Written by Bobby Bennett, Susan Wade, Photos by Roger Richards, Marty Reger, Joel Gelfand.

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MG2 6184Shaken but apparently not seriously injured, reigning Top Fuel champion Antron Brown rode out a violent second-round accident during Sunday's eliminations of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

Almost at the end of his 1,000-foot race against Dave Grubnic, the engine in Brown's Matco Tools Dragster exploded. Brown was clocked going across the finish line first in 3.848 seconds at 308.64 mph.

Amid a shower of shrapnel, the car rolled onto its right side, spun, and hit the left-lane wall wing/back end first, causing another burst of flames. Then the dragster shot back across the track into the right lane and skidded in its side and backwards along the right-side wall into the sand trap.

The NHRA emergency medical team checked out Brown on site after he climbed from what was left of his car. He had popped open the cockpit canopy -- in his first race with the protective device mounted on his dragster -- and walked away on his own power.

Through a crackling microphone, Brown told the crowd, "Lungs are clear and good. The Safety Safari [the NHRA's emergency medical team] was there in the drop of a dime. So hat's off to the Safety Safari crew. We can't thank each and every one of you enough.

"I was able to take my seat belt off and get out of the car," he said. "I have a couple of little brush-burns on my knee a little bit. But besides that, I'm good to go. That capsule did its job. Thank God, man."

With Brown's car destroyed, he was unable to run his semifinal race.

"We're just going to go back and regroup and find out what happened," Brown said, referring to his crew chiefs, Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, and the team. "We'll be back out there before you know it."

The NHRA's next race, No. 2 in the 24-event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, will open Friday at Firebird International Raceway at Chandler, Ariz., near Phoenix.

It is unknown whether Grubnic or his car sustained any injury or damage.

Counting Tony Schumacher's parachute failure and subsequent trip into the sand during qualifying, this was the second test this weekend of the canopy. Crew chief Mike Green, who helped develop the canopy, led his U.S. Army Dragster team in prepping Schumacher's car for Saturday's No. 1 qualifying runs. That car needed no repair.

Racing was delayed by an hour and eight minutes as the track crews repaired the closed emergency wall opening damaged when Brown's dragster impacted.

LANGDON'S SECOND VICTORY IS AT HOME - tf winnerAs the easygoing Shawn Langdon soaked up the spotlight Sunday evening at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona for winning the Top Fuel final of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals, the memories flooded back to him.

He grew up in nearby Mira Loma, Calif., and this is the dragstrip where he grew up, watching dad Chad race in the NHRA's Super Gas class in the mid-1980s. It's where he started his own racing career in 1994 in the Jr. Dragster program.

"That was the biggest thing, coming under the tunnel and rolling out and looking out into the grandstands and seeing the stands packed," Langdon said, cradling only his second Wally trophy in the sport's headliner class.

"And just being in the final round, all these memories kind of come real quick to you," he said. "Just remembering way back in the day when my dad was pushing my Jr. Dragster and I'm coming around the same turn, thinking, 'Hey, that'd be cool someday to be a Top Fuel driver . . .'

It also is the racetrack where he used to run around and collect autographs, including that of Tony Schumacher, the eventual seven-time champion he defeated Sunday to take the points lead for the first time in his Top Fuel career.

Langdon, the two-time NHRA Super Comp national champion, has settled onto the plateau he used to dream of reaching. He drives the Al-Anabi Racing/Toyota Dragster, developing his considerable skills under renowned innovative team manager Alan Johnson and benefiting from the expertise of championship tuner Brian Husen.

"You couldn't have scripted it any better," Langdon said.

Indeed, no one could have at this season-opener, the first of the Mello Yello-branded era.

Langdon used a 3.721-second elapsed time on the 1,000-foot course that was the class' best of the meet (at 322.27 mph) to win here and pocket the $50,000 winners share of the Pomona purse for the first time. No. 1 qualifier Schumacher countered with a superb 3.747-second pass at a 324.12-mph speed in the Mike Green-tuned U.S. Army Dragster.

What made the difference was Langdon's .011-second reaction time. Schumacher launched in .042 seconds.

This marked Langdon's second final-round appearance at this race in the past three years. To heighten the pride in being a local racer, Langdon was graduated from Jurupa Valley High School, which has produced two winners of this drag-racing classic in three seasons. Morgan Lucas defeated Langdon, his former classmate and racing teammate, in 2011.

This weekend's performance marks a resurgence of 2012's star-crossed Al-Anabi Racing/Toyota team that took almost the entire so-called "regular season" to get in a winning groove. He finally got everything to click at once just before the Countdown, when he scored the first of three consecutive No. 1 starts then won the Charlotte Countdown event.

Teammate Khalid al Balooshi took until last July at Denver to earn his first Top Fuel round-win, then won the Countdown race at Reading amid a flurry of eye-popping E.T.s and speeds from several drivers. With his already strong numbers this year, including a sixth-place qualifying effort, the sophomore Top Fuel driver from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has won at least one elimination round  in 10 consecutive races.

Referring to Johnson and Husen, Langdon said, "One of the things we learned in testing is that we have a car capable of winning. It shows what they've been working on since the end of last year. They gave me a great car today. They really made my job easy."

He said his dragster "was actually on a little quicker run (than the winning 3.721 seconds). It started eating itself up a little on the finish line. Fortunately I didn't mess up that final. I hit the gas and my heart kind of dropped a little. I kind of felt I was a little too early. But you've got to have a little luck."

Shrugging aside the five-championship-season history and bittersweet parting of ways between Schumacher and Johnson as "two of the top teams going at it," Langdon said, "It's fun racing Tony. The two wins I've had [he topped Schumacher in last September's Charlotte final, too] have come against the -- in my decade -- greatest Top Fuel drag racer. He's got the most wins and the most championships. It's pretty neat t race Tony in the finals. He really is a class act and a great competitor. And I think racing guys like that makes you strive to be a better as a driver."

The Top Fuel class opened eliminations with an electrifying series of suspenseful side-by-side races, then in the second round turned somber with Antron Brown's fiery, 300-plus-mph, debris-spewing engine explosion and wreck.

Brown miraculously escaped with little more than bumps and bruises, but Langdon said, "That stuff's tough. That kind of stuff's really a reality check. Sometimes you do just kind of go throughout the days and you take for granted a little bit what you're doing. You've got to respect these things [7,000-horsepower, nitromethane-burning dragsters] at all times. The speeds that you're going, anything can happen at any given time.

"To say that it rattled me . . . I definitely thought about it," he said. "It sticks in the back of your mind." He said because of "all the things that the NHRA has done for safety and having trust in my guys," he's not overly fretful. "I think about it," Langdon said, "but I try not to think about it too much."

