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Down to the wire

John Labbous Jr. became the final driver to clinch a Lucas Oil Series national championship when he earned the Super Gas title during a thrilling Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona
15 Nov 2017
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
The Sports Report
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Labbous2.jpgFor Super Gas racers Chris Cannon and John Labbous Jr., the Auto Club NHRA Finals was anything but “just another race.” Labbous entered the final race of the season at the points leader, but his edge over Cannon in the standings was a precarious three points. Labbous had been the leader for most of the season, but Cannon needed to win just two rounds of competition in order to claim the lead and clinch the top spot. It was the same sort of drama that NHRA fans watched live on TV Sunday when the Mello Yello Series Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock titles were decided.

Labbous made the long trip from his home in Tennessee to act as a blocker while Cannon ventured South from Oregon to chase a dream that began to come into focus when he won four-straight Division 6 Lucas Oil Series events this summer. The first round fell in Cannon’s favor when he survived a double-breakout battle against Ryan Zermeno. A regular competitor in the Top Sportsman class,  Zermeno faced the challenge of slowing his 7-second Grand Am to the 9.90 index so he could hardly be blamed for a 9.815 breakout against Cannon’s 9.882.

In the pivotal second round, Labbous won his battle against Devon Hilton, and watched from the return road to learn his fate. Cannon left seven-thousandths of a second behind round two opponent Larry Bradshaw, and couldn’t make up the difference when Bradshaw posted a 9.907 to Cannon’s 9.896 breakout.

labbous3.jpg“I think that took years off my life,” said an obviously relieved Labbous. “I was on the phone with my wife, watching that race and when they got to the 1,000-foot mark I said, ‘Babe, this doesn’t look good.’ I was really surprised when the win light came on in the other lane. It took a while for it to sink in. I also fee for Chris Cannon. We live on opposite ends of the country and I don’t know him, but I do know how hard it is to travel all over chasing one of these championships. I also know what it’s like to come close and not win a championship. It’s happened to me several times. You just have to keep fighting.”

Labbous has now become the 35th different driver to win the Super Gas championship in the last 36 seasons (only Sherman Adcock Jr. has won the title twice). Labbous also earned a runner-up finish to Austin Williams in Super Comp, and that comes after a successful 2015 season that included a pair of top ten finishes.

“I’ve been chasing this [championship] for a while now and I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get it done,” said Labbous. “It’s so hard because there are so many good drivers and so many races. You have to compete against guys in your own division but also guys from the other side of the Country that you may have never raced against. It’s a hard deal, but in the end, it’s worth it.”
 
The best of the rest: Although he celebrated his milestone 100th national event win in Chicago last July, Dan Fletcher has not had the sort of 2017 season he’s come to expect. Fletcher also claimed a win in Denver two weeks after his Chicago victory, and he reeled off win No. 102 after driving partner Rick Braun’s C/EA Chevy Cobalt to the Comp title in Pomona. Fletcher made his way to the final round with wins over former champ Alan Ellis, Jeff Lane, and Brian Hyerstay and managed to get lose just six-hundredths to CIC penalties in the process. Final round opponent Tom Mettler wasn’t as fortunate sine his index was whacked by .16-hundredths. After an even start, Fletcher was able to pace Mettler’s Pro Stock Truck to the finish line to win with a (-.538) 8.022 to a (-.511) 7.399.

Super Stock featured a first-time winner after Robert Cruzen downed five-time national champ Jimmy DeFrank in the final round. Cruzen was impressive when it mattered most by combining a .007 light with a 9.344 on his 9.33 dial in the final round. DeFrank, who has practically owned the Pomona track since his debut two decades ago, left with a .046 light and couldn’t make up the difference with an 8.825 on his 8.80 dial. Cruzen’s path to the final round included wins against Mike O’Keefe, former national champ Ryan McClanahan, Mike Cotten, newly crowned champ Justin Lamb, and past Pomona winner Jeff Adkinson. Cruzen was also particularly impressive against Lamb when he used another .007 light and a 9.333 on his 9.32 dial to take the win.

Labbous4.jpgAustin Williams locked up the Lucas Oil championship in Super Comp a few weeks ago and he ended the season by turning on the win light in the Stock Eliminator final. Driving the Marlow family’s F/SA Duster, the same car he drove to the 2014 Stock title, Williams picked up a .02-second lead at the start against opponent Chris Stephenson’s D/SA ’68 Firebird and sealed the win by running right on his dial with an 11.080. Williams, who now has 12 national event wins including eight in Stock, topped Marion Stephenson in the opening round and also defeated Jody Lang, Bernie Cunningham, Jeff Adkinson, and Greg Luneack to get to the final round.

Bobby Dye Jr. won the Auto Club NHRA Finals in 2013 and he returned a year later to win the Fall Las Vegas event. Now, Dye is a three-time national event champ after driving to an 8.904 to 8.884 win over Tanner Theobald in the final round. Dye was almost perfect with a .013-second package in his round two win over Mike Hiatt, and he also scored wins against Gabriel Torres, Ryan McClanahan, and five-time national event winner Ryan Herem.

While the championship drama between Labbous and Cannon played out on Saturday, it was Steve Parsons who was the last man standing in Super Gas on Sunday afternoon. Driving his Corvette roadster, Parsons reached the final following a close win over Robert Naber in the semi’s Parsons cut a .015 light and ran 9.901 to force Naber into a 9.893 breakout. Parsons also stopped Ed Langan, Karen Comstock, and Kevin Wright to reach the final round. Parsons has now won three national events, all of them at Auto Club Pomona Raceway. He won the Winternationals in 2005 and the Auto Club Finals in 2007.