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Auto Club NHRA Finals Sunday Notebook

Brittany Force earned her seventh career win to go with her first Top Fuel championship at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, while Bo Butner grabbed his first Pro Stock title and a victory. Tommy Johnson Jr. and Andrew Hines also picked up wins at the final event of the season.
11 Nov 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Pomona

Preview| Features| Results | Photos 

ELIMINATION ROUNDS RECAPS

torrence.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND ONE (11:25 a.m.): Points leader Steve Torrence and second-place Brittany Force both advanced to round two to keep the championship drama alive. Force beat Terry Haddock with a 3.688 and will take on Richie Crampton (3.724) while Torrence dispatched fellow Texan Troy Buff with a 3.708 and will battle good friend Antron Brown (3.710) with lane choice in the second round. Doug Kalitta kept his title hopes alive with a statement run, 3.684, which was low e.t. of the round. His title chances now rest on second-round losses by both Torrence and Force and an event victory for the Mac Tools team.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Brittany Force vs. Richie Crampton; Steve Torrence vs. Antron Brown; Doug Kalitta vs. Clay Millican; Leah Pritchett vs. Shawn Langdon

hgiht-champ1.jpgFUNNY CAR ROUND ONE (11:5 a.m.): Robert Hight locked up the championship, the second of his career, when his lone remaining title rival, Ron Capps, was upset by Del Worsham. Hight had already beaten Tim Wilkerson with a 3.839, just .004-second off of Jack Beckman’s low e.t. pass from qualifying, when Capps pulled to the line. His NAPA Charger faltered briefly at halftrack and he couldn’t recover in time to catch Worsham. Alexis DeJoria, competing in her final event before retiring, earned another ride in round two after beating Jim Campbell. 

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jack Beckman vs. John Force; Alexis DeJoria vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.; Robert Hight vs. Matt Hagan; Del Worsham vs. Courtney Force

enders2.jpgPRO STOCK ROUND 1 (11:57 a.m.): The battle for the Mello Yello Pro Stock championship will continue to at least the second round of eliminations after points leaders Greg Anderson, Bo Butner, and Jason Line each advanced to the quarterfinals. Anderson, the points leader. Moved a step closer to his fifth championship after a win over Alan Prusiensky’s Dodge. Butner advanced with a 6.581 after Shane Gray’s car made a hard move to the left after he let the clutch out and Jason Line moved on after Deric Kramer also shut off early. The most dramatic run of the round came when Erica Enders defeated her good friend, Allen Johnson, effectively ending Johnson’s Pro Stock career. The 2012 champ announced his retirement earlier this season.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs. Brian Self; Bo Butner vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.; Erica Enders vs. Jason Line; Drew Skillman vs. Tanner Gray.

pollacheck_0.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:08 p.m.): All three of the Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson bikes of Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, and Chip Ellis advanced to the second round of eliminations but most of the talk after the first round centered around two-time champ Matt Smith who thrilled the huge Pomona crowd with a savage burnout prior to his round one win over Hector Arana Jr. Hines made the best run of the round with a  6.820, but Scotty Pollacheck was also extremely competitive with a 6.831, 196.07 run in his win against Fred Camarena.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Eddie Krawiec vs. Jerry Savoie; Chip Ellis vs. LE Tonglet; Scotty Pollacheck vs. Matt Smith; Andrew Hines vs. Joey Gladstone

brittany4.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND TWO (1:20 p.m.): With points leader Steve Torrence already defeated in just ahead of her, Brittany Force became the second female Top Fuel champion in NHRA history when she defeated Richie Crampton. Torrence had already been beaten by Antron Brown, giving her the chance to clinch the title, which she did with a resounding 3.679. Force’s win also eliminated Doug Kalitta from title contention, though Kalitta remained in contention for the event title with another strong pass, a 3.687.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Brittany Force vs. Antron Brown; Doug Kalitta vs. Shawn Langdon

courtney5.jpgFUNNY CAR ROUND TWO (1:35 p.m.): Courtney Force, winless so far this season, tossed her hat into the ring with a throwdown 3.842 pass on a bye run after Del Worsham – who a round earlier had ended Ron Capps’ championship bid – was unable to run after suffering an ignition failure during startup. New champ Robert Hight also blasted out a solid 3.851 and will face his teammate in the final four. A JFR versus DSR final is ensured as Jack Beckman and teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. advanced to the semi’s on the other side of the ladder, though Johnson’s run ended up in the sandtrap after a parachute malfunction.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Jack Beckman vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.; Courtney Force vs. Robert Hight