What's on his mind right now is traveling this week to Phoenix for the Arizona Nationals which open Friday at Firebird International Raceway at Chandler, near Phoenix.

nfc winnerTHE WILD CHILD GETS HER SPOT - The last time Courtney Force was in Pomona, she lost to Cruz Pedregon in the finals.

But like she has displayed throughout her brief Funny Car career, the learning curve appears to be rapid for the reigning Rookie of the Year winner.

Back in Pomona, this time to kick off the 2013 season with the NHRA Winternationals, Force was incredible, qualifying No. 1 and then rolling through eliminations on Sunday. She capped it off with an event-best 4.025 at 317.12 mph to beat Ron Capps for the second straight time en route to her second career win.

“It was definitely pretty unbelievable. My team gave me a great race car, a consistent race car all weekend long. They made my job simple,” Force said. “Returning and picking up where we left off, I’m just proud of finishing the job.”

Winning at her home track added that much more to the moment for Force, who admitted plenty of nerves going against Capps, who ran a 4.036 a round earlier, in the finals.

It started when two of her John Force Racing teammates went out in the first round – including Capps knocking off John with a 4.108 – putting the onus squarely on her shoulders.

But Force, who qualified with a 4.036 at 318.24 mph, responded with championship grit rarely displayed in second-year racers, knocking off Phil Burkart and Matt Hagan with a 4.066 and a 4.07, respectively, to move to the semifinals.

Force then got her big break in the semifinals, shaking the tires en route to a 10.422 against Bob Tasca III. But Tasca went red, sending a relieved Force to the finals.

“I saw the red light and I knew I was good, but it was pure luck,” Force said. “We both wanted to get that win, and we just got lucky.”

Luck wasn’t needed in the finals against Capps, as Force rocketed out of the gate with an incredible run, even as her car drifted toward the center line.

By that point, though, Force was ready to do anything to pull out the victory.

“Going against Capps, I was terrified. I knew he wanted revenge and he was running good all weekend,” Force said. “It definitely made me nervous. He’s a tough competitor, but my car was flying. It got over to the center line and I just hung onto it, trying to keep it straight and get across the finish line for that win.”

That it happened in the right lane made the impressive run that much more memorable for Force.

She had struggled in the lane generally considered the inferior one in Pomona, but it didn’t bother her in the finals, also proving that Force may be a difficult out the entire 2013 season.

“To get a 4.02 in what was considered the bad lane was just unbelievable. I think we’ve got a pretty bad hot rod going into Phoenix,” Force said. “It’s pretty surreal to be in the points lead. It was just crazy.”

There was an added bonus to the season-opening win as well.

The victory gave Force an automatic entry into the Traxxas Shootout later this year, a big accomplishment considering she had to win the fan vote a year ago to make the field.

“Making into the Traxxas Shootout at my home track, I think that’s the coolest thing,” Force said. “Being the first one, it’s pretty cool.”

ps winnerTALK ABOUT WEIRD - Sunday’s Pomona final round will go down as one of the most memorable anti-climactic wins in Vincent Nobile’s Pro Stock career.

But it was the wild turn of events leading up to the Pro Stock final against teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. which promises to keep people talking for quite some time.

Coughlin eventually went red, giving Nobile the Pro Stock victory at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, but that is only part of the story.

In fact, it might be best for the six-time Pro Stock winner to explain exactly what went down before he and Coughlin finally did reach the starting line.

“We messed with the carburetors a little bit to try to fix something and we ended up hurting something else, and after that burnout the car actually stalled out on me,” said Nobile, who went 6.58 in the finals. “I started it back up, and Jeggie shut his car off to wait for me.

“Then he couldn’t start his car back up, so I was waiting for him and then they told me I was going on a bye run. Then we were going to race and then I was going back on a bye run. We went back and forth a few times and I didn’t know what was going on. Obviously it turned out to be in my benefit.”

It also proved to be an ideal start for Nobile, who continues to show rapid improvement as he enters his third season in Pro Stock.

After moving up the points standings each of the past two years, a Pro Stock championship is clearly in focus for the young standout.

With more than 50 friends and family members joining him in the winner’s circle in Pomona, Nobile took the first step to a strong 2013 campaign.

“It’s pretty awesome. Leaving here with the points lead, that’s everyone’s goal. Now we just want to stay there, keep consistent and keep the wins coming,” said Nobile, who advanced to his third straight final dating back to the end of 2012.

Nobile qualified No. 5 with a solid 6.551 at 211.46, sending Matt Hartford home with a 6.58 in what was otherwise an upset-filled first round in Pro Stock.

Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Erica Enders, and No. 1 qualifier Mike Edwards all stumbled in the opening round, but Nobile was just getting started.

He dispatched Shane Gray with a 6.592 and then moved to the finals after going 6.575 in the semifinals against Greg Stansfield.

“Consistency is the key in Pro Stock, and that’s how we’re improving. Our car is way more consistent than last year, and we proved that testing. In qualifying we did well and now we just have to go to Phoenix and do the same thing,” Nobile said.

Nobile credited his remarkable team, noting that he “learned pretty quickly that I’ve got an amazing team behind me.”

Coughlin, who ran as quick as 6.56 on Sunday, became a part of that team that also includes defending Pro Stock champ Allen Johnson for the 2013 season, and Nobile sees nothing but positives coming from the relationship with Coughlin.

“He’s going to bring a lot of new information to the team and it’s only to help us,” Nobile said. “Obviously he’s a great competitor and every once in a while he’ll win one and I’ll lose one, but all in all, he’s going to bring a lot of great information to the team.”

CONFIDENT AND COMPOSED - With all the grace and confident composure of a veteran drag racer and enthusiasm for the sport like a true member of the Force family, Top Fuel rookie Brittany Force took the first round-loss of her career in stride.

The No. 15-qualified Force, driving the Castrol Edge Dragster, gave No. 2 Brandon Bernstein and his Protect the Harvest / MAVTV car a strong challenge. But thanks to a better reaction time at the starting line (.035 seconds to .096), his 3.785-second elapsed time at 324.44 mph beat her respectable 3.822, 323.43.

Just as she calmly reacted in her career-first qualifying session Thursday when a brake problem denied her a run, Force turned the experience into a lesson rather than dwelling on it as a disappointment.

"Even though we went out in the first round, I am still excited and so glad to be out here racing. We got the Castrol Edge dragster qualified. We came out in the first run going against Brandon, and we actually improved."

Her qualifying-best performance was 3.845 seconds at 293.22 mph.

She said she was especially happy about that, adding, "We also ran our fastest speed. It is still a good day."

The Cal State Fullerton graduate and daughter of 15-time champion John Force spent no time pouting. She went right away to watch younger sister Courtney, the No. 1 Funny Car qualifier, race and win against savvy Phil Burkart.

