Antron Brown came into this preseason testing event at Arizona’s Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park last year confident his long-intact team had the power to steamroll to a third straight and fourth overall NHRA Top Fuel championship. As first Leah Pritchett challenged his reign, then Steve Torrence and finally Brittany Force followed suit, Brown faded to fourth in the final standings.

His return to Chandler, Ariz., near Phoenix, this week produced a class-best elapsed time of 3.714 seconds at 328.46 mph Thursday.

However, his Matco Tools Dragster team has undergone significant personnel changes since November. And that has caused Brown not to doubt but certainly to wobble a bit as the new mix of crew members learns how to gel.

"This is a good start," Brown said. "Yesterday was rough on us, but the track is starting to come around. “Mark Oswald, Brad Mason, our two crew chiefs, and the whole Matco Tools team is doing a real good job. We have a lot of new moving parts in personnel, and we are just trying to get in synch.”

During the offseason, longtime co-crew chief Brian Corradi left the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) team and joined John Force Racing to reunite with Dan Hood to share tuning duties for Courtney Force’s Funny Car. Brad Mason, who had paid his dues with the tight-knit group since they raced out of the David Powers organization in 2008, earned his promotion to crew chief status with Oswald.

"We lost Brian Corradi, which was a big blow, for sure. But, the chemistry didn't change for us,” Brown said. “Mark Oswald and Brad Mason moved up, and the rest of the guys filled in. We have two new guys that came in and we are just moving forward.

This is just testing, but I can promise you that we are going to get after it tomorrow. We want to keep improving and take this into Pomona. We are starting to gel, and the car keeps improving with each run."

His DSR Funny Car mate Matt Hagan was quickest in his class Thursday with a 3.879-second pass in the Mopar Dodge. And the Christiansburg, Va., farmer who left his tractor behind for the first time since last November said he has had no problems with his ride.

“So far the car has gone down the track every time we wanted it to,” he said after edging current champion Robert Hight for Thursday’s performance honors by one-thousandth of a second.  

“Being able to get behind the wheel and getting a feel for the car again and even though this is my tenth season behind the wheel, it all becomes routine,” Hagan, a two-time champion like Hight, said. “But, you still have to make those passes to get yourself sharp. It's just a great feeling to get behind the wheel again."

This time last year Hagan was on the verge of back-to-back victories – at Pomona, Calif., and here at this racetrack with the desert backdrop – to open the 2017 season.

"You have to put it in perspective, and there are lots of good cars out here," Hagan said. "There are lots of teams trying new stuff, but I have to hand it to [crew chief] Dickie Venables. “He's worked awful hard in the offseason to put us out ahead early. So far the car has gone down the track every time we wanted it to, and we had some times there were planned shutoffs.”

Hight, whose best run Thursday was a second-quickest 3.880-second E.T. at 324.05 mph, improved from his Wednesday start that was unfitting of a champion. On his first run down the track, the engine in his Auto Club Camaro exploded, sending multiple spark plugs into orbit.

"Yesterday certainly didn't go as planned," Hight said Thursday. "Today's three runs were respectable. We definitely got a baseline from today's runs. I shut off a little early on the .88, and Jimmy [tuner Prock]  said it would have run at least 330 miles per hour. We learned a lot about the rev-limiter. I think we will be in better shape tomorrow because the track keeps getting better and better.”

In Pro Stock, Erica Enders drove her Melling Performance / Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro to a 6.555 run at 210.28 and teammate Alex Laughlin tested his Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet Camaro to a pass of 6.580 at 209.10.

The 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series begins at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by on Feb. 8-11 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and this test session is designed to help teams work out bugs in their cars for an optimum beginning to the 24-race schedule.

Testing will resume Friday morning and continue through Saturday.