ELIMINATION ROUND RECAPS
TOP FUEL ROUND 1 (12:05 p.m.): If the first round of Top Fuel could be described in one word, it would be “long.” Delays of all sorts stretched it to more than an hour, as Brittany Force crashed, Doug Kalitta detonated a supercharger, and… well. It was long, okay? Steve Torrence and Antron Brown will meet for the 31st time in their careers, as the Texan will look to chip away at that lopsided record (he made the second-best pass of the first round), while Clay Millican looks to build on the strong run he made in the first round. Force was involved in a major wreck while racing Terry Haddock (below). She was conscious and alert and transported to a local hospital.
Round two pairings (lane choice listed first): Clay Millican vs. Bye; Tony Schumacher vs. Terry Haddock; Steve Torrence vs. Antron Brown; Doug Kalitta vs. Scott Palmer
FUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12:56 p.m.): Another bevvy of delays greeted Nitro fans, and Robert Hight delivered the best pass of the session with a 3.865. That’s the only 3.80 of the session, and it gets the No. 2 qualifier a meeting with J.R. Todd, who defeated John Force. Cruz Pedregon scored his first round win since the U.S. Nationals in 2017, while Jonnie Lindberg also scored a big victory by taking down Courtney Force. Pedregon will have to beat the No. 1 qualifier, Matt Hagan, to keep his day going. Lindberg will have to beat Ron Capps, who handed Shawn Langdon a first-round defeat in Langdon’s Funny Car debut.
Second round pairings (lane choice listed first): Matt Hagan vs. Cruz Pedregon; Jonnie Lindberg vs. Ron Capps; Robert Hight vs. J.R. Todd; Jack Beckman vs. Tim Wilkerson
PRO STOCK ROUND 1 (1:15 p.m.): All eight of the quicker qualified drivers advanced to the second round, led by Jason Line, whose blue Summit Camaro raced to a 6.546 in besting Kenny Delco. Low qualifier Vincent Nobile in the local-favoite MountainView Tire Camaro ran 6.585 to beat Alan Prusiesnky and will have second-round lane choice against Deric Kramer, the former Dodge driver who earned his first round win in a Camaro by beating former Indy champ Chris McGaha.
Second-round pairings (lane choice listed first): Vincent Nobile vs. Deric Kramer; Jason Line vs. Alex Laughlin; Drew Skillman vs. Erica Enders; Greg Anderson vs. Bo Butner.
TOP FUEL ROUND 2 (2:15 p.m.): Tony Schumacher and new tuner Mike Neff seized the momentum in round two with a 3.717 that was low e.t. of the round to beat Terry Haddock. He’ll take on his Don Schumacher Racing teammate and fellow former world champ Antron Brown, who ran 3.758, in the semifinals. On the other side of the ladder, Doug Kalitta will pick his lane against Clay Millican after posting a 3.760 while Millican smoked the tires on his bye run.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice listed first): Doug Kalitta vs. Clay Millican; Tony Schumacher vs. Antron Brown.
FUNNY CAR ROUND TWO (2:30 p.m.): Don Schumacher Racing will occupy three-fourths of the semifinal ladder spots with Jack Beckman leading the way with a 3.901 in beating Tim Wilkerson. He’ll face the lone non-DSR car in Robert Hight, who advanced with a 3.937. DSR teammates Matt Hagan and Ron Capps will face off on the other side of the bracket.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice listed first): Matt Hagan vs. Ron Capps; Jack Beckman vs. Robert Hight
PRO STOCK ROUND 2 (2:32 p.m.): Deric Kramer is headed to the semifinals for the first time in his career (not counting his one Four Wide semifinal appearance). He took down Vincent Nobile by .0015 second after cutting a .019 light and then holding on for dear life. Erica Enders won a similarly close race, though it ended at the starting line after she cut an impeccably good light (.008) next to Drew Skillman, who went red by .001. Skillman was one of two to go red in the second round, as Alex Laughlin also went .003 red against Jason Line.
Semifinal matchups (lane choice listed first): Jason Line vs. Deric Kramer; Bo Butner vs. Erica Enders.
TOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (3:30 p.m.): Tony Schumacher will race in his first final round since the NHRA Southern Nationals (Atlanta) of 2017. That’s a long drought for the winningest Top Fuel driver of all time. Schumacher defeated teammate Antron Brown by a thin margin, after Brown beat his teammate off the line. First-year crew chief Mike Neff helped tune Schumacher to the final in his first race with the U.S. Army team, where it will face Doug Kalitta and the Mac Tools squad in a heavyweight matchup. Crew chief Jim Oberhofer will have some work to do to get the car ready for the final round as there was a cylinder out on the dragster when it squared off against Clay Millican. Schumacher will have lane choice.
FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (3:40 p.m.): Matt Hagan is right back in the final round of the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals after defeating teammate Ron Capps. After a great start to his 2017 season, Hagan is looking to do the same in 2018. He ran a 3.938, which is off the pace run by Robert Hight (3.899), so the John Force Racing President will get lane choice in the final round. Hight, the defending Funny Car champion, will get a chance to start the season much better than he started in his 2017 campaign. He made an incredible run by beating Jack Beckman, who broke at the starting line.
PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (3:34 p.m.): Jason Line will get the chance to win his 50th career NHRA Wally (he owns 47 already in Pro Stock and two in Stock eliminator) when he takes on his teammate, reigning world champ Bo Butner, in the final round. Butner will have lane choice after getting past red-lighting Erica Enders (-.004) in their semifinal while Line caught a break, shaking the tires to a 16-second pass after his other teammate, Deric Kramer, red-lighted.
LUCAS OIL DRAG RACING SERIES FINALS: In addition to the Mello Yello racing at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, racing was also contested in nine Sportsman racing classes of the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. Dan Fletcher won in Comp to collect his 103rd NHRA Wally. He's just now two wins from tying Alcohol Funny Car legend as the winningest Sportsman driver and second among all drivers,
Below are the final-round results from Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series competition in Pomona:
Shawn Cowie def. Garrett Bateman
Alcohol Funny Car
Shane Westerfield def. Ulf Leanders
Dan Fletcher def. Clint Neff
Kyle Rizzoli def. Adam Emmer
Larry Gilley def. Ryan Mangus
Gabriel Torres def. Val Torres Jr.
Kevin McClelland def. Phil Unruh
Steve Will def. Kyle Seipel
Paul Mitsos def. Don Meziere
TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL (4:30 p.m.): Doug Vancil, near lane, claimed the title in the Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley debut of his new Vanes & Hines entry, defeating 2017 NHRA Arizona Nationals winner Rickey House in the final with a 6.33. Vancil had two previous NHRA wins during Top Fuel Harley exhibition events in 2003-04.
PRO STOCK FINAL (4:35 p.m.): Bo Butner, far lane, got his world championship defense off to a rousing start by winning the season opener, defeating his KB Racing teammates Jason Line in the final, 6.54 to 6.56. Butner, who won the championship with his victory at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in November, now has an eight-round win streak going at the famed Southern California facility. The win in his sixth in Pro Stock.
FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:42 p.m.): Matt Hagan, far lane, won his second straight Winternationals Funny car title and his third in the last four years when he defeated Robert Hight in the final round, 3.823 to 3.866, in what was the quickest side-by-side Funny Car race in NHRA history. Hagan, the no. 1 qualifier at 3.822, was just a thousandth of a second off his low e.t./track record pass in winning the event, the 26th of his Funny Car career. The last driver to win the Winternationals back-to-back in Funny Car was Don Prudhomme in 1976-77.
TOP FUEL FINAL (4:46 p.m.): Doug Kalitta, near lane, made good on his fourth final appearance in the last five Pomona events. He picked up his 44th career win, improved his career final-round record against Tony Schumacher to 6-11, and most importantly started out the 2018 season with a victory. After waiting until the Countdown to the Championship to get his first win in 2017, this is much more like it.
Top Fuel winner Doug Kalitta: “This was just one of those lucky days. I think I coasted to the finish line a couple of times, and I still turned the win light on. Tony got out on me a little bit and then hazed the tires, so was definitely happy to get the win.”
“I felt pretty calm today for some reason. It was a lucky day for us some reason. It’s the grit that goes into my guys, that we don’t care how we win, as long as we’re moving onto the next round.
(On crew chief Jim Oberhofer stepping down as Kalitta Motorsports GM): “You work so hard at trying to make everything right, so it’s probably a relief to more work on one thing. He has put everybody in place there and we have everything to get it done and he’s done a great job. I haven’t seen Jim, but I’m sure he’s really happy and I’m so proud of him and everything he’s done for the team.”
Funny Car winner Matt Hagan: “Dickie [Venables, crew chief] really has the car dialed in and he’s not really messing with it; it’s just kind of gas and go. When he finds that groove, you can just see it in his face, and it gives me confidence as a driver.