Brittany Force said she naturally finds the positives in every situation.

"I have always been that type of person. I always try and find the positive spin on things," she said. "Even though we went out first round, we did get qualified. I am so happy to be qualified and that we got a chance to race. I got to run against Brandon Bernstein. I grew up watching him and his dad. That was pretty awesome to have him in the lane next to me."

Ironically, her dad's first NHRA Funny Car race was against Brandon Bernstein's also-famous father, Kenny Bernstein, back in the 1980s at Baton Rouge, La. Kenny Bernstein defeated John Force that day.

Neither that story nor any other wild notions distracted Brittany Force Sunday as she prepared for her first race day. On the contrary, she said she remained startlingly calm.

"I thought I was going to be really nervous about it, but I surprised myself about it. I came out here and everyone told me to think about it like testing in West Palm [Florida, in the preseason], and that is pretty much what I did. I was a lot more relaxed than I thought I would be," she said. "I put everything out of my mind, and I went up there and did my thing."

With a nod to crew chiefs Dean "Guido" Antonelli and Eric Lane, she said, "We had a good car, and we made a good run."

Force said she's looking forward to the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series' Arizona Nationals, Race No. 2 on the 24-event tour, that starts this Friday at Firebird International  at Chandler, near Phoenix. It's one of the tracks at which she has tested.

"I think it helps being familiar with a track. I am excited to get out there. I just want to get back on the track," she said. "That is the best scenario for me, to get right back to the track. It was hard during testing when I would have a month off between runs. I felt mentally like I was starting over. On the comfort level, since I am a rookie, I like getting right back out there. Having back-to-back races are the best thing for me."

She said she and Lane consult after each run and "go over everything. We just watched the video from my run. We talk about doing my same routine. They want me to go in shallow [shallow-stage the car at the starting line] and just do the same thing over and over. We are pretty happy with everything, and we are figuring this dragster out. We got a lot of good information, and we'll be ready for Phoenix."

 pedregon tonyNO GOOD, NOT AT ALL - Tony Pedregon's weekend was mercifully put out of its misery. Starting with a pit area theft on Thursday, he blew up an engine sending a body high into the sky on Friday. Saturday netted a brush up with the wall while Sunday presented another fire.

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antron 02Shaken but apparently not seriously injured, reigning Top Fuel champion Antron Brown rode out a violent second-round accident during Sunday's eliminations of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

Almost at the end of his 1,000-foot race against Dave Grubnic, the engine in Brown's Matco Tools Dragster exploded. Brown was clocked going across the finish line first in 3.848 seconds at 308.64 mph.

Amid a shower of shrapnel, the car rolled onto its right side, spun, and hit the left-lane wall wing/back end first, causing another burst of flames. Then the dragster shot back across the track into the right lane and skidded in its side and backwards along the right-side wall into the sand trap.

The NHRA emergency medical team checked out Brown on site but it was unclear immediately whether Brown sustained any significant injuries. He climbed from what was left of his car, popping the cockpit canopy, and walked away on his own power.

antron 03It is unknown whether Grubnic or his car sustained any injury or damage.

Counting Tony Schumacher's parachute failure and subsequent trip into the sand during qualifying, this was the second test this weekend of the canopy. Crew chief Mike Green, who helped develop the canopy, led his U.S. Army Dragster team in prepping Schumacher's car for Saturday's No. 1 qualifying runs. His car needed no repair.

With Brown's car destroyed, he will be unable to run his semifinal race against the winner of the Schumacher-Steve Torrence match-up.

Competition Plus will provide more details of the incident as they become available.

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I LOVE YOU, REALLY ... I DO - For a man who had admitted no love for Auto Club Raceway of Pomona’s right lane in the past, Mike Edwards experienced a change of heart during this season’s O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals.

Edwards, on the strength of 6.528 elapsed time during Friday qualifying scored his 42nd career No. 1 qualifier. He was the quickest Pro Stock driver on Saturday as well, also running in the right lane.

The left lane, which has traditionally been his favorite, wasn’t the favorite today. By Edwards admission, there wasn’t a problem with the left lane other than his team’s over aggressive approach.


HEY DAD, I GOT THIS ... - c forceJohn Force was walking through the pits, wearing his firesuit and drinking a cup of coffee -- which seemed weird enough to daughter Courtney Force, for she was sweltering in the blessed February warmth.

She told him he needed to hustle to the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona starting line to watch her sister Brittany make another Top Fuel qualifying pass. Immediately he went into battle mode, dropped his coffee cup to the ground, and took off running toward the track.

Oddly, for Courtney Force, the comical overreaction almost seemed normal. At least it seemed relatively predictable. She has gotten the reputation for being the one of Force's four daughters who seems best to understand how he thinks -- although her mother, Laurie Force, last year quipped of that dubious distinction,  "unfortunately for the both of them."

After securing the No. 1 qualifying spot for Sunday's Funny Car eliminations at the O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals, Courtney Force told a story of balance, of respect.

"He means well," she said of her 15-time NHRA champion but unorthodox father, echoing a phrase her mother has sighed for years. The Traxxas Ford Mustang driver looked past her dad's dysfunctional delivery of his message but recognized just how valuable that message really is.

"My dad has been twice as bad as normal. He's a little confused," she said, alluding to his adjustment to having daughter Brittany behind the wheel of the Castrol Edge Dragster -- any dragster. She said he's "trying to figure out" when to be a boss, when to be a dad, when to be a mentor, and when to simply be a spectator as his daughters find their way in the sport he has taught them all to love.

Courtney Force has listened well, and that paid off Saturday. She led the field with a 4.036-second elapsed time at 318.24 mph on the 1,000-foot course -- quickest and fastest of the meet so far. In Sunday's opening round of eliminations, she will meet journeyman Phil Burkart, who has been off the tour since 2010.

"He tells us everything he knows about these cars," she said. He doesn't want to miss a beat. He wants to make sure that we know everything he does and learn from his mistakes, I guess. But we're going to learn from our own. He's having a tough time realizing that."

Right away she understood how much farther ahead she is with a multiple-time champion -- the sport's most decorated racer in any category -- in her corner.

"If he was just another guy, a soccer dad or something, I don't think he'd be able to give us this much advice," Courtney Force said.

"He's been here from the beginning. He's struggled. He's been thought it all. He knows these tracks better than any of us. We've really got to listen to him.  He's got a lot to say," she said. "We really do try to take his advice, even though it's a lot  to take in. It's a lot at once."

While she might find herself torn between encouraging pro-rookie sister Brittany to soak in their dad's advice and shielding her from his sometimes-random approach, Courtney said, "You can't tell Dad just to walk away from telling Brittany. Dad just does his own thing. Brittany will tell him -- and, I mean, she has. It hasn't done anything."

