QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS
PRO STOCK Q3 (12:31 p.m.): Vincent Nobile jumped up to the No. 1 spot (all the way from the No. 2 spot) as conditions cooled drastically on Saturday afternoon. The driver of the Mountain View Tire Chevy Camaro moved from 6.586 to a 6.529-second pass, a full 0.18 second better than Drew Skillman, who now holds the No. 2 position. All of the top eight qualifiers improved on their positions thanks to the great Saturday conditions. Joey Grose holds the bump spot with a 6.699, as all 17 cars on the property have now successfully made it down the strip.
TOP FUEL Q3 (1 p.m.): Brittany Force, the defending world champ, and Leah Pritchett, the defending event champ, led the way under cloudy skies in Q3 with Force’s Monster dragster recovering from a funky Friday with a best of 5.45 to a field-leading 3.675. Pritchett’s Mopar machine was not far behind with a 3.687 that was a solid tenth better than her Friday best. Doug Kalitta, who charted a 3.72 Friday, also improved, running a 3.703 that’s now fourth behind Force, Pritchett, and Friday leader Clay Millican, who could not get don the track after pacing the pack with a 3.694.
FUNNY CAR Q3 (1:50 p.m.): Matt Hagan leapfrogged his teammate, Jack Beckman, to take over the No. 1 spot with a stout 3.859-second pass to wrap up the penultimate Funny Car session. Beckman was no slouch himself, running a 3.863 beside Hagan. The two are currently in the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, while Courtney Force (3.877) is No. 3 after three sessions of action. There are 14 cars in the 3-second zone; there are six cars on property that can help put together the first-ever all-3-second-field in Funny Car history. Jim Campbell currently holds the bump spot with a 4.13-second pass.
PRO STOCK Q4 (3:44 p.m.): Vincent Nobile is the No. 1 qualifier for the first time since the 2016 Reading event. Here’s a good omen: That was also the last event he won. He’ll take on Alan Prusiensky in the first round thanks to his strong pass in the third qualifying session. Greg Anderson came on strong in the third session, snagging all three bonus points with a 6.554-second run that moved him up into the No. 3 position. He’s followed by teammate Jason Line (6.557), while his other teammate, Bo Butner, is in the No. 5 slot. It’s an all teammate battle for Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr., with the only good news being that an Elite car will move on to the second round.
First-round matchups (lane choice listed first): Vincent Nobile vs. Alan Prusiensky; Drew Skillman vs. Joey Grose; Greg Anderson vs. Val Smeland; Jason Line vs. Kenny Delco; Alex Laughlin vs. Steve Graham; Bo Butner vs. Tanner Gray; Erica Enders vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.; Deric Kramer vs. Chris McGaha.
TOP FUEL Q4 (4:50 p.m.): Clay Millican reset his own national record with the quickest pass in Top Fuel history, a dazzling 3.628 that supplanted his own 3.631 mark set last year in St. Louis. Millican’s Dave Grubnic-tuned Parts Plus/Great Clip rail sped to 330 feet in 2.047 seconds and to 660 feet in a jaw-dropping 2.897, also bests at those increments. Brittany Force slipped to No. 2 after failing to make it down the track and stayed just ahead of Steve Torrence, whose 3.676 fell just a thousandth of a second shy of Force’s number for the No. 3 spot. Millican will race Steve Chrisman in round one, and the winner will get a bye in the second round due to the 14-car field.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Steve Chrisman; Brittany Force vs. Terry Haddock; Steve Torrence vs. Steve Faria; Leah Pritchett vs. Scott Palmer; Doug Kalitta vs. Richie Crampton; Antron Brown vs. Mike Salinas; Terry McMillen vs. Tony Schumacher
FUNNY CAR Q4 (5:29 p.m.): Matt Hagan tied his Auto Club Raceway track record on elapsed time (3.822) but broke his track record on speed (336.32 mph). That naturally made him the No. 1 qualifier at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, an event he won a season ago. That’s one heck of a way to start the 2018 season. He’s trailed by Robert Hight and Jimmy Prock, who got into a very friendly (and fun) performance rivalry with Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables a season ago. If that continues this season, fans are in for a treat. Jim Campbell held onto the bump spot with a 4.059, while Bob Bode missed the cup by a tenth.