butner3.jpgPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:41 p.m.): The NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock championship will not be decided until at least the semifinals after leaders Greg Anderson and Bo Butner both advanced. Butner drove to a 6.567 to 6.630 win over five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. while Anderson stopped Elite crew chief/driver Brian “Lump” Self, who shook the tires and shut off. Anderson also ran 6.567, but at a slower 209.75 mph speed so Butner will have lane choice for their critical match. In order to win the title, Butner will have to beat Anderson in the semi's and then win the final round.  Jason Line defeated Erica Enders with a 6.561, but cannot win the championship since he can’t overtake teammate Anderson. In addition to the three KB Racing cars, rookie of the year favorite Tanner Gray will also advance with a 6.559 to 6.554 holeshot win against Drew Skillman.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Bo Butner vs. Greg Anderson; Tanner Gray vs. Jason Line

tonglet3.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (p.m.): Teammates Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines have moved on to the semifinals of Pro Stock Motorcycle and they’re joined by Matt Smith and LE Tonglet. The four remaining riders have combined to win 12 world champonships in the class. Hines was the quickest rider in the semi’s with a 6.824, 196.41 in his win over Joey Gladstone. Krawiec was also consistent with a 6.828, 196.42 when he defeated outgoing champ Jerry Savoie. Smith, who publicly stated in round one that he could not win the race, has restated that position following a 6.858, 193.74 in his win over Scotty Pollacheck. In the final pair of the quarterfinals, Tonglet used a big holeshot to defeat the Harley-Davidson of Chip Ellis.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Eddie Krawiec vs. Matt Smith; Andrew Hines vs. LE Tonglet

langdon_0.jpgTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:50 p.m.): Shawn Langdon, competing in his final race in a Top Fueler before switching to Funny Car next season, reached his second final round in the last three events when he beat teammate Doug Kalitta on a holeshot, 3.718 to 3.703. Langdon, looking for his first win of the season and the 15th of his nitro career, will take on newly crowned world champ Brittany Force, who eked out a 3.674 to 3.677 victory over Antron Brown in the quickest side-by-side race in Top Fuel history, giving her lane choice for the final round as she seeks her fourth win of the season.

hight6.jpgFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:55 p.m.): Newly crowned champ Robert Hight beat teammate Courtney Force to reach his seventh final of the year, but the engine in his Auto Club Camaro let go at the finish line. Hight, blinded by smoke and fire, crossed the centerline and glanced off the left-lane guardwall before ending up in the sand trap. The team will begin preparing its backup car to compete in the final, where he will take on Tommy Johnson Jr., who beat his teammate, Jack Beckman, in the other semifinal.

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“I’m fine,” said Hight. “When that thing blew up it made a hard turn and I couldn’t keep it from going to the wall. The body tilted up and I couldn’t reach the ‘chutes. We have another car back in the pits; we’re going to fix it and come out here and try to end this weekend on an unbelievable note.” The team’s backup chassis, which ran in testing Monday after the Las Vegas event, will be cloaked in the Camaro body that Brittany Force has been using in testing. (animated gif)

tanner_0.jpgPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (3:14 p.m.): The Pro Stock championship won’t be decided until the final after Bo Butner defeated his teammate Greg Anderson in a pressure packed semifinal. Anderson grabbed an early lead, but Butner kept his title hopes alive with a 6.551, 210.05 to 6.564, 209.92 victory. In order to win the title, Butner will have to defeat rookie of the year favorite, Tanner Gray in the final. Gray punched his ticket to the final after reigning champ Jason Line fouled by seven-thousandths. Butner will have lane choice by four thousandths after Gray ran a 6.555. Butner, the 2006 NHRA Comp champion, is winless against Gray in four races so far this season. 

hines5.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (3:20 p.m.): Harley-Davidson teammates Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines will race in the final Pro Stock Motorcycle race of the season. Krawiec, who locked up his fourth championship yesterday, will have lane choice after driving to a 6.803, 196.56 win over Matt Smith’s Polaris Victory Magnum. Hines, seeking his first win of the season and the 48th of his career, joined Krawiec in the final after a 6.817, 196.02 win over LE Tonglet, who trailed at 6.886, 195.39. Hines helped himself with a .06-second holeshot against the Nitro Fish rider. 

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PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (4:02 p.m.): Andrew Hines, near lane, picked up the 48th victory of his incredible career when he defeated teammate and newly crowned champion Eddie Krawiec in the final round. Krawiec was almost perfect on the starting line with a .005 light but slowed before the finish line, allowing Hines to win his first event of the season and move into second place in the standings. Hines won with a 6.856, 196.02 while Krawiec ran a 6.930 at just 177.58 mph.

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PRO STOCK FINAL (4:06 p.m.): In one of the most dramatic final rounds in NHRA history, Bo Butner, far lane, won the Auto Club Finals and the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock championship after defeating Tanner Gray in the final. Butner wheeled his Camaro to a 6.554, 201.70 in the final to beat Gray’s 6.653, 208.62. Butner had previously been winless in four races verses Gray. Butner needed to win the final in order to pass teammate Greg Anderson for the championship as the KB Racing teammates finished 1-2-3 in the standings with reigning champ Jason Line finishing third.