“You’ve got to run good against [Robert Hight crew chief] Jimmy Prock. He and Dickie are two of the fastest crew chiefs out there and we go back and forth with e.t.s and speeds with them. They both like to throw down. I know that [team owner] Don Schumacher is smiling because we turned the win light on and beat a Force car. There’s a real rivalry there. It’s very competitive, but it’s respectful.
“Everything is clicking so nice for our team. It’s not just parts and pieces, its putting your hands on them and making sure they’re good. I’m really proud of them and proud to climb into this car that Don Schumacher owns. I know I can win on any given Sunday in this car.”
Pro Stock winner Bo Butner: “Pomona has always been good to me. I’ve been fortunate to win a lot of rounds here in different classes and have won the Finals here before. It’s a cool atmosphere.
“We actually kind of had to put a Band-Aid over a little motor issue I had and I even thought I might not try to go up there [for the final]. We all talked about it and they said, ‘Do it,’ and it worked out for us, made our best run of the weekend.
“I’m just clicking, and I have all the confidence in my car and our crew. I’m living the dream.”
Mike Salinas made a handful of solid appearances on the NHRA Drag Racing tour in 2017, but plans to run the full season in 2018. He started off well at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, if not as well as he hoped. Salinas ran a career best in time (3.748) and speed (326.71), but he wanted to dip a bit lower given the track conditions.
“To be honest with you, we were disappointed, even with the lift we were hoping to do even more,” said Salinas.
Still, he is qualified in the No. 9 position and will run Antron Brown as a reward for his troubles. Salinas is 0-1 against the three-time Top Fuel champ, but with Alan Johnson parts, pieces, and tuning help, he’s at least got a shot when he lines up against him. Doug Kuch is the crew chief of record on the Scrappers Racing machine.
Salinas had a chance to go testing for the first time in his career and ran solid numbers. That was all part of the learning curve of having spectacular equipment.
“Testing was really good, because that was my first time there and it was very pleasant because we got to try a lot of different things about me, Alan, the car, the guys and a lot of different things,” he said.
If Salinas gets by Brown in the first round he gets a shot at the winner of the all Steve pairing (that’s Steve Torrence and Steve Faria).
With his stunning 3.62 qualifying pass Saturday afternoon, Clay Millican officially opened the raceto see who will be the first Top Fuel driver to run a 3.5-second elapsed time, a number that even three years ago seemed as likely as a manner mission to Jupiter.
And there’s every to think that Millican and tuner Dave Grubnic will get there first.
Despite still learning a new chassis, Grubnic’s analytical mind is already well on his way to figuring it out. Their incremental times on the 3.62 -- .809-second to 60 feet, 2.047 to 330 feet, and 2.897 to 660 feet – also were all best-evers for the class.
“The run before that, we were .816 to 60 feet but it shook the tires at 40 feet," Millican shared. "Grubby’s quote was, ‘I’m strangely excited that this car has that much bite to go that quick while shaking. Now I just need to figure out what to do with it.’ Shaking typically means that you have not given it enough power, so it goes .816 to 60 feet and it wants more, so we hopped it up to make it not shake. We all know that the track here is always phenomenal and the weather was fantastic, and you saw what happened.”
Leah Pritchett’s bid for a second straight Winternationals title ended Sunday almost before it began when the parachutes deployed after the burnout due to an apparent electronics failure in the safety system. The team had experienced problems Saturday and even into Sunday morning with electrical gremlins.
After the parachutes deployed, she motored on down the track, allowing Scott Palmer a free run into round two.
“We were definitely struggling this morning,” she said. “We thought we had it figured out last night but there were more major issues. We started up four times and barely made it to the line. My guys worked their butts off, changing out both mags, triggers, coils, delay boxes, everything, and it obviously reared its head again.”
While some crew chiefs will run their cars with the tune-up that left the trailer, Dickie Venables, tuner for Funny Car low qualifier Matt Hagan, is the complete opposite.
"Dickie makes changes all the way until the thing fires up, and even then he can get into the box [that holds all of the control timers],” said Hagan. “He’s always thinking. The wheels are always turning. It really comes down to the last moment with him, and some of his thought processes. Dickie has a gut instinct for how the track is, and what decisions are going to be made. He’s been doing that since he was my age so he has a lot of experience and that’s just stuff you can’t get overnight. When I see him making changes, I know he’s on to something and not just winging it. Then I get to crawl in that hot rod he tunes, put my mouthpiece in and hang on. It’s always a fun ride.”
Hagan has complete confidence in his entire Mopar crew, and is dedicated this year to being there for them as much as they are for him.
