Courtney Force's first Funny Car pass - Anne Profit photoEnlarge Photo
The National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) 23-race season started this week with the first round of qualifying for the O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals, held on Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
This is where every NHRA season begins; this is where every NHRA season ends.
On a Chamber of Commerce Thursday afternoon, the Pro Stock, Funny Car and Top Fuel contingent shook off the rust accumulated since last November to begin their Countdown to the Championship quests, with a 17-race regular season that leads into a six-race playoff beginning after the Mac Tools US Nationals on Labor Day weekend.
This is a time for contenders to show their stuff and for champions to remind the balance of the field why they got those big Wally trophies and an equally large check at the banquet last year. With a single qualifying round each on Thursday and Friday, two rounds on Saturday to set the field and final eliminations on Sunday, Pomona is always a drawn out affair. In some instances, that could be quite welcome.
For Mike Edwards, the 2009 Pro Stock titleholder, the off-season has been one of recovery. The driver had back problems that hindered him over the past year or so, but those troubles seem to be behind him as the Coweta, Oklahoma driver took top spot in an 18-car field, gaining both low elapsed time of 6.545 seconds and top speed of 211.86.
Edwards, a soft-spoken gentleman, looking for his 41st No. 1 qualifier said, "It feels really, really good. When you star off a new season, you never know what to expect and we got off to a great start. It was a great run--we just made one of the nicest runs we've made in Pomona in a long time. Hopefully we an build on this."
Mike Edwards had the top quarter-mile pass in Pro Stock - Anne Profit photoEnlarge Photo
With only the top 12 qualified until Saturday (in each class), Edwards has to contend with second-placed Ronnie Humphrey, diving a similar GXP, while third and fourth places belong to the Mopar contingent, sophomore Vincent Nobile's Dodge Avenger ahead of Allen Johnson, whose father Roy builds engines for both of them. Shane Gray is fifth in another GXP while the final, 12th qualifier is the reigning champion Jason Line.
Returning four-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin couldn't make it down the track in his 2012 Avenger; hopefully he'll do better tomorrow.
Next up was Funny Car and the first driver to make a qualifying attempt was Courtney Force in her Traxxas Ford Mustang. She had a solid burnout and a nice, straight pass down the 1000-foot dragstrip, ending up sixth, just behind her father John Force. Fellow rookie Alexis DeJoria was 10th in her Tequila Patron 2012 Toyota Camry, the new bodywork making its debut as well.
Fast Jack Beckman, who is an instructor at this track set the quickest time in Funny Car with his Dodge Charger and the fastest speed: 4.139 seconds at 308.14 mph. He's followed by the Ford Mustang of Bob Tasca III, Johnny Gray's Charger, reigning titleholder Matt Hagan's Charger and the father-daughter Force duo.
Among those not in the 12-car field at this point are Ron Capps, Jeff Arend, Mike Neff and Tim Wilkerson, all of whom had traction problems on the hot track this afternoon. There are 18 Funny Car entries on the grounds; two will go home when qualifying is complete.
“The most important thing is if we can go down the track and get good computer data, we can pick away at it from there,” Beckman said. “If you go out there and smoke the tires, you don’t know how much you missed it by. We all know that 4.13 is not going to hold, but we feel we have as good a shot of stepping up as any other car out there.”
Finally, the Top Fuel cars came out for their opportunities. Last year's winner at the Winternationals, Morgan Lucas flexed his muscles with low elapsed time of 3.832 seconds at 320.28 mph in his GEICO/Lucas Oil dragster. Second went to Tony Schumacher's Army rail, with the top speed of the afternoon at 320.58 mph but .006 slower than Lucas.
Shawn Langdon made a third place debut in the silver Al-Anabi dragster, while Steve Torrence was fourth and Lucas' teammate Brandon Bernstein took fifth. Of last year's Countdown contenders, neither David Grubnic nor Antron Brown were in the top-12 in this 17-car field, but newcomer Khalid alBalooshi had a solid seventh place result in the gold Al-Anabi car.
Looking for his fifth career pole but not terribly sure his time will hold, Lucas was pleased but guarded with his optimism. "In past years I've been really optimistic coming into the season because of new people we hired or established situations within he team. I've learned not to get my hopes too far up and try to be a realist about it. To have both of our cars go down the track in this opening qualifying session is a big confidence booster for everyone," Lucas said. "It's all about getting that consistency and looking toward the big picture."
Friday qualifying takes place mid-afternoon and it's expected we'll have similar, albeit slightly cooler temps for the day. A big cool-down is expected on Saturday and Sunday, forcing tuners, crew chiefs and drivers to be on their top game as the season gets underway.