Prock, Pedregon, Anderson, Smith close season with Auto Club Finals titles
Austin Prock, Cruz Pedregon, Greg Anderson, and Angie Smith closed out an incredible 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season on an upset-filled final day at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Three more Camping World champions were crowned on the last day of the season with Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) winning the season titles, though none of them ended up in the winner's circle.
Prock’s struggles throughout the early part of the season were erased with a season-ending victory in the Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist dragster as the team won two of the six final events on the tour, capping their win at the Auto Club NHRA Finals with a final-round victory over Antron Brown. The victory is the third of Prock’s young career.
"I think it just showed our determination," he said. "Even when we were beat up, we were still striving to get that success we needed. It was tough through the middle of the season, I wasn't even enjoying being at the track, just because it was painful. I mean, we could have rolled in here like eighth or ninth [in points] in the Countdown and probably won this deal [the championship], so it just speaks volumes for how hard everybody was working. And, when we fixed it, you know, they knew we were here. And I enjoyed this Countdown so much. It was so much fun going rounds."
Prock, who was runner-up at the season opener in Pomona and again in Dallas, qualified in the No. 5 spot and took down Shawn Langdon, Leah Pruett, and, in the semifinals, his world champion teammate Brittany Force, in the quickest side-by-side race in history, 3.642 to 3.676.
The race also was Prock's last with legendary crew chief Rahn Tobler, who is retiring after this event.
"I'm so happy for Rahn Tobler," said Prock. "I've had a blast working with him this year. He's an absolute legend in the sport and they go out on his last race like he did tonight speaks volumes for what he's done for the sport.. that [3.64] was the quickest run he's ever made in history, and, and it was the last one too so it's just a great way to end it with him."
Brown raced to the final, the 130th of his career, and he started his raceday on a huge note as his first-round victory over Justin Ashely awarded the world championship to Force. He followed with wins over underdog Ron August Jr. and a narrow holeshot win by less than .001-second over Josh Hart. Brown’s great Sunday carried him from fourth place to second in the final standings.
Pedregon, who hadn’t been to the semifinals this year since the season opener months ago at this track, went there and more at the season finale, powering his Snap-on to his first win in more than a year, since last year’s fall event in Las Vegas.
Pedregon’s final-round dash of 3.839 was another career-best pass on a weekend where he repeatedly ran under his incoming career-best, and put a small damper on Ron Capps’ championship season. Capps had mathematically clinched his third world championship the round previous but needed to contest the final without a centerline or guardwall infraction. He did that, but his 3.85 trailed Pedregon across the victory stripe. The victory is the 38th of Pedregon’s Funny Car career.
"I don't use this cliche very often, but it fits this it's this weekend feels surreal to me," he said. "I've had some really good cars in my career but this is the best race car I've ever driven by a longshot. It says a lot for the team and I do want to point out that we did add Lee [Beard] to the team as a consultant but I want to give J.C. [John Collins] and the team that I had, that's been grinding with me for two years now the credit.
"I was a little embarrassed by how we've done this year ... We really underachieved, I would say we never got on track, you know what I mean? We never got any kind of groove until today and this weekend we got in a pretty good groove. I was getting congratulated by family friends left and right about the four consecutive 3.84s [in qualifying], but I thought you know what, if we screw this up and don't win [the race], we're gonna look like fools. So the fact that we're able to close the deal today, that's just pretty awesome."
Pedregon worked his John Collins-tuned Snap-on Tools Dodge past Jason Rupert, John Force, and Alexis DeJoria to reach his 81st career final while Capps, the No. 1 qualifier, defeated Jeff Arend, Tim Wilkerson, and Bob Tasca III to reach the final round.
Greg Anderson closed out one of the most successful partnerships in the history of NHRA championship drag racing when he sent KB Racing team owner Ken Black into retirement with his 101st Pro Stock victory. Anderson won the Auto Club NHRA Finals title on holeshot when he stopped newly crowned world champ Erica Enders, 6.516 to 6.515. Anderson got off the starting line first with a .020 light and never looked back as he also moved to second place in the Camping World standings.