So the Force girls have figured out that they need to focus solely on what thy need to do, and in Courtney's words, "not get distracted," even if their father could be part of the distractions.

As she puts aside the fact she's No. 1 qualifier for the third time in her career, Courtney Force said, "I don't want to make a mistake as a driver. I'm still learning. I'm still new at this. I've still got to focus and do my same old routine."

Other Round 1 pairings are (No. 2) Jack Beckman vs. (No. 15) Todd Lesenko, (3) Gary Densham vs. (14) Tony Pedregon, (4) Del Worsham vs. (13) Bob Tasca, (5) Cruz Pedregon vs. (12) Robert Hight, (6) Ron Capps vs. (11) John Force, (7) Johnny Gray vs. (10) Alexis DeJoria, (8) Tim Wilkerson vs. (9) Matt Hagan.

Courtney Force said this Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season is "definitely exciting, having Brittany in the Top Fuel category.

"I'm not too worried about her. She'll get with the rhythm of things," she said. "She's my best friend. So it's really amazing, just living our passion out here and being able to drive 300-mile-an-hour race cars. I'm sure there aren't a lot of families that can do that all together. It's really unique. I think it's really cool to be out here with our dad." CPTV - COURTNEY FORCE POST-QUALIFYING PRESS CONFERENCE

schumacherIT ALL BUFFED OUT - Top Fuel's Tony Schumacher shaved five-thousandths of a second Saturday from his already best-in-class elapsed time at the O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals.

His 3.753-second pass on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona's 1,000-foot course in the U.S. Army Dragster made him the  No. 1 qualifier -- quickest in the quickest field in Top Fuel history.

Rather than bask in the honor of stretching his record 72nd time to lead the class into Sunday eliminations, Schumacher minimized it by saying, "It means I have to run the quickest 16th qualifier."

But he's not complaining.

"The conditions are fantastic," he said.

Furthermore, he said he expects Sunday to be the same -- fantastic all the way around.

"I think it's going to be amazing," Schumacher said. "I think the track is prepped excellent. I think the cars are all running extremely well. I think the fans are going to come out and see a great show. What else can you ask for? We're entertainers."

His 328.14-mph matched Antron Brown's top speed of the meet.

He said he was especially pleased that his Mike Green-led crew hardly had to do anything to put that dragster back on the track Saturday after running into the sand trap Friday on his provisional low-qualifier run.

"Consistency throughout the year wins championship," the seven-time champion said.

He said it's about "going out , knowing what you have and building off of it and knowing the changes you make and understanding the car. The last thing you want to do is the first race of the year go out and bend the car and you’re back at the shop building a new one."

Knowing the trip into the sand didn't result in that, Schumacher pronounced himself "very happy."

He took some teasing about why he put the car in the sand after the parachutes failed Friday, but he offered his own tongue-in-cheek reason.

"Antron's getting all the media," he said, referring to reigning Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, his friend and colleague. "And I'll be damned if I'm just going to sit back and watch him just because he won a championship."

Like Schumacher said, he's an entertainer.

CPTV - Tony Schumacher's Post Qualifying Press Conference

kalitta doug 02NOT READY TO QUIT - Toward the end of the 2012 season, Doug Kalitta, driver of the Kalitta Motorsports organization's flagship Mac Tools / Kalitta Air Dragster, was about ready to step away from his Top Fuel career.

"With my business and my kids growing up, everything's real busy. It's a time commitment, for sure, to be out here doing this," Kalitta, 48, who owns Ypsilanti, Mich.-headquartered aviation conglomerate Kalitta Charters, said.

The MedFlight, cargo, and passenger operations were starting to demand more and more of his time, as he and wife Josie hustled to keep up with son Mitchell, 12, and daughter Avery, nine, at home at Ann Arbor.

"My kids aren't getting any younger, and it's harder to get 'em out here. That's probably the biggest reason, more than anything," Kalitta said, explaining his emotional struggle.

But he noticed something: his dragster was starting to run better than ever before. And that's what made Kalitta decide to stay with drag racing at least one more season.

"He was not sure what was going to go on," Oberhofer said. "I said, 'Man, all I know is I want you driving this car. There ain't nobody else I'd want driving this car," Oberhofer said of Kalitta, "I would put him up against any great driver past or present. He's a very good driver, and he deserves to win. I hope that between me and my guys that we can help him win a championship."

Said team owner Connie Kalitta, Doug's uncle, "He's paid his dues."

Doug Kalitta said he thinks winning a title -- like he almost did in 2006 -- is a legitimate possibility, that he has that feeling this could be his year?

"Yeah, I do," the modest Kalitta said. "We've just got a great effort going here. We want to go out with a championship, if we can accomplish something like that."

Go out with a championship? He didn't suggest that was a hint that he will retire if he wins the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel crown to go with his 1994 USAC National Sprint Car championship.

"We're going to see how this year goes," Kalitta said, backing up uncle-boss Connie Kalitta's mysterious guess: "We never know -- one day at a time."

Said Doug Kalitta, "I'd hate to -- it's a big part of my life, out here. So it's a tough decision. It's hard to say. I'm just glad to have the opportunity that I've got right now."

The dream of a Top Fuel title floated back into his consciousness. "And hopefully with all of our teams this year at Kalitta Motorsports, we can make it happen," he said. "That's the goal.

"My guys, we're all ready to win some races and do something good out here this year," Kalitta said. "I think we'll be good."

He said it isn't hard to be inspired.

"We didn't win last year," Kalitta said. "You go without winning, it's definitely a kick in the butt, for us, anyway. We're really motivated to do some good out here. We've got all the resources and everything that we need. So we should be able to pull it off. We'll see how it goes."

kalitta dougKALITTA EXPANDS SHOP - Business is humming at Kalitta Motorsports in Ypsilanti, Mich., according to the organization's vice-president, Jim Oberhofer. "We just acquired another 12,000 square feet in our shop, and we're going to move our chassis shop completely in-house and be able to expand our machine shop, as well," he said. "So we've got a lot of good things going on." He said the Connie Kalitta-owned operation recently bought Chuck Lett's Attach Race Cars. "We actually bought them. We took over Attac's business," Oberhofer said. (Doug Kalitta has campaigned Attac chassis in the past, and colleague Dave Grubnic still does. But Oberhofer said, "We have two Hadman [Brad Hadman-built] cars for Doug.")

"Our guy's been so busy since we took over and he hasn't had a place to work," Oberhofer said. "Primarily -- 80 percent of -- what he does is Funny Car stuff. We needed more room so we could hire more people. Now that we've acquired this space, we're going to be able to hire a lot more people and be able to expand our chassis shop quite a bit.