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FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:13 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr., far lane, took down Robert Hight for his second win of the season after losing in four-straight final rounds. It’s his first win since the Spring Las Vegas event, and his second-straight win at the Auto Club NHRA Finals. He finishes the year in seventh place after starting the Countdown to the Championship in the No. 5 slot. 

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TOP FUEL FINAL (4:18 p.m.): Brittany Force, near lane, completed her incredible season with her fourth win. Shawn Langdon ran into trouble right away, while the Monster Energy Dragster pilot sped to a 3.668-second pass. Her four wins are the most she’s ever had in a season and give her seven in her career. She’ll get to celebrate her Top Fuel championship in style tonight. 

Recap: B. Force, Butner win in Pomona to go with titles; Johnson Jr. and Hines also earn wins

LUCAS OIL DRAG RACING SERIES; In addition to the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series competition, seven winners were crowned in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. Final-round results:

Top Alcohol Dragster
Shawn Cowie def. Julie Nataas

Top Alcohol Funny Car
John Lombardo Jr. def. Annie Whiteley

Comp
Dan Fletcher def. Tom Mettler

Super Stock
Robert Cruzen def. Jimmy DeFrank

Stock
Austin Williams def. Chris Stephenson

Super Comp
Bobby Dye Jr. def. Tanner Theobald

Super Gas
Steve Parsons def. Mike Wiblishouser

FEATURES

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There will be a first-time Top Fuel champion crowned for the first time since Del Worsham snagged his title in 2015. Steve Torrence sits in first place with a nine-point lead over Brittany Force, and an 86-point lead over Doug Kalitta. For the Texan to retain his lead, and earn that coveted Mello Yello Top Fuel Championship, he needs to go just one round deeper than Force, and only two rounds further than Kalitta. 

Force and Torrence can meet up as early as the semifinals If they meet up in that round, it will decide the championship, as Kalitta will have been eliminated by virtue as the two competitors having advanced that deep into the day. Force starts her day against Terry Haddock in the first round as the No. 1 qualifier, while Steve-O takes on Troy Buff as the No. 5 qualifier. 

Kalitta begins action as the No. 7 qualifier against Wayne Newby. The heavy hitters on his side of the bracket include Clay Millican, Tony Schumacher, and Leah Pritchett. If he reaches the final round, he’ll certainly have earned it. Here’s what it boils down to for Kalitta: If Torrence and Force win in the second round, his hopes for a first championship are over. If they both lose in the second round or sooner, he’s still alive. This is going to be fun. 

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palmer.jpgThe Auto Club NHRA Finals marks the end of Scott Palmer’s first full season on the tour, a dream-come-true year thanks to his association with Tommy Thompson and sponsorship from CatSpot litter. He and his crew, led by girlfriend Ashley Fye, qualified for the Countdown and although they didn’t accomplish their other goal of winning a national event, there’s still plenty happy and eagerly looking forward to next season.

“It definitely turned out better than we could have hoped,” said Palmer, who for years ran only partial seasons with an under-funded and undermanned operation. “I knew it would be hard, but it’s way easier to run a full season with parts and help than to run 10 races with no budget and four or five people. We’ve been blessed to be able to work with Steve [Torrence] and Bobby and Dom [Lagana] and we’d love to have Dom’s [Top Fueler] out there full-time with us as a team car.”

The Lagana brothers’ independent Nitro Ninja dragster made runs with a six-disc clutch towards the end of the season, a technology that will find its way into Palmer’s car next year.

“Dom got a good baseline and it picked up a couple of hundredths right away in his car, but it’s a whole different animal,” said Palmer. “We thought about putting it in m y car for the last two races but decided not to because we need to go through all of our current clutch discs before using the ones we’ve already bought for next year, and I’m we’d rather learn with the same clutch discs.”

Palmer’s Scott Compton-driven Liquid Voodoo Top Fuel Hydro also finished second in the Lucas Oil Drag Boat Racing Series championship, behind only Thompson’s Nitrochondriac boat, piloted by Bryan Sanders.

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britt.JPGFor the first time in her career, Brittany Force is a title contender at the final event of the season. She sits nine points behind Steve Torrence, fewer than the 30 points awarded for a round win at the Auto Club NHRA Finals this weekend, and with a bit of momentum behind her after reaching the final at the recent Las Vegas event. 

“It seems unreal to be here,” Force said. “I’ve watched my dad win 16 championships, and coming into my fifth year, I’m still trying to wrap my head around winning a single race. That’s so huge for me, so exciting. That’s something I’m so proud of. And now to be thinking that we’re in the hunt for a championship, it just seems unreal. But looking at this team and this car, I know we’re totally capable of winning it.”