“You have to depend on your guys and they have to depend on you,” he said. “You can have all the swagger in your boots that you want, like that stride John Force has, but when you crawl in there everyone is equal. Our goal this year is to be where your feet are, to be present. If you’re here, be in the moment, When I’m in the car, I’m thinking about what I need to do there, not what’s going on at home or anywhere else.”
Jonnie Lindberg’s rookie season could be described as a series of almosts. He almost made the Countdown to the Championship. He almost won three races. In most years, he would have been named the NHRA’s top rookie. That doesn’t make his debut Funny Car season any less impressive, of course. If anything, it sets up what should be a great sophomore campaign.
Lindberg wasn’t a typical rookie, anyway. A former Top Alcohol Funny Car champion, the Swede insists he was comfortable in the Nitro machine almost as soon as he got into the seat. So, there’s little to no talk about being “more” comfortable in the seat this year. As he and Jim Head load up to run a full season this year (as opposed to a nearly-complete season in 2017), Lindberg is confident as always.
“We had the power, we just needed to figure out the clutch and all that stuff,” said Lindberg. “It’s tougher, but I’m pretty confident that if we do all the races we’ll be in the top 10 for sure. We have good stuff and Jim is a pretty clever guy, so I think we have a really good chance of finishing well this year.”
A solid preseason test session at Wild Horse Motorsports Park and a strong qualifying effort only bolster his confidence. He’s one of the better drivers in the class, too, which doesn’t do anything to hurt his chances. In a field filled with data-sharing team cars, Lindberg and Head are certainly one of the most competitive solo cars.
“I just drive and do my thing,” said Lindberg. “If the other guys can do it, why not me? I’m a very confident guy.”
Toyota earned its first -ever NHRA Funny Car Wally 14 years ago at the Winternationals when Jerry Tolliver drove his Schick Razors-backed Celica to the win, beating Gary Densham in the final round. It was Toliver’s fifth and final win and, as hard as it is to believe, also the only Toyota Funny Car win at the Winternationals.
Current Toyota Funny Car drivers J.R. Todd (2007) and Shawn Langdon (2013, 2105) have won the Winternationals in Top Fuel, and Cruz Pedregon won it in Funny Car in the McDonalds Pontiac back in 1995, and that trio is part of the Toyota troops’ bid to break that drought this year, along with fellow Camry drivers Jonnie Lindberg in Jim Head’s car, Del Worsham, Jeff Diehl, and Richard Townsend.
You (probably) already know Shawn Langdon is excellent at leaving on his opponents. What you might not know is how difficult it is to immediately translate that skill from a Top Fuel Dragster to a Funny Car. Or, at least how difficult it should be. Now, let’s drop in a Small Sample Size caveat to the numbers you’re about to read because it’s only four runs, okay? Langdon has perennially been one of the best leavers in every class he’s ever been in (including Top Fuel: .0582 last year was the best).
After four passes in a Funny Car, his reaction times in qualifying have all been between .063 and .078. To give you a sense of perspective on that, Tommy Johnson Jr. led the category with an average of .0684 last season. Langdon’s average of .0715 would put him in the top five, which isn’t too shabby for someone who hasn’t made 20 passes in a Funny Car.
“I really haven’t tested anything yet,” said Langdon. “We’ve kinda put the stuff together as far as what felt comfortable initially. There are still a lot of things I think we can do in the car that can puck up reaction time.
“I need to establish what I think is my window, so that after a couple races I think I can call my window within seven thousandth of what I think I can do. Once I can do that, that’s when I’ll start moving things around and changing things because I know where I should be. If I’m far off from where I should be, I’ll know it didn’t work. We haven’t even gotten there yet.”
Lest you think there’s any carry over from a Top Fueler to a Funny Car because both pump nitro.
“It’s totally different from a dragster,” said Langdon. “After seven years, I felt like I had everything set up with the geometry, and the angles, and you name it with all the different things that we do down to a science. This… I have no clue, so I’m starting back from square one. It’s going to be a learning curve. It’s stuff that we’re going to be working on.”
Langdon hopes to get into the .050s once he gets really dialed in. That would be something truly special, and dangerous, for the rest of the Funny Car field to deal with. As the Global Electronic Technology team refines the tune-up on his Funny Car, Langdon is constantly refining himself.
The Winter Olympics are under way in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. remains among the most fervent Winter Olympics fans on the NHRA tour, and with good reason.
In 2002, when the Winter Games were held in Salt Lake City, Coughlin had the honor of carrying the torch through his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He later battled NASCAR stars for numerous years in the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Challenge to raise critical funding for the USA Bobsled team. He also attended the Vancouver Games in 2010 as a guest of Team USA.