"Without Conrad, we can't do any of this," he said. "The guy's unbelievable. We're all just fortunate the guy loves drag racing. He's like a little kid at Christmastime when it's the start of the season."

The team also just built a new "TajMaKalitta" hospitality area that's huge.

"It's all good. Everything's good -- a lot of positives going on. Our situation, sponsor-wise, is better than it's ever been. When you look at the end amount of money this team's getting, it's better than it's ever been."

The team's drivers -- Doug Kalitta and Grubnic -- have fared well, too. Halfway through qualifying for the Winternationals, both were in the top half of the dragster field, waiting for their final two sessions Saturday.

GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION -millican clayClay Millican wasn’t looking for world records, but the run he did make in Top Fuel on Thursday was nearly as satisfying.

Looking to make an early statement at the NHRA’s season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Millican put everybody on watch with a thrilling 3.799 at 325.77 mph in his first run with Bob Vandergriff Racing.

The run was so solid for the first pass of the season it inspired a double-take at the scoreboard from Millican.

“Literally, when I crossed the finish line, I looked up there and said, ‘Wow, did that say 3.79?’ That was kind of cool. The guys are working hard and I’m having fun,” Millican said. “We’ve got a real good opportunity to mix it up with the big boys. A 3.79 at 325.77 (mph) is right there with the big dogs.”

Millican wasn’t able to improve on that over the next three qualifying sessions, but he still heads into Sunday’s eliminations with momentum.

The 3.799 has him No. 10, meaning he will match up with Shawn Langdon in the first round. Oddly enough, it was a pairing with Langdon’s Al-Anabi Racing teammate, Khalid alBalooshi, that produced Millican’s 3.799, which could give him some good vibes heading into Sunday.

“I tell you what, it felt really good. We know this team has run really quick. This is certainly one of the coolest things I’ve ever go to do, go out on the first lap and make my presence known right off the get-go. That was cool,” Millican said.
Millican wasn’t worried about reaching the 3.75 that Tony Schumacher produced, but he did want something positive to kick off his season.

The 2012 campaign didn’t finish the way he had hoped, which meant Millican and his team wanted something positive to open 2013. With one strong run, Millican gave his team that, as well as something to build on for Sunday.

His team told Millican that the car should make a “nice, safe run” and that’s exactly what happened.

The big key will be replicating that run on Sunday, but it all starts against Langdon, who ended up with a 3.784 at 326.56 mph.

“It shows that we have what it takes to run those 70s. I think we’ll continue to do that and I think we’re going to win races, I really do believe that,” Millican said. “This feels pretty good.”

tascaA NEW BT3, PRACTICED AND READY - The NHRA Winternationals at Pomona is supposed to be the season-opening event for all Funny Car drivers.

But it certainly doesn’t feel that way for Bob Tasca III.

Fresh off the most rigorous testing off-season he’s had in quite some time, Tasca is already full speed ahead in Pomona, qualifying at No. 13 with a 4.19 at 305.08 mph.

Breaking in a number of significant parts on his car, the extensive testing was necessary, but Tasca believes it will be worth it.

“It’s the beginning of the year, but it already feels like we’re halfway through it. We made so many test runs. We made over 30 runs coming into Pomona,” Tasca said. “But this is a new program as far as collecting data on a new chassis. Still, we feel real confident that what we’ve learned is going to pay big dividends for us this year.” Along with a new chassis, Tasca is debuting a number of new engine parts on his Funny Car.

This led to a number of strong runs during testing at Palm Beach International Raceway, but his performance was uneven through four qualifying passes in Pomona.

He’ll meet Del Worsham in the first round of eliminations on Sunday, which means the challenge will be difficult right off the bat.

This does little to faze Tasca who is confident in the new chassis, which has a number of key improvements, including having more flex than the one he ran a year ago.

“We could be wrong, and time will tell, but looking at how we’re running the car now a lot more aggressive, it’s safe and it’s not showing us signs that it will smoke the tires. It gives you a little more confidence that you can lean on it when conditions aren’t ideal,” Tasca said.

“The version we ran before just didn’t have the traction. This was a step in the right direction and we’re hopeful we’re going to make some good runs in Pomona.”

To run with the likes of Worsham, defending champ Jack Beckman and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force, Tasca knows the consistency has to be there.

Again, he points to the new chassis as being the key to get to a top, consistent level.

The next step is getting the chassis and parts to respond during crunch time in eliminations.

“At the end of the day, we’re all really close when it comes to power. It’s about who can apply it the most efficiently and the most consistently. That’s who will be the most successful, and a lot has to do with clutch application and chassis,” Tasca said.

OUT HERE HAVIN' FUN IN WARM CALIFORNIA SUN -  Before headed to Pomona, Tasca helped clear 27 inches of snow from around his Cranston, R.I., home and Ford dealership following winter storm Nemo. Tasca qualified 13th, not exactly were he would have liked to start the first race day of the season. But he was plenty happy with that by comparison to what he might have been doing at home. "I'm happy to see something other than snow," he said. Beside, Tasca added, "Let me tell you, I've been thinking about the first qualifying session at the Winternationals since the Finals in November."

balooshi alTHE HAPPY SOPHOMORE - Khalid alBalooshi got his United States professional drag racing start in the Pro Nitrous and Pro Modified world, winning a pair of ADRL “Battle For The Belts” titles.

alBalooshi went back to those roots this winter, keeping busy in the NHRA off-season by running a Pro Nitrous car in Qatar during the Arabian Drag Racing League season.

After a year of piloting a powerful Top Fuel car for the first time, going back to his Pro Mod car didn’t provide quite the same experience.

“It wasn’t that tough,” alBalooshi said. “I had a good experience with the Pro Mod, but I don’t think I have fun anymore being in the Pro Mod.”

It certainly appears as though alBalooshi has become addicted to the nitro-fueled Top Fuel class, and his 2013 season kicked off with a strong 3.802 at 325.37 mph on Thursday, putting him fourth in qualifying at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona.

Racing has always been in alBalooshi’s blood, going back to his sand drags/hill climb days.

alBalooshi admitted the wild sand drags are “a little dangerous” and he’s even flipped his car running up the giant dunes as quick as possible. Yet, it’s still something he continues to find enjoyable.

“I keep doing it for the fun with my guys over there. This is what I started with and when I get a chance to do it, I still like to,” alBalooshi said.

Top Fuel racing on the Al-Anabi Racing team remains his top priority.

After some understandable struggles early in the start of his rookie season in 2012, alBalooshi finished strong and has appeared to carry the momentum over to 2013.