The driver of the Monster Energy dragster has accumulated the most points in the Top Fuel class during the Countdown (467), but still has work to do if she wants to bring the big trophy back to Yorba Linda. She can conceivably pass Torrence during qualifying through a combination of bonus points (16 are on the table by way of four per session) and a max of 10 by being the No. 1 qualifier. Once raceday rolls around, she can earn a total of 120 by grabbing the Wally. 

Force has won three times this season, and split her six meetings with Torrence at three apiece. One of those meetings came in the Reading final, where Force got the victory. All three of the Monster Energy driver’s wins came against Countdown contenders, which ought to give her some confidence rolling into the biggest race of her career. 

“Some drivers feed off how many points they are behind and how far they are back, but for me, I do it one round at a time,” said Force.  It’s too much pressure, too much on my plate if I look at it another way, and then my focus is lost, it’s not in the right place. It’s not in the car, it’s a distraction. For me, less distraction is better when I’m in the car.

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rapisarda.JPGWayne Newby was as surprised to be entered at the Auto Club NHRA Finals as, well, just about everyone else. Santino Rapisarda, the crew chief of the Rapisarda Dragster, called the driver a little more than a week before the national event began to see if he was available. Newby, who drives the team’s dragster in the Australian National Drag Racing Association, obliged. 

The team is coming off a great first weekend in the ANDRA, and is racing in its fifth event of the season with its second driver. Ashley Sanford filled in for Newby at the St. Louis event while the Australian headed back to his home country to attend to his Engineering business. Now, the Aussie is back with the Rapisarda crew for the last race on the NHRA schedule. 

“We were thinking about it, or dad was, he’s kind of the boss,” said Rapisarda. “It all kind of worked out though, and we’re happy to be back. We flew to Indy, got the car and drove it out here.” 

That’s a 36-hour drive from Indiana to Pomona, at least when you’re driving a pair of rigs. And that comes after a very long flight from Australia to Indianapolis. So, it’s fair to assume nobody on the Rapisarda team got much sleep before making its first pair of passes on Friday night. That didn’t seem to upset anyone, as Newby ran his best pass of the season in the second session. That’s after snagging a pair of bonus points in the first session. 

“We’re robbing the other guys,” joked Rapisarda. 

Newby is currently qualified in the quick half of the field, but is still a couple of hundredths away from his career best (3.766). The Rapisarda feels that’s within grasp today, with conditions slightly warmer than the sessions on Friday. The Australian crew has one round-win this season, and will chase its second on Sunday. 

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shawn2.JPGShawn Reed might be a Top Fuel Dragster rookie, but he’s no rookie on the water. He wrapped up his third Lucas Oil Drag Boat Racing Series championship over the weekend (his fifth title on the water overall), and will now try to close out his rookie campaign on the tarmac with the second round-win of the season in his ninth race. 

“My team, we get A’s for efforts all days long,” said Reed. “The funds that Barbara and Floyd Hughes have given us have allowed us to make progress over the last three years. Three years ago, when I started this thing, I was a 4-second car. The second year, I was a 3.90 car. Now, I’m a 3.80 car. Next year, I’ll be a 3.70 car.”

That steady progress is what a successful small-budget team looks like, and Reed expects to go a little bit harder over 10 races next year. The Hughes Oilfield Transportation Dragster will have a six-disc clutch in it when it starts the next season when it shows up at the Lucas Oil Winternationals Presented by Protect the Harvest, which Reed figures will shave off a few hundredths of a second. 

“It’s getting easier every time, but I take a couple months off and I’m a little behind it,” said Reed, who estimates he has about 60 passes in the car. “If it takes me about four or five years to get to 100, well, you’re forgetting more than you learn.”

The dragster picked up a new sponsor in Global Electronic Technology, which is going to help the car run a little bit harder next season, too. Reed won’t be chasing a Countdown to the Championship spot in 2018, but he’ll certainly be a factor to ruin someone’s raceday at every race he attends. 

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The Funny Car championship was almost lost for Robert Hight before we got to Sunday as his special-edition California Highway Patrol Auto Club Camaro was not qualified after three sessions. The tire broke loose midway through his final qualifying pass, but he was able to gather the car back in and qualify in the no. 15 spot with a blower-backfiring 4.132.

“I knew I had to get it hooked up again because it would never had made it to the lights without blowing up, so I pedaled it and it hooked up,” he said. “It blew up anyway, but we got in.

“For whatever reason what we’ve been doing everywhere wasn’t working here,” he explained. “The first two runs it shook in the same spot but for different reasons. The third run we hit a bump early. We have a car that can win this thing. It's not like we're lost. We just have to adjust to it and drive good. The stress and everything today is kind of practice for the stress I’m going to have [today], and we got through it."