“Obviously this was emotional after 20 years with Ken Black,” said Anderson. “We’ve had a hell of a ride together. He’s made all my hopes and dreams come true and he’s like a second father to me. Honestly, I feel like a lottery ticket winner. Coming into this race, I knew we weren’t going to win the championship but I thought the only small way I could thank him was to win this race and hand him a final Wally.
“I think I did a good job driving and my race car was fast, so this was the best story I could write. It was just like Indy when I won my 100th race. Honestly, those are the two biggest wins of my career. Just two fantastic races. Beating Erica is always fantastic. I don’t win many on holeshots but somehow I found a way to get it done. When I handed Ken that Wally he was speechless. It was just a wonderful moment and a great way to pay him back. I have to thank Ken and [wife] Judy and [son] Kenny Jr. and the whole KB team. This wasn’t a bad year, but this is the way to end it.”
Anderson was dominant in 2021 when he won his fifth championship but struggled at times this season. He earned his landmark 100th win at the U.S. Nationals, but wasn’t able to gain ground on Enders during the Countdown to the Championship. Coming off a runner-up finish at the Las Vegas event, Anderson was rock solid in Pomona with a 6.509 in qualifying that that good for the No. 2 spot and round wins over Chris McGaha, Bo Butner, and Fernando Cuadra Sr.
Enders didn’t get her 11th victory of the season, but accomplished her main objective by winning her fifth championship in the Pro Stock class. The Elite driver put together an amazing 55-9 elimination record this year including her three Pomona wins against Mason McGaha, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Aaron Stanfield.
“I’m really disappointed in myself,” Enders said. “It’s just the way I released clutch pedal. I did the same thing in the first round. We got the championship but I‘m still mad at myself.”
Matt Smith garnered most of the headlines this season by winning his sixth NHRA Pro Stock championship but it’s also hard not to notice the progress that has been made by his wife, Angie, who had one of the best seasons of her career aboard her Denso Buell. Mrs. Smith wrapped up the season by winning her third NHRA Wally, and did it in dramatic fashion with a holeshot victory over Joey Gladstone. Smith left first, .017 to .029, and won by a scant .002-second with a 6.749 to Gladstone’s 6.739.
The win also solidified a third-place finish for Smith, the best of her career.
“This is just a relief. I wanted so bad to win a race this year,” said Smith. “I had a good year but this is just icing on the cake. I owe it to this entire Denso team. They have my back through all the downs and the ups. This one is for my papa, I know he’s watching from above.”
“Coming in here I knew I needed to qualify well and then turn on some win lights on Sunday and we did just what,” said Smith. “We’ve been creeping up on it for a while I I had a really good bike today. I had to race Jerry [Savoie], who has been a thorn in my side this year and I finally got him. I knew I had to make a decent run. Then I got a single run when Steve Johnson broke and the bike shook the tire a bit so [Matt] made a tune-up call. The last thing my guys told me before the final was ‘You got this’ and I did my job. To win on a holeshot is epic.”
Smith opened the season with a runner-up finish in Gainesville, the same event where she ran a then career best 6.72. Smith entered the Countdown to the Championship as the No. 7 seed but improved her stock with another runner-up finish in Reading. She also earned a semifinal finish at the most recent event in Las Vegas.
In Pomona, Smith qualified fourth with a 6.734 and rode a string of 6.7s in her wins over Fred Camarena, Jerry Savoie, and Steve Johnson. Smith ended the season with a solid 24-14 record in elimination rounds.
Gladstone may have missed out on his chance to win the Camping World NHRA championship in Pro Stock Motorcycle, but he left Pomona feeling optimistic after a season that included the first two wins of his career. Gladstone’s biggest win Pomona came in the semifinals when he put the brakes on Matt Smith, who earlier in the day clinched his sixth world title. In an epic side-by side race, Gladstone and Smith both ran 6.757, but Gladstone held a slight advantage off the starting line.