“Last year, I started with it. Now I have that experience and hopefully I can start much better than I did last year,” alBalooshi said. “Trust me, this year our team will be one of the best in the show.”

arend jeffSTILL SMILING - It wasn’t exactly the perfect start on Thursday, but you’ll hear no complains from Funny Car driver Jeff Arend.

After a tumultuous off-season, he’s simply happy to be driving in 2013.

As part of a major restructuring at Kalitta Motorsports this past winter, Arend was ousted from his DHL Funny Car ride in late November.

Arend held no grudges and just weeks later jumped at the opportunity to join the Jim Dunn Racing/Grime Boss Funny Car team in 2013. It was a whirlwind turn of events, but Dunn couldn’t hide his excitement at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona on Thursday.

Arend and the team had only planned on making a half-track run on the first pass and they stuck to it, going 7.107 at 95 mph. As the weekend progressed, a solid run eluded them.

Considering the time crunch and dizzying situation this off-season, Arend was still sporting a wide smile in Pomona.

“Things just came together and was able to put together a deal with the Dunns, and I’m really happy to be representing Grime Boss and Jim Dunn Racing out here,” Arend said. “It will be the first time going down the track this year, but we’ve got a good group of guys.”

It may seem daunting to hop in a car he’s never driven, but it’s something the experienced Arend has done before.

He helped the team put the car together and got fitted in it before coming to Pomona. Now the fun part begins for Arend, who has Funny Car wins in each of the past two seasons.

“If the crew chief flicked the switch on the starting line and it went wide-open throttle and he didn’t shut it off until you got to the finish line there would be a problem,” Arend said. “But because I’m driving it and have been driving for a while, hopefully if something doesn’t feel right I’ll know and be able to lift. There’s always another run to make.”

pruett 2IN THE PINK - Leah Pruett is a Southern California native whose first drag-racing pass came at this Pomona track on her eighth birthday -- complete with a mandatory pink rookie ribbon tied to the roll cage of her Jr. Dragster. She had a small strip of pink tape on the roll cage of the Dote Racing Top Fuel Dragster this weekend -- in her words "as a symbol of the completion of one chapter of my life and the beginning of a new one, and as a rookie at that. Pomona will forever be my home track, which makes this debut that much more special."

She qualified 14th for the quickest Top Fuel field in NHRA history (while Terry McMillen, T.J. Zizzo, Steve Faria, and Steve Chrisman began the year with DNQs). Pruett will race No. 3 qualifier Doug Kalitta as the first opponent of her career.

grubnic dave'THRILLED TO BITS' - David Grubnic, driver of the Optima Batteries Dragster, lingered around the middle of the order until the final pass of the weekend. That's when his 3.776-second E.T. at 299.40 mph landed him in the No. 5 starting spot for eliminations. He'll face Morgan Lucas in the opening round. "Well, obviously, I am thrilled to bits with the performance on the 3.77 run. It actually stripped the teeth off the belt, and the half-track numbers suggested we were on a 3.75. We are thrilled with that. I am thrilled with the whole team. I am really looking forward to race day and winning a few rounds tomorrow."

burkartMORE TO LIFE, BUT THIS IS PRETTY COOL - Former Funny Car regular Phil Burkart, who's making his first appearance since his 2010 stint with Paul Smith, didn't seek time away from the national-event scene. But he said once he took some time out, his perspective changed. "I've got two little girls [Santina, 11, and Samantha, 4] and a beautiful woman at home," the Yorkville, N.Y., resident said. "Once you do step away, you realize there is more to life."

Just the same, Burkart is finding his way to the track -- and with a variety of race cars. He has been racing in the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks, driving the Boninfante family's U.S. Male -- or as he describes it simply, "5.80s, 250 miles an hour."

Said Burkart, "I also have a dirt modified circle-track car of my own now. And I just hooked up with another guy and I'm going to be driving a sprint car this year, too. And I'm working 10-12 hours a day in my business."

Of course, he hasn't abandoned his snowmobiles. It is relegated to an extracurricular activity these days. "A bunch of friends get together, and we're pretty competitive. I left two feet of snow to come out here," he said.

It was worth it, as he made it into the field with Steve Plueger's 2010 Chevy Impala in the 16th position. He'll face top qualifier Courtney Force in Sunday's first round of eliminations.

Burkart might see his daughter out here one day. He said Santina "is starting to hint of a Jr. Dragster."

wilkersonSEEING PROGRESS - Tim Wilkerson's first run Saturday (in the third overall session) improved him from 11th to ninth in the Funny Car lineup and a potential match-up with Matt Hagan, who was eighth at the time. He switched places with Hagan in the final session and will have lane choice against Hagan in the first round Sunday.

That was particularly encouraging, considering he has several new members on his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang Funny Car and familiar ones in new roles. "The guys still have a ways to go, working as a unit and getting it done in the short amount of time we have between runs," Wilkerson said. "But today they bolted this LRS Ford together just right, both times, and we drove it right on down there two times in a row.

"The first run, we tried a few new approaches to the tune-up and it ran down there like it was as safe and conservative as it could be. It was truly never in any danger of getting in trouble. So, we came back to the pit and thought we'd step it up just a little bit," he said.

"We were trying to run a little quicker than that, but just being a hair more aggressive made it a little squirrelly going down the track. Still, to run speed like that we're obviously figuring it out a little in terms of getting it to run on the back half. Now, we just have to come out here tomorrow and keep growing as a team, no matter how it all turns out. It's a process, and we have to see the big picture, but getting off to a good start would be nice."


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SHOE GOES TO THE NO. 1 SPOT, TO THE BEACH -Tony Schumacher survived a parachute malfunction and landed in the sand trap Friday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona during qualifying for the O'Reilly Auto Club Winternationals.

Still, he expressed faith that his U-S Army Dragster team would have everything ready for Saturday's final two qualifying sessions.
After all, it's the same crew that sent him on the 3-point-758-second pass at 328-14 miles an hour and right to the No. 1 spot in the Top Fuel field.
No worse for the wear, Schumacher called his wild ride -- a little bouncy -- but said that's to be expected when traveling two football fields per second.
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  GET THE POINT - Jack Beckman is notorious for taking a long time to talk about a short pass.
But after taking over the Funny Car class' provisional No. 1 qualifying position Friday at the NHRA's O'Reilly Winternationals with a 4.045-second run, he tried to be a little more concise.
Still, Beckman couldn't help himself at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. And he spoke with humility, humor, and a "hat's off" to his Valvoline M-T-S crew. He said he knows this Number-One spot might not last through Saturday's final two sessions. But -- like his Funny Car championship -- Beckman is enjoying the moment.