The supercharger backfire damaged the firewall bad enough that the team decided to sideline the California Highway Patrol-themed body they’d been running in favor of one with their traditional Auto Club livery.

Hight enters Sunday with a narrow eight-point lead over Ron Capps and, with both drivers on the same side of the ladder. Hight and Capps can face off as early as the semifinals. If they meet up in that round, it will determine who goes home with the championship. First, Hight needs to go through Tim Wilkerson in the first round. He would then need to beat the winner of Matt Hagan and Gary Densham in the second round of action. 

Capps, the No. 6 qualifier, gets Del Worsham in the first round. If he wins that round, he gets the winner of the Courtney Force-Jeff Diehl battle. That’s another matchup with potential title implications, although that’s only true if both Capps and Hight fall in the first round. 

Force enters Sunday 113 behind Capps and Hight. She needs both drivers she’s chasing to lose in the first round, and then she needs to win the race to lock up her first Funny Car championship. It’s a longshot (Hight and Capps haven’t lost in the first round of the same race all season), but that’s the kind of storybook ending we’ve seen in Pomona before. 

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diehl2.jpgIt would be hard to under-appreciate the effort and commitment that Jeff Diehl, wife Leeza, and their band of renegade crewmen have out together this season, running 19 events pretty much out of their own pockets and keeping the big teams honest, but the Diehls are ready to take it to a whole ‘nother level in 2018. Call 2018 “The Real Diehl” or “Serious Diehl,” but he’s going to ratchet it up in the face of the stiff competition that will take place in the class next year.

“I’m actually out looking for money for next year,” he said. “I know I need to take it up another level. I’ve hired some marketing people and I’m learning to stop and talk to people where I never had time before, because I have to change. Honestly, we came into this season trying to get this out of our system. I told Leeza, ‘Let’s just really push it and maybe we’ll burn ourselves out,’ but all we really did was embarrass ourselves and want to do it better, so now it’s worse than it’s ever been.

“We’ve gotten a lot of help from a lot of the teams out here that help me out with parts to keep me going. We get a little bit of help here and there [he’s banner Excel Drywall of Sumner, Wash., on the car this weekend] that have allowed us to stay after it. Right now, it looks like I’ll finish the season with the same amount of money I started the year because the car is basically paying for itself.”

That kind of financial “success” doesn’t come without sacrifices and cooperation.

“I think I’ve burned out every free help guy I could get and put them up at some pretty fleabag hotels, and Leeza and I sleep in the truck in the pits most races,” he said. 

Diehl has order two new Camry bodies from Kalitta Motorsports and has hired veteran tuner Johnny West to help the team get pointed in the right direction, especially in the clutch are, where the team was struggling. He thinks it may be the final piece of the puzzle he’s been missing.

“I went through their stuff Thursday night and fund some stuff that didn’t quite make sense, just the way stuff was getting adjusted and put together,” said West, “My concentration on any car is behind the engine plate. I could give a [care] about what the team is doing with the motor. We’re close already; I didn’t expect that 4.10 [Friday]. Jeff is an extremely mechanically inclined guy, so there’s very little babysitting I’ll have to do. It’s just putting things together a different way from what they’ve been doing.”

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The season hasn’t turned out quite the way that Del Worsham had hoped, with the former world champ failing to make the Countdown in his first year back as a family operation and his father, Chuck, battling health issues, but the 39-time national event winner remains optimistic as ever as they battle the mega teams that he once was part of.

“You’ll never hear me complain; I knew what I signed up for,” he said. “I know what we’re up against because I ran with those guys. But I feel good. The car is actually running as good as it has all year and we don’t hurt any parts; I just have to get it down the track.  It’s just been different stuff, like the blower belt coming off or the car gets out of the groove; it’s always something.”

Worsham also is learning the new AJR Stage 3 clutch package that, right now, only he and Brittany Force are using. “It’s the best that money can buy and it works to perfection,” he said. “If it [messes] up, it’s our fault. The engine is good, and we need to do a little bit of work on the chassis, but next year will be a lot better.”

Worsham is still working on putting together marketing partners for another full season in 2018, but he feels that he’s far enough along to be thinking about another full season.

“If you remember, it took us three years to get the DHL [Funny Car] to be a championship car; we were pretty rough to start out,” he said. “It took us a year and a half just to win rounds. When you’re racing these machines out there it’s tough.”

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alexis.JPGFor the last time in her career, Alexis DeJoria will strap into a Funny Car. The winner of seven national events, five in Funny Car, returns to the track that started it all as she prepares to retire from NHRA Drag Racing. 

“Growing up in Southern California, Pomona was ‘the track.’ It was my home track and where I first witnessed NHRA Drag Racing,” said DeJoria, a Venice Beach native who now calls Austin, Texas home.

