John Force dominated a dramatic Sunday at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, first winning the season championship in Funny Car and then the event itself. Force was joined in the winner's circle at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona by Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Shane Gray (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle). The win was the first of rookie Gray's career and the first of the season for Brown.
Championship Sunday lived up to its billing as the title battles in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle had the fans at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona and across the world watching and listening on the Internet on the edge of their seats. After Larry Dixon ended whatever drama existed still in Top Fuel with a first-round victory to seal his third title and joined Greg Anderson, who locked up the Pro Stock title in qualifying Saturday, as a re-crowned former champ, Force took advantage of a first-round loss in Funny Car by points leader Matt Hagan to defeat Gary Densham in round one and Bob Bode in round two to win his 15th championship. Rookie rider LE Tonglet similarly drove through the door opened by Pro Stock Motorcycle front-runner Andrew Hines' first-round foul to dispatch Matt Guidera in round one and Steve Johnson to win his first championship. Tonglet is just the third rookie to win a Pro championship, on the heels of Frank Hawley (1982) and Gary Scelzi (1997). [Final 2010 standings]
In his eight victories at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, Force has beaten eight opponents in the final in front of a very partial crowd: Kenny Bernstein, Cruz and Tony Pedregon, Bruce Sarver, Tommy Johnson Jr., Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and now Jeff Arend. The final was as good as they come as Force eked out a 4.08 to 4.10 victory.
“We went all year with the lead, and then we stumbled at Reading when the clutch pedal fell off and couldn’t get it in reverse,” said Force. “We sat with the guys in meetings week after week, ‘We can’t make mistakes.’ We opened the door for Hagan, and he took advantage of it. He came over and congratulated me. Hagan is a class act. He’s got a lot of championships ahead of him; it’s going to happen. But we got it here. The shot around the world was by Bobby Tasca in that Ford Mustang when he took him out first round because we couldn’t count on this kid Hagan to stumble. We knew if we got him in the final, it was too late. There was no national record, so somebody had to get him, and Bobby got him, and that opened the door for us.
“You got to give it to a great bunch of guys led by Mike Neff teamed up with Bernie [Fedderly] and [Austin] Coil — so much experience there, so many championships. It just brought new energy to this team. This is really a great group of kids I’ve got on this car. I see the tears in their eyes, the emotion. They’re supporting me when I run out of steam, taking the Full Throttle can out of my hand when I go overcenter. It’s just a great bunch of guys.”
Force, with the championship already clinched, kept the hammer down to the reach the final, the 213th of his amazing career and 11th this season, by wheeling his 25th anniversary Castrol GTX Mustang past Densham, Bode, and, in the semifinals, Melanie Troxel. Force was the class of the field, running 4.11, 4.16, and 4.13 in the rounds prior to the final.
Arend, who lives just a few miles from Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in San Dimas, reached his third final of the season and the sixth of his career at the wheel of the Kalitta Motorsports DHL Toyota. After opening with a 4.29 on a solo pass after Paul Lee broke on the burnout, Arend's yellow machine ran back-to-back 4.18s to defeat No. 1 qualifier Ashley Force Hood and Tasca. The race with Tasca was a thriller, as Arend got the win light on a 4.183 to 4.186 count.
Brown recorded his milestone 25th victory by denying Shawn Langdon his first. After Langdon smoked the tires early in the Top Fuel final, Brown raced to a 3.84 that was punctuated by a top-end fire that lit up the darkened Pomona sky. Brown, who won the Auto Club NHRA Finals 10 years apart – in 1999 on a Pro Stock Motorcycle and last year in Top Fuel – hadn't won a final in six appearances this season.
“It just makes the whole year just that much better now because we got that win,” said Brown. “It’s been a real trying and stressful year for our team. We went through a whole bunch of ups and downs. From Phoenix and everything else, we bounced back. We made it to some finals. We’ve just been working our tail off, and the difference of it is we switched a lot of stuff around, trying to get better. We went through it, and we definitely have a hot rod that has more power, but it was just getting the clutch to work with it. Brian [Corradi] and Mark [Oswald] and the rest of the guys on the team have been working hard on it, and we’re finally starting to get it together.
“These last four races, it all started coming together. We were getting close every time. We don’t do very well in qualifying because we’re still trying to feel it out, and then on race day, we’re plucking it off and getting better and better. This race, we were able to get downwind today and get it done, and it feels really good, believe me.”