"We are half way through qualifying," said Beckman. "We're not even close to declaring who's going to take the No. 1 position. It was gratifying because we struggled on the first run, and it was gratifying because that first run and the 19 test runs we made in the off season didn't really go the way we had hoped they would. We thought we had a pretty good hot rod at the end of last year."

edwards mike 02HE'S SECOND, BUT FIRST TODAY - Veteran Pro Stock driver Mike Edwards doesn't harbor any hate in his heart -- except maybe for the right lane at California's Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

However, the two made up Friday afternoon.

In the day's only qualifying session for the O'Reilly Auto Club Winternationals, Edwards used that lane to post a quarter-mile run of 6.528 seconds in the I Am Second / Interstate Batteries Pontiac Chevy Camaro.

And even though his car's paint scheme announces, "I Am Second," the Coweta, Okla., resident was No. 1 on the chart, exactly one-hundredth of a second quicker than Thursday leader V Gaines' 6.538 seconds.

His "I Am Second" marketing partner is a nonprofit organization -- one founded by Dallas businessman and Interstate Batteries chairman Norm Miller, along with e3 Partners -- that is designed to inspire us all to put God and others before ourselves.

"I am first today, but I really am second," Edwards said, true to his faith and the non-profit movement's mission.

Indeed, Edwards said he had been second here all along every time he ran in the right lane.

"I've been coming here for 20 years, and I don't think I've ever made a run like that in the right-hand lane," Edwards said. "It's had its hold on me for a long time. I hate that right-hand lane -- well, I did until today. I don't know what it is about it."

Edwards was second Friday -- in speed, with his 212.39 mph, just behind Jason Line's 212.43 in the KB/Summit Racing Camaro.

Otherwise, Edwards -- with just 21 passes on this brand-new Jerry Haas-built car and with three fresh crew members -- was on top of the competition with two more sessions to go Saturday before the field is set.

"It's very gratifying to come out here and run like that," he said.

"We took that car and went to Bradenton [Motorsports Park in Florida] and tested for three or four days [in the preseason]. We ran pretty good. We were the only car there in Pro Stock, so we didn't have a whole lot of cars to compare it to," he said. But he allowed that "our numbers were good. We knew our numbers were good."

Edwards tested closer to home, at Tulsa, for a couple of productive days. But a stop at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on the way out to this season-opening event in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series proved too cold to yield any encouragement. So the team wasn't exactly sure what kind of a performance to expect as owner-driver Edwards began the chase for his first championship since 2009.

"I know it's early, but it still feels good to be able to run that good," he said. "We've struggled the last couple of years, and it's a great feeling right now."

Then just as quick as he navigated that right lane Friday, Edwards said, "It won't hold."

Nevertheless, he said he's thrilled to be able to promote the "I Am Second" web site (www.iamsecond.com) and its message.

"It's an ultimate dream to have something like that on my car," Edwards said, going against the raid-Corporate-America grain in favor of a meaningful message. "I am second -- I know who's first."

He said his motivation to promote the program is "just the faith we have and what the program stands for. That program is about trying to encourage people to put God first. That's what it's all about. People need to go on that web site and take a look. It's an awesome web site."

And Edwards had an awesome performance Friday. 

pedregon 02HERE COMES THE BOOM - The O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Ca., is expected to the traditional debut of new parts, pieces and looks. During the first two days, one ugly reminder has presented itself. New parts can still blow up or malfunction.tped 02
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pedregon 02NOT HIS DAY - With up-close access at every NHRA event, fans are given the incredible opportunity to interact with NHRA drivers in a way most professional sports can’t match.

But at some point on Friday morning, the ugly side of that kind of access reared its unfortunate head in the pits of Funny Car standout Tony Pedregon.

After the team made its first qualifying pass on Thursday at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona and closed up shop for the night, a complete toolbox was stolen from Pedregon’s pits.

The two-time Funny Car world champion estimated he lost more than $3,000 in items stolen, putting an immediate damper on his opening race weekend of 2013.

“It’s like somebody hitting you in the gut,” Pedregon said. “Part of it is just the principle that somebody can actually come here in what we think is a secure area, but obviously it must be open enough for anyone to walk in.

pedregon 04“It can’t just be one person because one person can’t lift up a toolbox of that size and that weight, so that means there’s a couple guys scoping everyone’s pit out, looking for the easiest thing to steal. It’s a shame because things are tough. It adds insult to injury because you feel like they’ve come into your home and taken something.” Included in the toolbox were a number of important items that are used to service the car after each run.

Pedregon said his team will work hard to overcome the loss this weekend, but it’s a disappointing and frustrating blow to the budget-minded team.

“We call it our clutch box. It had some pretty expensive torque wrenches, plenty of tools and a lot of clutch components. We were lucky we didn’t have a pressure plate or a flywheel in there, but there were plenty of valuable parts we’re going to have to do without this weekend,” Pedregon said.

Pedregon promised it won’t stop the resolve of the team, and he even tried to find the light at the end of the tunnel when it came to the stolen items.

He doesn’t expect to recover the stolen items, but Pedregon did mention that the toolbox wasn’t a newer item in the team’s new pit area facelift.

tped 02“That was one of the boxes that was a year-and-a-half old, so I’m trying to find the silver lining,” Pedregon said. “For us it’s a reminder that we have to secure all of own equipment. It’s a reminder that we have to put everything away.”

The second piece of adversity came later during Friday’s lone qualifying session. After a strong early run, Pedregon’s engine exploded, blowing his new American Wheels Racing body high into the air.

With flames still coming out of the car Pedregon was able to get the car stopped and then exited without injury.

It wasn’t another tough turn of events for Pedregon, but he insisted he received plenty of support from his Funny Car counterparts after the toolbox was stolen.

“When it comes to issues like this, we’re all on the same page. We were here pretty late last night, so this is something that happened late at night or earlier, prior to 8:00 (a.m.) when my team rolled in here,” Pedregon said.

“If it could happen to me, it could happen to any of these teams. Fortunately we’ve got the ability to recover and we won’t skip a beat because of it.”

If anyone has any information regarding the stolen tools and toolbox, they are encouraged to get in contact with Pedregon through his website, www.tonypedregon.com.

force brittanySHE'S IN FOR NOW - Rookie Brittany Force put her Thursday struggles in the past and drove her Castrol EDGE Top Fuel dragster to the provisional No. 12 spot on Friday at the 53rd annual O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals. Yesterday a miscue with the brakes kept Force from making her first run when her 8,000 hp BOSS 500 motor pushed her dragster through the starting line beams before the Christmas Tree starting system was activated.

Force kept the Castrol EDGE Top Fueler in the middle of the groove posting a respectable 3.845 second, 293.22 mph run. The relief at the end of the day was obvious for the Automobile Club Road to the Future contender.