DeJoria captured her fifth win in Brainerd earlier this season, and is hoping to close out her career with a victory. She announced her retirement in early October, citing a desire to spend more time with her family. 

“As much as I’m looking forward to going back to Pomona this weekend, it’s bittersweet because it’s my final race,” said the driver of the Tequila Patron flopper. “This track holds a lot of history for me. It’s where I became the first female in NHRA history to make a three second Funny Car run, and where I became the first woman to compete in 100 Funny Car events. I raced Division Seven here. It’s a special place for me.”

The driver has yet to reach a final round in Pomona, something she can remedy this weekend. She’ll do it with plenty of friends and family in attendance, including her father and grandma. 

“There’s going to be a lot going on this weekend. It will be exciting and fun but, of course, we want to go out with a bang and win our final race together,” she said. “As much as that track means to me, a win there would be unreal.”

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It hasn’t been the Countdown to the Championship Tommy Johnson Jr. hoped for, but he and the rest of the Make-a-Wish team is already gearing up for next season. That includes making a fairly significant change to his Funny Car for the Auto Club NHRA Finals. 

"We stayed to test after the Las Vegas race and worked with a six-disc clutch set-up that showed a ton of potential," said Tommy Johnson.

The six-disc clutch is already employed on two of his Don Schumacher Racing teammates’ floppers (Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan), but not Ron Capps’ NAPA Auto Parts machine. The plan is to run with the six-disc clutch in Pomona, and then move forward with it all next season. Johnson previously employed a five-disc clutch, which was previously the standard in the class. 

“I'm very enthused about what we learned during testing,” said Johnson. “We're going to stick to the six-disc going into the last race of the year and try to get a head start on next year."

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As far as first seasons in a Funny Car go, you can do a lot worse than the one enjoyed by J.R. Todd. He won twice, including at the U.S. Nationals, his home race and, you know, the biggest event of the season. Given those pair of wins, and the head of steam he entered the Countdown to the Championship with, it’s understandable he’s a little disappointed with how the playoffs have gone. 

“The end of the year has definitely been a disappointment for us,” Todd said. “Your expectations change throughout the year, but I’m pleased with how (the switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car) have gone. I’m doing a better job driving this thing, and with points-and-a-half I can finish in seventh, which is a realistic goal.”

Todd made the move from the SealMaster Dragster to the DHL Funny Car this season, and while it took a little time, he’s acclimated to it well. He got his first victory at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, and followed it up with the big win at the U.S. Nationals in Indy. He started the Countdown with a pair of round wins in Charlotte, but hasn’t won a round in the four races that followed it. 

Being out of the running for the Funny Car title has allowed them to test a bit during the Countdown, which he hopes will allow them to hit the ground running in 2018. Having a full year of experience in a flopper will also help matters, as much of the early part of the 2017 season was spent getting Todd comfortable in the car driven by Del Worsham in 2016. 

“This year we can really try to test some stuff and throw down right off the bat, while this year we were trying to get me comfortable,” said Todd. 

Despite the progress he’s made, Todd sees room for improvement. 

“Any time you’ve got a handle on these things, you probably need to quit because it’s never the same each time you make a pass,” said Todd. “That’s the cool part of it, is trying to face the unexpected.” 

He’ll get a chance to race with his teammate, and friend, Shawn Langdon for a full season in 2018; that’s something he didn’t get this year. Todd will get to do it in the same class next year, as Langdon will make the same transition in 2018 Todd made this past season. 

“I’m looking forward to next season already, even though I don’t want this season to end,” Todd said. “Shawn and I, we’ve been trying to help each other a lot. Just giving each other different ideas of what to do, and I think next season will be even better with him driving a Funny Car.”

It figures to be extremely competitive next season, something Todd is all too aware of. 

“Certain races it’s going to be tough just to qualify,” he said. “I would say, next year is going to be the most competitive class out here, if it’s not already.”

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Normally, Erica Enders enjoys a good race against her longtime buddy and rival Allen Johnson, but given that the Auto Club NHRA Finals is Johnson’s last event as a driver in Pro Stock, she’d much prefer a different opponent in the first round.

“Me and Allen, his wife, Pam and (my husband), Richie took a photo right before that last qualifying session and it was definitely emotional,” said the two-time champion. “He's my best friend out here and after his final qualifying run I watched him do an interview at the top end and he was crying. It was very hard to watch because I love him and Pam so much. It will definitely be emotional to race him but, like we say every time we race each other, may the best man or woman win. We want to win this race, right here, right now, and we have got the car and the team to get it done. I'll hate to load him first round but that's just the way the ladder fell this week.”

Enders and Johnson have raced twice this season with both bouts coming during the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. She defeated the Marathon Petroleum Dodge driver in the first round in St. Louis while Johnson returned the favor at the most recent event two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
 
As for Pomona, Enders also has a history with the iconic So Cal facility. She clinched her first championship in the thrilling winner-take-all final round against Jason Line in 2014. This weekend, Enders is qualified in the top half of the field with a seventh-best 6.564. Johnson is just a tick behind with a 6.583 best.

