Naturally, we learned a lot in Pomona because it was easily one of the most dramatic events of the season with amazing performances, fantastic side-by-side racing, and loads of championship drama. Here are five things that stood out.
DOUG KALITTA IS GOING TO BE A VERY POPULAR CHAMPION
Winner-take-all final rounds are a rarity in drag racing, but when they occur, we tend to remember them for a very long time. In Pomona, Doug Kalitta and Leah Pruett put on a show for the ages with a great side-by-side battle to decide the Top Fuel title. For Kalitta, the win ended 26 years of frustration that included six runner-up finishes. When his win light came on, the celebration was massive, sincere, and extended well into the night. While Kalitta accepted the champion’s trophy at the top end of the track, his uncle, Hall of Fame team owner Connie Kalitta, was mobbed on the starting line as he sat comfortably on his golf cart, taking time to fully absorb everything happening around him. It is the sort of moment that will quickly become a part of drag racing history, and rightfully so.
There was also a fair amount of irony as Kalitta’s crew chief, Alan Johnson, is the same guy who delivered a crushing blow to the Kalitta team in 2006 when he guided Tony Schumacher to “the run,” a record-setting performance in the Pomona final that cost Kalitta a title. This time, Kalitta evened the score.
GAIGE HERRERA IS A GENERATIONAL TALENT
Fifty wins and four losses. That is the win-loss record for Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Gaige Herrera this season. Let that sink in for a moment because it might be a while before we ever see that sort of domination again in any NHRA Pro eliminator. The Vance & Hines team admittedly rolled the dice when they hired Herrera this season after a brief six-race showcase in 2022. It proved to be a stroke of genius as Herrera won his first start in Gainesville and never stopped winning.
Herrera ended the season with a record 11 wins in 15 races, and he was the low qualifier at every race other than Denver. Herrera also won multiple events in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge and the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle All-Star Callout event in Sonoma. Through it all, Herrera has remained humble and focused as he adjusted to life in the NHRA “Big Show.” The Vance & Hines team now has 14 championships, and there’s no reason to think that Herrera won’t deliver a few more during his career.
POMONA ALWAYS DELIVERS DRAMA
Sometimes, timing is everything. Erica Enders came to Pomona with a huge lead in the Pro Stock standings and needed only to win the first round in order to clinch her sixth world title. She did just that but shook the tires in the semi’s and lost to Matt Hartford. What if that had happened two rounds earlier? Would Greg Anderson have won the title?
The same goes for Robert Hight, who was dominant in Funny Car qualifying and appeared to be the favorite to win the title in a three-way battle against Bob Tasca III and Matt Hagan. Hight’s consistency was remarkable until it wasn’t. He smoked the tires in the second round, losing to Chad Green and clinching the title in favor of Hagan, who seemed genuinely surprised as he watched the race unfold from the top end of the track. The bottom line; when it comes to the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals in Pomona, always expect the unexpected.
FATHER KNOWS BEST, OR DOES HE?
For most of this season, Chad Green has been a solid bet to become NHRA’s next first-time Professional winner. Green and his Bond Coat Ford were a semifinal magnet for most of the season, and he went to final rounds in Sonoma and Reading. He also dominated the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for most of the season. Green finally got over the hump in Pomona when he defeated mentor Tim Wilkerson for his first nitro win. As if that wasn’t enough, Green got to share the winner’s circle with his son, Hunter, who won the Top Alcohol Dragster title earlier in the day.
The Greens now join a fairly significant list of father-son and father-daughter combinations that have won on the same day, including most notably John and Brittany Force, Kenny and Brandon Bernstein, and Greg and Aaron Stanfield, just to name a few. The family theme also extends to Green’s crew chief, Daniel Wilkerson, who finally got his wish when he got to race his father, Tim, in a final round.
LABBOUS AND WAGNER SHOW HOW TO WRAP UP A CHAMPIONSHIP
John Labbous Jr. won his second NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series championship when he drove to the Super Comp title, while Wyatt Wagner clinched his first championship in Super Stock, but winning the title wasn’t enough for either driver as they both hung around long enough on Sunday to collect a second Wally.
Labbous produced four wins in five final rounds aboard Anthony Bertozzi’s dragster, while Wagner went 5-1 in final rounds, including back-to-back wins at the Division 7 Lucas Oil Series event in Las Vegas and the In-N-Out Finals in Pomona to break the magic 700-point barrier.
Finally, when it comes to hot streaks, there is Sean Bellemeur, who missed out on his fourth Top Alcohol Funny Car title this season but closed the year by winning the final three events aboard his Steve Boggs-tuned Bartone Bros. Camaro.