First-round matchups (lane choice listed first): Matt Hagan vs. Jim Campbell; Robert Hight vs. Jeff Diehl; Jack Beckman vs. Bob Tasca; Courtney Force vs. Jonnie Lindberg; Ron Capps vs. Shawn Langdon; Tim Wilkerson vs. Del Worsham; J.R. Todd vs. John Force; Cruz Pedregon vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.
Top Fuel low qualifier Clay Millican: “I kind of had an idea where were we going to try to run before we had that long delay [oildown], which was 3.65-3.66, and I saw some changes being made [by the crew], so at that point it was all out the window. I knew at about 330 feet that it wasn’t going to run what [crew chief Dave Grubnic] told me it was going to run. I got a brief glimpse of the scoreboard and the .62 and went, ‘Wow!’
“Truth is, the driver made a boo-boo; I shut the car off early. My explanation to was that I was leaving ‘Grubby’ some room so we could reset the record again. That’s right from the driver handbook of excuses. I think the weather is going to be the same tomorrow, and I would not be a bit surprised to see the record set again.”
Funny Car low qualifier Matt Hagan: “I can’t say enough about [crew chief] Dickie Venables. I feel very blessed to have him in my corner; he’s worth his weight in gold. That right lane can be a little tricky, and on a fast run like that, you can’t over-drive the car. I made a few corrections and was just hoping it wouldn’t come unglued.
“My guys are just killing it. We had a tremendous test session Phoenix and then to come out here and have a dream start to the season is just incredible. So far so good. I couldn’t ask for anything more. The weather was awesome today and it’s going to be cool tomorrow, but more like Friday, When the sun comes out stuff slows down and it slows down after first round and you peel it back. One lap at a time. Racing on Sunday is different from qualifying, You need to know who you’re racing, when you’re racing, and make all the right calls.”
Pro Stock No. 1 qualifier Vincent Nobile: “What’s bad about being No. 1? You try your best to qualify No. 1 at every race. At the end of the day it’s about holding up the trophy at the end of the weekend, I don’t care if you qualify No. 1 or No. 16 as long as you bring home the hardware.
“Looking at the sheet of incrementals, and we just made a really good run down low. Jason Line ran a .966 to 60 foot, and a few other cars probably could have run that fast. Am I surprised? Not really, just because we ran well Friday, and testing went really well.”
Friday low qualifier Clay Millican celebrated his 52nd birthday in style with a field-leading 3.694, but he’s looking ahead to another significant date later this year: his 20th anniversary in the Top Fuel class.
“I got my license May 10, 1988; I can’t remember squat, but I remember that,” said Milican, whose license was signed by Paul and Mike Smith amd who made his debut not long after, at the Chicago event with longtime friend Pete Lehman’s car with a Chicago White Sox livery. It changed his life for the next two decades.
“I never thought I would be doing six months, to be honest with you,” he said. “My whole goal in life was just to drive one. I never thought about winning or doing it for a living.”
Millican bounced around a number of those years before settling into the Doug Stringer-owned team in 2015, and crew chief Dave Grubnic joined the team the same year, and they haven’t looked back. They currently own the national record and last summer Millican, a who has scores of IHRA event wins and championships, finally got his first NHRA last summer in Bristol. He’s always quick to credit Grubnic for his success.
“When we were looking to hire him, ‘Grubby’ said, Ninety percent out here follow the 10; I can promise you that if you pick me to run this car, we will be in the 10 percent.’ I promise you this is not an Alan Johnson clone. It is 100 percent ‘Grubby.’ People don’t realize how smart he is. He does stuff different, but it works. He just looks at things differently.”
Scott Palmer is off and running on what will be his second full season on the Mello Yello tour, planning to use the experience he gained last season in his Tommy Thompson-funded CatSpot dragster.
Not content to rest on the laurels of a great campaign in which they qualified for the Countdown to the Championship, the team also has not only converted to a six-disc clutch, but also are the first to run the new “Gen-5 cupcake” pressure plate manufactured by CNC Performance Engineering. The beefier hat flexes less than predecessors, making for a more consistent platform upon which crew chiefs can rely. Torrence Racing also will be adding the new unit this season.