“We definitely did a better job of qualifying down the stretch,” Enders said. “This weekend we ran 6.56 every qualifying pass. We definitely have a race car. It's going A to B, it's consistent, it's under control and I'm driving well. It's the final race day of the year and even though it's not been the best year, I'd really like to go out with a bang. The fact we're racing Allen, yeah, it definitely wasn't the outcome we were hoping for but A.J.'s a competitor and every time we put our helmets on we try to rip each other's throats out. It doesn't matter who's in the other lane. We want to win.”

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Understating the obvious, Jeg Coughlin Jr. hasn’t had the sort of 2017 season he expected but the five-time Pro Stock champ understands that he’s got one more chance to win this season. To that end, Coughlin turned in one of his best qualifying efforts of the season when he drove his JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Camaro to a fourth-best 6.558, 209.46. It is Coughlin’s best starting spot since the Bristol event in June, where he was the low qualifier. 

“So far, so good this weekend,” Coughlin said. “We came in and made a real nice run in Q1 that put us No. 3 after the first session. That felt pretty nice. In Q2 we just weren't quite as efficient as we wanted to be going down that right lane and ended up a few ticks slower. After going over the data the guys thought we could clean that up for Q3 when we were back in the right lane again. However, we had a very uncharacteristically high wheel stand for a Pro Stock car. We were just riding the wheelie bars really, really hard as the car was really climbing up there through first gear. It ultimately lifted the backend off the ground so we ended up aborting that run.
 
“We got things tamed down for Q4, ran a solid 6.573 that felt smooth and sounded really good to the ear,” Coughlin said. “It didn't really do anything crazy and it responded to what Mark [Ingersoll, crew chief] and the boys asked of it. We feel we have a car that can win rounds tomorrow.”
 
Coughlin's six Pomona victories came at the season-opening Winternationals in 1999 and 2000 and the NHRA Finals in 1995, 2005 and 2007. He also won a special 50th anniversary event held in Pomona during the summer of 2001. On seven other occasions, Coughlin has recorded runner-up finishes here.

“There's a heckuva battle going on for the championship in our class so we'll be tuned into that but really what we want to do is sneak in there and get that race trophy,” Coughlin added.

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aj_0.jpgAfter 504 races, 27 wins in 59 finals, and a much-celebrated world championship, Allen Johnson’s career as a full-time Pro Stock driver has come to an end. Johnson, and his Marathon Petroleum Dodge went out in the first round at the hands of his good friend, Erica Enders. Johnson managed to leave with the two-time champion, .024 to .031, but he had to lift after his Dodge Dart made a move towards the centerline. The final numbers favored Enders, 6.554 to a coasting 6.979.

“Who better to lose to?” said Johnson about his good friend. “I about crashed it out there. I got over towards the centerline. I’ve had a great career and I can’t thank the fans enough. Thank you to everyone who made all this possible for 22 years.”

“Thank you for having us out here,” added Johnson’s father and engine builder, Roy. “I hate we got in trouble out there. This has been a pleasure. I’m Pleasure. going to miss it.”

Ending his professional Pro Stock career with 399 starts, Johnson isn’t sure what the future holds. He’s explored several options including returning as a team owner/manager and resuming his sportsman racing career, perhaps with a Dodge Challenger Factory Showdown effort.

“The only way I’ll come back and get my 400th [race day start] in my setup is if someone brings me a check for two million dollars tomorrow,” said Johnson. “I’m sure I’ll be back in something. I’m just not sure right now. It’s been a good run but it is time to do something different.”

 

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hines2.jpgOverlooked in the drama surrounding the championship battle in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class  and Eddie Krawiec's  fourth-title is the fact that Harley-Davidson teammate and five-time champ Andrew Hines has still not won a race this season. Hines, who has 47 wins in his career, has three runner-up finishes. He lost to Krawiec in Gainesville and the fall Charlotte event and he also dropped the St. Louis final to LE Tonglet. He's been quick enough to win at most events, but has been snakebitten in the late rounds.

“We’ve got one more chance to make it right,” said Hines. “We’ve had a good bike for most of the year but it hasn’t worked out. I’ve been close a few times. All of my finals have been close. I lost to Eddie in Gainesville by four-thousandths and LE beat me in St. Louis by six-thousandths. That’s a total of a hundredth of a second that could have given me two wins.”

Hines figures that he’s got a good shot to win the Pomona finale. He is the No. 2 qualifier with a 6.799 and he’s also got a favorable ladder with former champions Krawiec, Jerry Savoie and Matt Smith all on the other side. Hines races rookie Ryan Oehler in round one.

