Ron Capps is coming off the two most memorable seasons of his legendary NHRA Mello Yello drag racing career and is eager to attack the 2018 season when his pre-season testing opens Thursday at Wild Horse Motorsports Park near Phoenix. 

The team, led by four-time Mello Yello world champion crew chief Rahn Tobler, produced Capps’ career-best eight event titles last year after winning his first world championship the year before.

Tobler and Capps have one of the most stable crews in motorsports but face a significant change this year when racing begins for the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T team when Tobler’s reputation as a crewchief developer starts a new chapter.

Eric “Hop” Lane was his assistant the past four years when the team won 20 event titles and the 2016 world championship but left the NAPA team after the last season to become rookie crew chief for Bob Tasca Racing.

Lane took over as Tobler’s assistant when John Collins became the crew chief in 2014 for Don Schumacher Racing’s Make-A-Wish Dodge and driver Tommy Johnson Jr.

Tobler began grooming another eventual crew chief when he and DSR promoted longtime NAPA crew member and car chief Dustin Heim to fill the slot opened by Lane.

“I love that Don is always looking to promote from within,” said Capps, who will start his 24th year of nitro racing Feb. 9-11 when the Mello Yello season opens at Pomona, California.

“Dustin has been the go-to guy on our team and somebody who knows everything about our car,” said Capps, who has raced with Tobler since early in the 2012 season. “He has jumped in to fill every position on our team when it’s been needed and is very well-rounded. That’s what you look for in an assistant crew chief.”

Capps believes it will be a seamless transition for the team considering this is Heim’s ninth year working with Tobler at DSR.

“We went through this when John Collins left to become crew chief for DSR’s Make-A-Wish team and Tommy Johnson Jr. John was nearby so he and Tobler could talk about their cars, and Hop will be close because he’ll be using a lot of (Don Schumacher Motorsports) parts and our tune-ups at Tasca.”

A bigger change, however, will be in the bellhousing where Tobler has switched to the trending six-disc clutch setup, which he was one of the first to try a few years ago.

“We ran pretty good with the six-disc back then, but Tobler didn’t feel comfortable enough to start the season with it,” Capps said. “This will be huge for us considering what we saw other teams do with it last year with speed.”

It could be very ominous for the competition considering Tobler and the NAPA team dominated the 2017 regular season by winning six of 18 events then added two more Wally trophies in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff. The year before that they won five titles in 10 final rounds en route to Capps’ first world championship.

Last year Capps started Sunday’s eliminations of the NHRA Finals season-finale eight points behind Robert Hight of John Force Racing. Capps’ hope to become the first Funny Car driver since 2001 to repeat as champion went up in smoke in the first round when he lost traction and Hight went on to win the championship.

It is the NHRA-record fifth time he finished a season No. 2 in points.

But the popular driver, who lives near San Diego, said he hasn’t thought much about finishing as the runner-up again.

“I really haven’t thought that much about it,” he said.

“It’s a dream of every team to win a championship. But winning a championship was not going to make or break my career. I’ve been able to make a living as a drag racer for more than 20 years. It was nice to get that championship, but I never felt I needed to do that to make myself complete as a driver.

“We just know we were one of two cars battling for the championship on the last day of the season. We took it right to Sunday with a chance to go back-to-back, and that hasn’t happened for a long time (2001).

“It was great last year to be announced as the world champ and have all the fans around the country come up to congratulate us. It was nice to put that in my pocket, but the best part was giving the championship to NAPA.

“It will be hard all year to hear about the John Force teams winning both nitro championships (Brittany Force won in Top Fuel). We’re just going to use that as fuel to motivate us even more to get back on top.”

Capps said his NAPA team isn’t shying away from topping what it did last year by advancing to the final round in 12 of the 24 events and winning 52 elimination rounds while losing only 16.

“Winning that many times is because our team went to the line without making a mistake very often,” said Capps, whose 57 Funny Car titles ranks second best all time.

“Consistency is always what made our car so good. That’s what makes Tobler one of the best crew chiefs ever.”