“Testing went really well for us,” Palmer said of their three-day outing on Phoenix last weekend. “We’re going to be trying more stuff this weekend because of the short field here. We’re trying to learn as much as we can before we get rolling, but it looks real promising. We’re excited for another year.”
Palmer’s opening lap of 3.84 at just 313 mph (dropped cylinder) Friday gave the team even more confidence of the performance potential of the new unit.
Terry Haddock’s heart has always been in Funny Car, but right now the going is a little easier in Top Fuel, so that’s where the Texas nitro veteran is concentrating the bulk of his efforts. Even though he has an ex-John Force Racing Funny Car all set to go, he commissioned Missouri-based chassis builder Ty Baumgartner to build him a new Top Fuel dragster with a one-piece carbon-fiber body, a car that he says is “the nicest car I’ve ever owned.”
“Right now I can’t afford to run Funny Car with these guys,” he admitted. “I’m not a dummy; I can make the car go but I can’t run 3.90s. Guys out here are spending stupid amounts of money and right now I don’t have that. I’d always be the bottom of the pack even if I figure it out. I believe I can be a Top 10 player in Top Fuel --we finished 12th last year only going to 16 races and giving up three rounds I could have won if I had a better reaction time – but that’s not what I want. I want to run Funny Car – but it will pay the bills until I can.”
Haddock, who hopes to test the Funny Car after the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in March, is enjoying backing at this event and for the upcoming NHRA Arizona Nationals from American Flowtech consulting services.
For the second time in his career, Robert Hight enters his hometown Winternationals wearing the big No. 1 on his Auto Club Funny Car, and he knows exactly what it means.
“You have a target on your back and everybody is gunning for you,” he acknowledged. “You want to represent the sport and the Funny Car class and do a good job. You want to present yourself as a champion.”
Hight, who won his first championship in 2009 from the 10th Countdown seed and last year from the No. 2 slot, also acknowledges that the playoff system has helped and hurt him over the years, so his goal this season is to remove any doubts about his championship pedigree.
“Both of my championships would not have been won without the Countdown,” he admitted. “The first year they had the Countdown  I would have been the champion if they would not have reset the points. It has helped me and it has hurt me. This year my goal is to lead the points from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. I want to win a championship whether there is a Countdown or not.”
J.R. Todd got a pair of wins in his first Funny Car season, both in the span of four races. The Kalitta Motorsports driver is looking for more in a loaded class in his sophomore season behind the wheel of the DHL Toyota Camry. That’ll be difficult, but he has a chance to start the season on the right note at a track he owns a Top Fuel Wally at.
“We had a good test session last week and we’re hoping to carry that over to Pomona. I am more confident going into this season and I am ready to run for the Wally at one of my favorite tracks."
Todd earned that Winternationals Wally in 2007 against Brandon Bernstein. It’s one of nine dragster wins the talented driver owns, making 11 in his collection. Kalitta Motorsports won four times (two from Todd, one from now-retired Alexis DeJoria, and one from Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel), and is looking to rebound with one fewer driver in its pits.
That’s not much of a concern for Todd, who is just hoping to take another step forward after a solid first year in Funny Car. His transition to the class went relatively smoothly, as he qualified for the Countdown to the Championship, secured a pair of wins, and steadily improved as the season went along. He’s joined in the flopper category by friend Shawn Langdon, who will got through the same transition from Top Fuel to Funny Car this year.
A solid test session in Arizona has the team ready to go in Pomona against a heavier field than Todd faced in 2017. DeJoria missed races which factored into her missing the Countdown, while Jonnie Lindberg will run a full season in 2018, as will Bob Tasca III. That will make the action on Sunday more exciting and qualifying on Friday and Saturday more crucial for the Indiana native.
He qualified in the top half of the field nine times during 2017. Improving in that area will go a long way towards increasing his number of round wins (18) in 2018.