“We made my bike have a 1.04 sixty-foot time and that’s really impressive,” said Hines. “Chip [Ellis] also had a 1.04 and his bike is set-up much differently than mine. We had to add 40-pounds to his frame but we obviously got the set-up pretty close.”

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smith-bo.jpgIn his final race with the Polaris/Victory brand, Matt Smith was in the mood to do something a bit different so he decided to put on a show. Smith told his fellow Pro Stock Motorcycle racers that he was going to do an “epic burnout that would put [Pro Stock car burnout king] Deric Kramer to shame” and he didn’t disappoint. Smith roasted the rear tire on his Victory Magnum to the 300-foot mark in his round one battle against Hector Arana Jr. Smith went so far down track that he actually shut the bike off, and was pushed back to the starting line. All of this took place before Arana’s team event fired their Lucas Oil Buell. Smith’s crew re-fired the bike after Arana did his burnout and he went on to win with an off-pace 6.99 after Arana shut off early.

“I just wanted to do something crazy; something different,” said Smith. “I never get the chance to do a big burnout and I thought, what the heck. Let’s do it. I also wanted to scuff in a new tire. I was in sixth gear before I got to the Christmas Tree and I just let it eat. We figured we weren’t going to win the race. I just don’t have the bike for it this week so we did something fun.”

In preparation for his stunt, Smith installed an old-style clutch that would accept the added heat and abuse of the lengthy burnout. He also made sure the engine was extra cool. 

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Scotty Pollacheck will long remember the 2017 season as the best of his long career but he’s also tempted to remember what might have been. Pollacheck entered the Auto Club Finals as the No. 4 seed in the Countdown and entering Sunday’s final eliminations, he still has a chance to overtake five-time champ Andrew Hines for the No. 3 spot. Even though he is still seeking his first-career victory, that’s a big plus for Pollacheck, who has appeared in finals.

Pollacheck’s fortunes took a turn for the better when he joined the Stoffer/Underdahl team this year. One of the sport’s premiere Suzuki outfits, they put both of their full-time riders, Pollacheck and Karen Stoffer into the top ten.

“This has been a great year,” said Pollacheck. “Yes, I still need to win a race but I’m having fun and I’ve got a great bike under me. That’s what matters most. We have a great atmosphere in this came. We all work together and we all communicate well and when one team needs help, everyone pitches in to get the job done. That’s the way successful teams operate.”

For all the good things that have happened this year, Pollacheck has also absorbed a couple of tough losses. As someone who is known for being a great starting line racer, he’s lost several key rounds on holeshots, including a couple during the Countdown. Rather than lament what might have been, Pollacheck is more apt to focus on his future.

“Those [losses] are on me,” said Pollacheck. “We fought some issues with our bike this year and that hurt my lights but we just didn’t get it fixed in time and it cost a few rounds. We’ve got a handle on things now and we’re moving in the right direction. I really think we’re going to have a great year in 2018. I’m looking forward to it.”

 

PHOTOS


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The SealMaster Track Walk opened the day, allowing fans to walk the historic Auto Club Raceway dragstrip on which champions would be crowned later in the day.

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Champions of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Series were acknowledged during the pre-race ceremony.

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Lucas Oil Alcohol Dragster champ Joey Severance, left, and Alcohol Funny Car king Shane Westerfield enjoyed a laugh backstage before being introduced to the crowd.

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Retiring Pro Stock racer Allen Johnson was saluted by his peers, who joined him onstage wearing commemorative t-shirts.

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Alexis DeJoria also prepared for her final day of battle as the popular Funny Car star is stepping out of the cockpit after this event.

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The Funny Car championship battle ended early as Robert Hight, right, clinched his second championship after Ron Capps lost in round one.

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The thrill of victory …

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… and the agony of defeat.

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Brittany Force became the second woman to win an NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel championship, claiming the crown in round two with a victory over Richie Crampton after points leader Steve Torrence had been upset by Antron Brown.

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Brittany was congratulated at the top end by her sister, Funny Car driver Courtney, after their mutual second-round wins.

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Force family patriarch John was overcome with emotion and was consoled by wife Laurie after their daughter won the championship.

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On the flip side, the Torrence crew, and in particular Dom Lagana, were disconsolate after losing the title following a dominating season.

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Mello Yello's Al Rondon congratulated Bo Butner, who claimed his first career NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock championship.

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Butner was congratulated by fiancee Randi Lyn Shipp after claiming the Pro Stock crown.

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Event champions, from left, Eddie Krawiec, Tommy Johnson Jr., Bo Butner, and Brittany Force celebrated the Auto Club NHRA Finals victories.

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Your 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series champions, from left, Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Bo Butner (Pro Stock), and Robert Hight (Funny Car).

PREVIEW

Here are the ladders and first-round pairings for the four professional categories.

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