Symbolic of a new era and exciting new year, the first pair of eliminations pitted newly-minted team owner Antron Brown against Leah Pruett in the raceday debut of the new Tony Stewart Racing team. Brown left first and never looked back en route to a 3.72 to 3.74 victory.
The side-by-side race delighted the fans and also gave notice that both lanes seem equal and ready for action.
Two of the sport’s most experienced drivers, Doug Kalitta and Tony Schumacher, also squared off in round one. The event is the 545th of Kalitta’s career and the 513th for Schumacher and had the intriguing storyline of shared crew chief history. Alan Johnson, who tuned Schumacher to the bulk of his early wins and, most memorably “The Run” at the 2006 Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona to win the 2006 championship over Kalitta, is now tuning for Kalitta.
Schumacher, whose lifetime record is 850-419 while Kalitta owned a 723-488 record entering the round. Schumacher qualified just No. 1 on a narrow 3.726 to 3.730 count. It was the 92nd time the two had raced.
“I feel blessed to run Kalitta first round,” said Schumacher. “In 2008 was the last time we raced here and it’s always time to put on your big-boy pants when you race him, but we went on to win 15 races that year with Alan Johnson tuning for us. The fans got their money’s worth there.”
How good was Top Fuel racing in round one? Take a look at the winning times: Brittany Force (3.699), Justin Ashley (3.699), Mike Salinas (3.718), Steve Torrence (3.724), Antron Brown (3.724), Austin Prock (3.725), Tony Schumacher (3.726), and Josh Hart (3.740).
Five of the eight winners ran between 3.718 and 3.726 and the entire spread for eight winners was just over four-hundredths of a second.
Jim Campbell and Jim Dunn's Mooneyes Funny Car took a ride into the Pomona sandtrap after a first-round loss to Alexis DeJoria. Fortunately for the team, the sand slowed the car enough so that it did not even reach the catch net.
"You know it's a short shutdown here, so when I pulled the 'chutes and didn't feel that initial hit, you just have to get on the brakes real hard and try to keep it straight into the sand," he said. "The damage doesn't look too bad so we'll get to work on it and get it ready for Phoenix [the NHRA Arizona Nationals] next weekend."
Matt Hagan got the honor of getting Tony Stewart his first NHRA round win, narrowly escaping against Chad Green. Hagan's Dodge Power Brokers Charger got loose just past half-track, forcing the three-time world champ to lift. He got back onto the pedal and backfired the blower but hung on for a 4.07 to 4.12 win.
Second-generation Funny Car racer Jason Rupert qualified for the Winternationals for the first time and drew Robert Hight in round one. The Bays & Rupert Mustang got loose downtrack and Rupert clouted the guardwall, flattening the headers and dinging the body in defeat,
When Ron Capps blasted to the No. 1 qualifying spot in Funny Car Saturday evening, it gave him the yellow low qualifier’s hat but also a first-round date with the NHRA GOAT, all-time wins leader John Force. After being the star of pre-season testing in Phoenix a weekend earlier, Force and his BlueDef team struggled in qualifying here and wound up just no. 16
Even though Force owns a life 65-45 record against Capps, Capps has beaten Force 13 times in the 22 times they’ve raced in the first round. including twice in first rounds at the Winternationals (2009, 2013), Capps was not taking him lightly.
“Never count that old man out – ever,” he cautioned Saturday night. “He came over Friday and pulled me aside and gave me us pep speech like he was my team owner, and it was pretty cool. He does that a lot. I probably have about 45 voice messages either on my cell phone or our house. He just has a heart of gold and he's a beauty, but you never count him out. Every time you do you get your ass handed to you by him. He’s still he's still our Tom Brady out here as far as I'm concerned.
“So that's a tough draw. Is it worth having a hat? Yeah. Would you want to get him when he seems like he's struggling? Would you want to fight an animal when they're backed into a corner? No. I'd rather fight him on he's got No. 1.”
So, what happened in the 111th meeting between these two class powerhouses?
Force smoked the tires early, giving Capps the easy win, and a little piece of trivia. In the four other times that Force has qualified No. 16, he’s managed to win the first round – but not this time.
Tony Jurado, who qualified at four of the five events he ran in his rookie season last year with crew chief Jason Bunker got his first career round win in Funny Car, defeating Tim Wilkerson is a wild, side-by-side tire-smoking duel, 5.41 to 5.97.
"Oh my God, I'm so overwhelmed with emotion right now," he said after exiting the car. "I'm shaking, I didn't know what happened because it spun the tires way down there and I had to get out of it, but I know that when [the top-end marshals] point me over [towards the TV cameras] I know it's a good thing. This is just awesome. it's something that I've always dreamed of."
2021 Rookie of the Year Dallas Glenn, who earned the nickname "Double-oh Dallas" for his fantastic reaction times, won his first Pro Stock round of the season on (surprise!) a holeshot, beating Chris McGaha, 6,577 to a quicker 6.565. Glenn wasn't .00 on the Tree, merely .017, but it was well quicker than McGaha's .052 light.
The biggest upset of the first round felled Kyle Koretsky in Pro Stock. Koretsky, last year's fourth-place finisher and the No. 3 qualifier here, couldn't get his Lucas Oil Camaro started to face No. 14 Fernando Cuadra Jr., who powered to a 6.60 solo pass. The victory was just the seventh for Cuadra in 28 events. Cuadra's brother, Cristian, wasn't as fortunate as he had to face off with low qualifier Erica Enders, who beat him on a close 6.55 to 6.58 race. The entire Cuadra team is getting engine help this year from Enders' Elite performance squad and Fernado Jr. will face Bo Butner, another Elite car, in round two.