Even for Gary Densham, the sport’s longest-tenured active Funny Car pilot, there are still firsts. The veteran Southern California owner/driver had a forgettable first two qualifying attempts Friday, as he never made it to the staging beams on either. On his first attempt, the beefy half-inch Grade A bolt that connects the clutch pedal to the bellhousing snapped at the end of the burnout; the first time he’d seen that in his near-three-decade career. On the second pass, a snap ring in the reverser broke after the burnout.
“I guess it was a case of good luck and bad luck,” he bright-sided. “If that clutch bolt breaks with someone standing in front of the car it could have been scary. I’ve never had that happen. I could drag that clutch can from here to Menifee [Calif., his hometown] by that bolt and never break it, but it snapped yesterday when I pushed down the clutch pedal at the end of the burnout. On the second run, I heard a ‘clunk-clunk-clunk’ backing up and I thought I’d broken a [clutch] lever or a stall-spring stud. I knew something was wrong so I shut it off. My guys couldn’t find anything in the clutch and thought I was going senile, but then we found the problem in the reverser. If that reverser comes apart that engine could have revved to 10,000 rpm.”
Densham is confident he can rebound, and with his car making numerous three-second passes the last few years, he feels confident he will qualify.
On another note, Densham will bypass the NHRA Arizona Nationals in two weeks to gear up for a big weekend ahead at the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals. The day before the event, he will be inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, then he’ll compete at the event for the first time since 2008, when he was runner-up to Tony Pedregon.
In the end, it wasn’t a hard decision for Brandon Welch to continue pursuing the nitro dream he’s been chasing for a decade. After his grandfather, Southern California alcohol and nitro legend Chuck Beal, a two-time Winternationals winner, died last July, Welch just couldn’t let the dream – and all of the hard work they’d done getting a car onto the track – die with him.
He recruited another of Beal’s grandchildren, Tyson Porlas (pictured, right, above with Welch), and veteran crew chief Scott Graham to continue the dream with him. The car they're running at this event, with their grandfather's image on the spillplates, honors him.
“It’s weird not having my grandfather out here,” he admitted. “Now the buck stops with me, period. I always had Chuck to help me keep things in order, so now I find myself constantly running through checklists in my mind. It’s very hard but very empowering.”
Friday could have gone better. After a planned early shutoff, a mix-up in the pits saw the blower pressure output accidentally reversed the pan pressure safety switch. When he stepped on the gas for the burnout, the blower pressure quickly exceeded the 9 psi pan pressure safety switch, causing the parachutes to deploy.
“It sucked, but we didn’t hurt the car and it was ready to go for today,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot to learn and some decisions to make about our future.”
One of those decisions is contemplating a move to Top Fuel, With the cut-throat level of competition in Funny Car, Welch, who has proven himself to be a savvy marketer, thinks the team can be more competitive in Top Fuel.
“It’s another fork in the road for me,” he admitted. “Even though we’ve got good stuff, this is probably not going to be a 3.95 car, and if it is, I’d probably need new pipe [chassis] and new bodies, so for that kind of investment, it might be better spent in Top Fuel. I’m not saying that’s where we’re going to go, but we’re definitely thinking about it. I look at a guy like Pat Dakin, who qualifies everywhere he goes and runs good, and does it out of his own pocket for $350,000 a year. I want to be like him when I grow up. I really admire him.”
Jeg Coughlin Jr. is ready to end his drought. He hasn’t won in Pro Stock since the 2014 Englishtown event, when he triumphed over Greg Anderson. Coughlin reached one final last year, but turned on the red light against rookie phenom Tanner Gray. The veteran driver, and the rest of the Elite Camaros, were a step behind the pack last year; but a great test session in Arizona has Coughlin feeling confident.
"We're ready to start fresh and make a real run at the 2018 championship," Coughlin said. "We just finished up several days of testing in Phoenix and all of the Elite Motorsports Pro Stock cars were running strong, including our JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro. I believe we had the quickest car every day with Erica (Enders, teammate) Chevy and we were usually within a hundredth of a second of her so we're very optimistic about the season.”
Enders had the quickest car, but Coughlin, Alex Laughlin, and Vincent Nobile weren’t far behind. That’s an encouraging sign as the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com get going in Pomona. The competition will be no easier this season than last, as Deric Kramer joined up with KB Racing and Gray figures to be even more polished in his sophomore season.