"Carrying the torch -- for a quarter-mile, by chance -- through the streets of Columbus back in 2002 really got it going for me,” said Coughlin. “We then got involved with Geoff Bodine's charity fundraiser for a number of years and actually got to race bobsleds against our NASCAR counterparts to raise money to help in the design of better sleds for our athletes.
"Most kids grow up dreaming about the Olympics and feeling that incredible admiration for our athletes. I certainly feel that way to this day, so it's been a dream come true to get involved with our Olympic heroes in a small way. I can't wait for the games to begin and cheer Team USA on to many medals.”
The Winternationals is pretty special to Coughlin, too. In 1998, he made his first Pro Stock start at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona at the Winternationals and reached the final round. A year later, he defeated his older brother Troy in the final to win his first Winternationals Pro Stock title, then won it again in 2000. All told, Coughlin has six wins and seven runner-up finishes in Pro Stock competition in Pomona. In addition to the two Winternationals scores he won the season-ending Auto Club Finals in 1995, 2005, and 2007 and also won the special 50th anniversary event held in Pomona during the summer of 2001 as part of NHRA's golden anniversary celebration.
Drew Skillman didn’t end up getting his first No. 1 qualifier hat since the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, but it’s hard to imagine he’s all that upset about it. The traditionally laid-back Indiana native landed in the No. 2 spot and will face off against Joey Grose in the first round of Pro Stock action. The earliest he can meet teammate Tanner Gray is the semifinals, his car is running well, so, everything is going just fine.
“I do this for fun,” said Skillman. “If I lose, it’s not like I lose income. I just go back to work Monday. This is a stress-free operation. If this becomes stressful, I’ll go back to being a full time Stock Eliminator racer.”
Skillman’s passes were a little on the erratic side. All of them were relatively solid, but they all had a different number in the hundredths spot and weren’t exactly trending in one direction or the other, so it’ll be interesting to see how the red Camaro stacks up on Sunday. This early in the season, both the drivers and the crew chiefs are working on everything.
“It takes me awhile to get warmed back up,” said Skillman. “I’m still nervous when I get in the car, still trying to remember what I’m trying to do. It just takes a little time. I drove like crap Monday during testing, and Tuesday I looked like I knew what I was doing. It’s the first race of the year, everyone is screwed up.”
We’ll see who’s the least screwed up as the first day of eliminations gets going.
Deric Kramer’s first race with KB Racing is off to a decent start. He qualified No. 8, which is higher than he ever qualified last season, and his 6.58-second pass in the third qualified session stands as his second-best in the EFI-era. That’s all without making a great pass in his brand-new Chevy Camaro. He’ll get a shot at Chris McGaha in the first round.
“We’re so new with this new combination that our window is really narrow, and we have to widen it up,” said David Kramer (Deric Kramer’s dad). “We need to know what extreme is, and what weak is.”
They’ll throw something into the car, make a run, and then circle back with Jason Line and Greg Anderson to see what everyone thinks. That’s great for all parties involved and will only get better as the partnership develops. Certainly, Kramer wants to go out and win rounds today, but the more data he can get into his American Ethanol Camaro the better.
“We’re trying stuff, they’re trying stuff, it’s good for us, and it’s good for them, too,” said Kramer. “I think it’s going to be a whole learning curve.”
Raceday began with the traditional SealMaster Track Walk, allowing fans to take a stroll down the historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona racing surface led by last year’s Mello Yello champs.
2017 Mello Yello champs Robert Hight, Brittany Force, Bo Butner, and Eddie Krawiec got their championship rings and jackets during pre-race ceremonies, where they were congratulated by NHRA President Glen Cromwell, left, and Mello Yello’s Al Rondon.
Cromwell also was on hand with Lucas Oil president Tom Frederickson to congratulate along some of last year’s Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series champions: Joey Severance, Shane Westerfield, and Justin Lamb.
Race fans packed Auto Club Raceway at Pomona for final eliminations at the season opener.
Top Fuel racer Brittany Force was involved in an incident during the first round of eliminations. Force’s dragster went out of control during the pass, made contact with both retaining walls and came to rest upright past the finish line. She was responsive, speaking with medical personnel, and was transported to a local hospital for evaluation.
Doug Kalitta beat teammate Richie Crampton in round one, but it was an expensive victory after this booming blower explosion.
Four wild fuel altereds, including the Bradford family Fiat, made exhibition passes before the final rounds.
The event champions, from left, Bo Butner, Matt Hagan, and Doug Kalitta.
Eliminations ladders for the start of Sunday's eliminations at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com: