squint. Though neither made great runs, they left together and were glued together going down the track. Head led most of the race, but Gray got to the stripe first by .0006-second.

Larry Dixon vs. Steve Torrence, Top Fuel semifinal: Dixon staved off elimination from Torrence’s upset-minded new team by .006-second.

Steve Casner vs. Jimmy Lewis, Super Gas final: The most exciting of the Sportsman finals occurred in a rare instance when Casner and Lewis cut identical .013 lights and ran identical 9.918s on the 9.90 dial. Casner got to the stripe first by a miniscule .0007-second.

Tough luck of the race: A fuel leak in the first round ended Greg Anderson’s day and prevented him from making up any ground on teammate Jason Line in the championship battle despite Line leaving the door open by going out early.

Quotes of the race: “I love the heat. Anything below 100 degrees is cold.” — John Stewart, crew chief for Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon

“Personally, I like that one of the Countdown races is on a hot track with some personality. The champion should be someone who can perform well in different conditions.” — Funny Car No. 1 qualifier Cruz Pedregon

“Sometimes it’s racing, and sometimes it’s a drag, and we got the drag part of it this weekend.” — Spencer Massey, who relinquished his points lead after failing to qualify

"I went from the hospital to the semifinals." — Steve Torrence, who missed the second round of qualifying due to a virus and dehydration but earned a semifinal finish on Sunday

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