Still, Coughlin and company were constantly playing catch up last season. It seemed they had a handle on things at a couple different points, perhaps most notably in Brainerd. But Pro Stock can be a notoriously tricky class in that way, and the combination proved ever elusive for the talented crew chiefs at Elite. An offseason of testing seems to have cured what ailed the fleet of Camaros driven by some of the best drivers in the class.
As always, there’s only one way to find out. Enders and Laughlin each grabbed one Wally for Elite last season (Laughlin drove a limited schedule, and Nobile sat out the last several races), but if the combination is solved, that number figures to grow. Of course, there are only 24 Wallys to go around. That should make this Pro Stock season a fun one.
Winning five races in a rookie season isn’t exactly unprecedented, but it’s extremely rare. Both Gary Scelzi and LE Tonglet won five times in their debut seasons, and Tanner Gray became the third en route to winning the Auto Club Road to the Future Award as the NHRA’s top rookie in 2017. That’s not to say there weren’t some bumps along the way.
At least, relatively speaking. Gray enters this season more polished, naturally, and more assured of himself as a driver. While he arrived at Auto Club Speedway for the 2017 Winternationals with “butterflies,” he showed up for Friday qualifying talking about all the In-N-Out he’d eaten and the media interviews he’d given the week prior.
“I like the facility here, I just like the way its laid out, how you go under the tower and how the track is right next to the road,” said Gray. “But I love me some In-N-Out Burger.”
What Gray wants is a little more consistency this season. The Gray Motorsports team didn’t have the Countdown to the Championship they wanted – Gray won the Countdown opening NHRA Carolina Nationals, but neither he nor Drew Skillman picked up a win after that. And earlier in the season, the rookie went through a bit of a dry spell at the tree.
He recovered from that, improving his reaction times and staying more consistent. Gray became, in his own words, more mentally focused and a better racer. That’s something he hopes to carry into this season.
“I’ve raced all the drivers out here, and I know what to expect from all of them, and so really what it’s going to come down to is letting the clutch pedal out, and I feel like I have a pretty good handle on that,” said Gray. “I feel like I’ve maintained my performance.”
He enters Friday qualified No. 8 with a 6.611, while Skillman is No. 1 with a 6.569. Expect Gray to climb the ladder with the two runs he’s allowed on Saturday.
Vincent Nobile sat out the last five races of the 2017 season as the Mountain View Tire team regrouped after what had, by its standards, been a disappointing season. Nobile made the Countdown to the Championship, but only had one final-round appearance to his name (a loss to Greg Anderson in Englishtown). He’s back with a Jerry Haas-built race Chevy Camaro and enters Saturday in the No. 2 position.
“I’m just happy to be back out here having fun,” said Nobile. “This is what I do for fun. It was kind of a bummer to not go to those last few races last year, but we needed to recoup, and we needed to recover. So, I’m happy with the new car.”
His 6.586-second pass is his 44th-best in the EFI era (which began in 2016). It’s not a home run, but Nobile has every reason to be happy with a stand-up double after his first day back in action. There’s also reason to believe purple Camaro will pick up time on leader-of-the-pack Drew Skillman on Saturday, despite the extra water grains in the air, as Nobile’s early numbers were a little on the soft side.
“The whole Elite team definitely worked hard this winter from my understanding and put in a bunch of hours, and the results show right now,” said Nobile. “I mean, it’s only the first race, but based on the numbers we ran last year and what we’re running this year, we’ve improved. Based on our own notes, we’ve made a jump in the right direction.”
That new Haas-built car brings him in line with teammate Alex Laughlin, who also has Haas-built pipe. Nobile’s car will be tuned by Brian “Lump” Self in 2018. Nobile doesn’t feel the chassis change is drastic.
“They’re all built pretty much the same,” said Nobile. “Just new pipe, that’s pretty much it. Just gotta get used to driving a new car – tuning it, really, driving it is pretty much the same. Now we just hope for consistency. That was really our whole reason for changing.”
Now we’ll see if that change, as well as Elite’s pick up in performance, can help Nobile get his first win since Reading in 2016.
Chris McGaha was able to fix the motor that arrived in Pomona wounded in time for the third Pro Stock qualifying session. The Texan showed up to Auto Club Raceway following a stellar preseason test session in Phoenix, unloaded his car, and found that the motor oil pressure was too low. That led him to install a backup motor.
That didn’t stop McGaha from making a couple stellar passes on Friday afternoon. He enters Saturday as the No. 4 qualifier with a 6.591-second pass. Still, McGaha and company were able to repair the motor he deemed “an experiment” and popped it into the silver and black Camaro ahead of Saturday’s pair of passes.
“Hopefully it isn’t hurt more than we think,” said McGaha. “We were pretty happy (with what we ran yesterday). I’m not going to complain at all, of course it’s a different day today. We’ll see what everyone drags up there.”
The pits at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona are packed with fans eager to check out the action on the final day of qualifying at the season opener.
Robert Hight joined NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart for the popular Nitro School segment in the pits, where they taught some fuel-racing basics to an eager crowd.
On the 50th anniversary of the famed “Cobra Jet invasion” of the 1968 Winternationals, there’s an impressive collection of Ford Cobra Jets on display in the Hot Rod Junction.
Fans who are in the Top Eliminator Club were treated to a special autograph session that included a number of the top-finishing Pro Stock Motorcycle racers from 2017 including Karen Stoffer and Matt and Angie Smith.
Chris Marshall shocked the troops in Alcohol Funny Car and the fans in the stands with a 5.365 blast on his first pass of the day. The run is the second quickest in class history behind only Jonnie Lindberg’s 5.361-second national record pass.
Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, one of the many legendary racers who never miss a Winternationals, is on hand showing off the new Dodge Demon that he just bought. Prudhomme won the Winternationals Funny Car title four straight years (1975-77) in Chrysler-bodied cars.
John Force crossed the centerline in his final pass of the day and took two timing blocks with him. You can see one on the hood of his Chevy, while another has already been turned into shrapnel.
Fans were treated to an old school Cacklefest after Saturday qualifying.
The first day of any event might make the boldest crew chiefs a tad timid. “Just get down the track,” they’ll say. “Just get some data,” they’ll say. If that’s true for the ninth race of the season, it’s certainly true for the season opener. So, naturally, the first passes of the first pass of the season were on the conservative side of things. That changed a bit once teams got a pass under their belts. That’s not to say track records were broken, but there were Funny Car runs in the 3.80s, a Top Fuel run in the 3.60s, and Pro Stock runs in the 6.50s. It’s go time.
Clay Millican, who you might remember as the 2017 Bristol winner or the national record holder for elapsed time in Top Fuel (or both, he is both), finally got down the strip in a timely fashion on Friday afternoon. He was relieved, as was crew chief David Grubnic, after struggling through most of preseason testing in Phoenix. Millican’s 3.694 stood as the lone pass in the 3.60s, while Antron Brown ran a 3.717 to stand as the No. 2 qualifier after the first two sessions. Brown also ran the biggest speed of the day, a 332.51 mph blast that’s only 1.15 mph behind the national record set by Brittany Force last season.
Remember at the start of last year when the Don Schumacher Racing Funny Cars absolutely dominated the competition? Not to go all “Déjà vu all over again” on you, but… Jack Beckman, Matt Hagan, and Ron Capps currently sit on top of the Funny Car leaderboard after the first day of action in Pomona. So, to quote the Talking Heads: Same as it ever was. Beckman blasted to the top with a run of 3.86 seconds, and it looks like Capps and crew chief Rahn Tobler are adjusting to the six-disc clutch just fine so far. That’s not to say everyone else is running a three-disc clutch (that’s … a thing), but they have some work to do.
Either one of Drew Skillman’s runs would have made him the provisional No. 1 qualifier. As it stands, his second run, a 6.569, is what everyone is chasing on Saturday. That’s nearly two-tenths of a second better than the 6.588 he laid down in the first session, but Skillman wasn’t convinced his time would hold up in the better conditions forecasted on Saturday. Of course, the always-humble former Sportsman racer isn’t known to boast, so, we’ll see what happens. Vincent Nobile made his triumphant return to Pro Stock with a 6.586, making him the No. 2 qualifier after sitting out the last five races of the 2017 season.