The round ended with Enders' other Elite teammates, Aaron Stanfield and Troy Coughlin Jr., squaring off, with Stanfield getting the win ticket to round two.
John Force Racing was assured a Top Fuel car in the Winternationals final round after both Austin Prock and Brittany Force won their second-round races. Prock faced off with the class' all-time winner, Tony Schumacher, for the first time, and won handily with a 3.78 after Schumacher smoked the tires. Force, the low qualifier, eked out a 3.72 to 3.72 victory over Josh Hart. Force will get her pick of lanes.
The other half of the semifinals will put Justin Ashley, who cranked off his second straight 3.69-second pass to defeat tech-alliance squadmate Antron Brown, will have lane choice against world champ Steve Torrence, who ran 3.718 to defeat tire-smoking Mike Salinas.
Robert Hight added another JFR car to the semifinals when he powered his Auto Club Chevy to his second straight 3.89-second pass of eliminations to defeat upset-minded Tony Jurado, but he'll cede lane choice to Matt Hagan, who pounded out a 3.88 to defeat Bob Tasca III.
Low qualifier Ron Capps, who bested Hight's boss, John Force, in round one, also ran 3.89 and will get lane choice over Cruz Pedregon, who has won the Winternationals three times but not since 1995, but will get another shot at a Pomona Wally after beating Alexis DeJoria. Capps will have lane choice.
All four Funny Car semifinalists have been NHRA world champs.
Fernando Cuadra Jr. has reached his second career semifinal round when he beat former world champ Bo Butner, who rattled the tires to kick off round two of Pro Stock. Cuadra was considered a semifinal finisher at last year’s Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, where he finished fourth in the final quad. Cuadra will take on Aaron Stanfield in the semifinals.
The other side of the ladder will feature a titanic battle between Erica Enders and Greg Anderson. Enders won the battle of the class’ top two starting-line artists, leaving on Dallas Glenn, .016 to .027, then outrunning him the rest of the quarter-mile, 6.565 to 6.570. Anderson defeated Deric Kramer and will have lane choice with a 6.561 as he seeks to win his milestone 100th victory.
Austin Prock, runner-up at the 2020 Winternationals, will get another shot at a Pomona Wally after beating teammate Brittany Force in a 3,68 to 3.70 semifinal battle.
The intra-squad John Force Racing battle had some lopsided stats as Prock owned a 3-1 career advantage on her head to head. In his 2019 rookie season, he beat her the first three times they raced, including in his first official eliminations round at this event and also beat her in Topeka and Brainerd before she finally tallied a win against him at the fall Las Vegas event. With both sitting out most of 2020 and Prock almost all of 2021 due to the pandemic, it was the first time they’d raced since October 2019.
Prock, who has one career win, scored at the 2019 Seattle event, will face off in the final with Justin Ashley, who was runner-up at this event last summer but had to withdraw from the final round due to heat exhaustion.
The all-star semifinal Funny Car quad -- Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Matt Hagan, and Cruz Pedregon, the Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4 quaifiers, by the way -- had accounted for 202 wins and 372 final-round appearances but it will be Capps taking on Hight for all the money.
Capps, the No. 1 qualifier, has improved on all three runs, from a 3.920 to a 3.890 and then a 3,881 in the semifinals to defeat Pedregon, but Hight will have lane choice after a dazzling 3.861. Hight had two previous 3.89s in eliminations.
Erica Enders has a chance to win her first Winternationals Pro Stock title after a feel-great victory over nemesis and reigning world champ Greg Anderson in the semifinals. Enders left on Anderson by .014-second and she continued to expand that lead until halftrack, where Anderson’s Camaro broke the tires loose. he expertly gathered it in, but the race was already lost to Enders’ 6.569.
Enders won’t have lane choice in the final round against her Elite Performance stablemate, Aaron Stanfield, who ran 6.567 to end Fernando Cuadra Jr.’s storybook day.
LUCAS OIL SERIES FINAL RESULTS
Top Alcohol Dragster -- Mike Coughlin, 5.237, 275.90 def. Joey Severance, 6.863, 133.18.
Top Alcohol Funny Car -- Shane Westerfield, Chevy Camaro, 5.482, 266.27 def. Nick Januik, Camaro, 5.628, 260.56.
Competition Eliminator -- Cody Lane, Chevy Cavalier, 8.417, 152.11 def. Doug Lambeck, Pontiac Sunfire, 8.358, 146.61.
Super Stock -- Ken Etter, Dodge Shadow, 10.178, 129.02 def. Jimmy DeFrank, Chevy Cobalt, 8.936, 154.02.
Stock Eliminator -- Leo Glasbrenner, Chevy Camaro, 9.470, 141.94 def. Jeff Lane, Camaro, 9.263, 145.00.
Super Comp -- James Glenn, Dragster, 8.907, 172.28 def. Wade Archer, Dragster, 8.939, 170.75.
Super Gas -- Ed Olpin, Chevy Camaro, 9.924, 167.99 def. Pete Bothe, Porsche, 9.893, 147.25.
Top Dragster presented by Vortech Superchargers -- Moe Trujillo, Dragster, 7.066, 188.41 def. Phil Dion, Dragster, Foul - Red Light.
Top Sportsman presented by Vortech Superchargers -- Don Meziere, Chevy Cobalt, 6.776, 193.21 def. Jeff Gillette, Pontiac GTO, 6.932, 198.50.