Brown drove the Corradi- and Oswald-tuned Matco Tools dragster to the final, the 54th of his career, from the No. 8 spot, trailering Steve Torrence, low qualifier Tony Schumacher, and Morgan Lucas with a powerful display of consistency: 3.851, 3.858, and 3.863. Lucas, teammate to Langdon, had his finest outing of the season before red-lighting to Brown in the semifinals.
Langdon raced the John Stewart-tuned Lucas Oil dragster to his third final and second of the season by sitting down Ron August Jr., Doug Kalitta, and newly crowned champ Dixon with a trio of ever-quickening passes, following a pair of 3.90s with a 3.860 holeshot victory over Dixon's 3.856. Langdon got the drop at the Tree, .050 to .067.
A feel-good winner was guaranteed in Pro Stock. Gray was looking for his first win, and Coughlin, who during qualifying announced that he'd be stepping away from the Pro Stock class in 2011, was looking for a last hurrah. Gray zapped one of the class' best leavers with a .010 light and outpowered him, too, 6.566 to 6.568. The win boosted Gray to fourth place in the final standings.
Gray, who in any other season would have won the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, reached the third final of his debut season by wheeling the Big O Tires Pontiac past Dave Connolly with a 6.59, then running back-to-back 6.60s to defeat Kurt Johnson and No. 2 qualifier V. Gaines.
“How do you compete with LE? A rookie winning the championship? Shoot, he’s the man,” said Gray. “I told my wife when I started this deal, ‘You know, honey, it would be a great thing if we just qualify, if I can just get in the car and just start it without people laughing at me,’ so for our team to finish fourth in the points and win a race, it’s a God-given thing that we were blessed with today and all year. We have received way more than we deserve.
“I’m not real sure if this has soaked in yet. I remember we staged up, I let the clutch out, and the yellow car disappeared, and I put the car in high gear, I looked out the window, and he wasn’t there. I went across the stripe, and my light came on, and it was like, ‘What just happened?’ "
Coughlin went out on a high note by reaching the final, the 83rd of his Pro Stock career. He opened his Sunday account in style, dispatching recently minted world champ Anderson in round one on a holeshot, 6.587 to 6.579, then also zapped Rodger Brogdon on the Tree in round two, 6.588 to 6.578. Coughlin slowed to a 6.62 in the semifinals, but the race had already been decided by low qualifier Allen Johnson's -.010 red-light. Coughlin had won the Finals three times, most recently in 2007.
Krawiec, who won the motorcycle season-opening Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals but hadn't been back to a final since, rode home his victory in style with a blistering 6.811, the quickest pass in class history and a new national record backed up by his 6.84 in qualifying. Hector Arana, knowing the power of Krawiec's V-Rod, took a shot at the Tree and red-lighted with a -.008 reaction time.
"It sure is a nice way to end the season," said Krawiec. "I didn’t know we could set a record here, but I’m glad to be the guy holding that time slip. Weather has been phenomenal, and that was a big help. The way this class is, you never know where records can be set. For our team, it was a bittersweet day, but this [win] does takes the sting out of Drew not winning the championship. When you don’t win, it makes it a bit difficult on everyone. We fight every year for championships, and there are a lot of high highs and low lows.
"I would say this is the best bike I have had all year if not for my entire career. Matt [Hines, crew chief] gave me an awesome tune-up, and I had my best 60-foot time of the year [1.05 seconds], and that made the difference."
Krawiec, who won this race last year and was runner-up at the 2008 edition, marched his military-themed Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson to his second final of the season. He advanced past Tonglet in the semifinals to end his Cinderella day, inducing a -.001 red-light from the new champ. Krawiec, who qualified No. 1, defeated Freddie Camarena and Michael Phillips for the right to avenge teammate Hines, but his 6.92 ceded lane choice to Arana.
Arana's reign as Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ ended at this event, but the rider of the Lucas Oil Buell went out on a high note by reaching his fifth final of the season. Arana, the No. 2 qualifier, raced past David Hope, Angie Smith, and Jim Underdahl to reach the money round.
Thursday: Hagan jumps to lead; Dixon, Line, Arana also top Thursday fields
Friday: Force team strikes back on frantic Friday at Finals
Saturday: Title drama rachets up heading into Championship Sunday