“My relief level is definitely a 10 on a 1-10 scale. I feel a lot better than I did yesterday when I left the track. You always want to get that first run out of the way. We struggled yesterday and didn’t get down the track. I feel a lot better that we got down there today. We ended up No. 12 so I am excited for tomorrow. We’ll go to work on this Castrol EDGE Top Fuel dragster and hopefully improve tomorrow,” said Force.

“With everything that happened yesterday I just wanted to get down to the finish line. I put everything out of my mind. I just drove it like I was testing in January in Florida.”

alan johnsonGOOSE EGG TIMES TWO - Neither defending champion Allen Johnson, nor past champion Jeggie Coughlin have a run in the books going into Saturday. Teammate Vincent Nobile is solidly in the show at No. 5jeggie





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WHOAH NELLY! - gary denshamSporting a patriotic new body and following with a career-best run made Gary Densham the No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car in the opening round of the Winternationals. Unfortunately Densham’s moment of joy quickly turned to heartache.

The part which counted couldn’t have been much better, as Densham rocketed to a 4.053 at 307.09 mph during the lone qualifying session at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona.

However, things went awry from there, as the chutes didn’t open, sending Densham off the track and into the sand. There wasn’t significant damage, but a body Densham spent all winter working on is now gone after one run.

“It’s just kind of a bummer because you spend all winter trying to make a new nice shiny car to bring out here and be proud of it, and then you go and ruin it the first run. At least it was a good run,” Densham said.

Indeed the run was and established a career-best in both E.T. and speed, but when Densham returns on Friday, he’ll be sporting the body used last year at the season-ending race when Paul Lee was behind the wheel.

Densham and his team will also be working overtime to avoid a repeat of Thursday’s sand trap mishap.

“Unfortunately it was one of those things. It’s a brand new car and brand new body and we had to go and ruin it,” Densham added.

densham“We probably tested the parachute cables and handles 20 times in the pits. I pushed the handle like I was supposed to, the automatic shutoff worked like it was supposed to, it just didn’t pull the cables and reach the parachutes.”

With three qualifying sessions remaining (one on Friday and two on Saturday) in Pomona, Courtney Force is currently second after going 4.071 at 311.49 mph. Johnny Gray went 4.087 at 308.78 mph, while defending Funny Car champion Jack Beckman kicked off his 2013 campaign with a solid 4.148 at a Thursday-best 309.13 mph, currently putting him seventh.

But the real story on Thursday was Densham, even before his escapade following the run.

The 4.053 gave him a strong edge on Force and once again proved the driving abilities of the racer with one of the smallest budgets in the class.

“To be honest, I feel like I’ve got the best team in drag racing. They do more with less than anybody out here and I think we prove that most times we come out,” Densham said. “I feel really, really proud about that. We’ll carry on the best we can. It should still run pretty good, it just won’t look as nice.”

Fortunately Densham’s ’09 Charger displayed plenty of power, something he attributed to the various new parts and pieces in the car for 2013.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate to qualify at every race over the past five years. We have a whole lot of fun and if we can make some of those high-dollar guys’ live miserable every once in a while, well, we have something to chuckle about,” Densham said.

Despite the crash, Densham also has plenty of high hopes for the weekend after seeing plenty go right on his first run of 2013.

“Our guys are incredibly good and I feel like we’ve got a chance at winning,” Densham said.

THING'S GOT TEETH - vgaines person 03As the winter days slowly crept by this off-season, V. Gaines simply grew more anxious and it was certainly easy to understand why.

Coming off a career-best season in 2012, the Pro Stock standout was itching to get back behind the wheel. Gaines wasted no time in asserting himself on Thursday, claiming the No. 1 qualifying spot at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona with a spectacular 6.538 at 211.49 mph.

Three qualifying sessions remain, but Gaines put himself in line for his first ever No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock, making it the perfect way to pick up where he left off in 2012.

“We’ve got a hot car and a fantastic engine program. We’re looking forward to this year. We spent the winter just waiting and waiting,” Gaines said.

Gaines had a strong launch on Thursday’s lone run, turning it into a solid start to his 2013 season.

Jason Line currently sits in second with a 6.541, while Mike Edwards is right behind with a 6.545. Defending world champion Allen Johnson shook early on his lone run on Thursday.

There will be one qualifying session on Friday and two on Saturday, but Gaines is currently in an ideal position.

He expects everyone to pick up, himself included, when he gets a shot at the preferred left lane on Friday – but there’s no denying Gaines’ excitement as the 2013 season kicks off.

vgaines personHe finished a career-best seventh in the points standings a year ago, snapping a four-year winless drought with a victory in Reading and a runner-up finish in Denver.

“We had a really good end to last year and made a lot of progress, and then we had a really good winter with engine development and car development,” Gaines said. “We knew we were going to be pretty good.

“We had a couple of fast guys that struggled with the track today, but they’ll catch up.”

Gaines has certainly caught up to the field, putting in an extensive amount of testing over this past winter as well.

He also continues to show significant progress in his own engine program, thumbing his nose at any former detractors.

“For a single-car team to do what we’re doing I think is phenomenal, but it says it can be done,” Gaines said. “Everybody said you can’t build motors in Denver, but we’re doing that and it’s working out good.

“We always thought we were better in the hot races because it was more comparable to Denver, but in Reading we proved we could run in the cold weather, too,” Gaines added. “We’re kind of knocking down the fears one-by-one and it’s extremely gratifying when you’re doing everything yourself.”

bernstein brandonPICKING UP - Joe Barlam experimented with a variety of combinations on the Protect The Harvest / MAVTV Dragster during preseason testing in January.

But the crew chief knew not to mess with a winning set-up. So he told driver Brandon Bernstein that he'd leave everything the way it was the last time they were here at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Nov. 11 at the season finale.

That was the day Bernstein used a holeshot to break his own 69-race winless streak (since October 2009, at Richmond, Va.), defeat Tony Schumacher, and hand Antron Brown the Top Fuel championship by seven points.

Barlam was true to his word during Thursday's single-session opening day of the NHRA's O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals and the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. And the Morgan Lucas Racing entry appeared to pick up exactly where it left off, with Bernstein edging Schumacher and claiming the Top Fuel class' provisional No. 1 qualifying position.

Describing his 3.761-second, 325.22-mph pass on the 1,000-foot course, Bernstein said his car "came out of the gate nice, had the tires up, wheels up pretty good. It felt like a good run, especially at half-track. At half-track, it was really marching."

Barlam told Bernstein of the tune-up, "I had it kind of soft."

Bernstein laughed, anticipating one fun ride if that was a soft set-up.

More often than any racer cares to admit, sometimes a critical opening-night pass can go awry and change the entire weekend's strategy. But this time, everything went perfectly for Bernstein, who topped Schumacher's 3.777-second E.T. (at a day's best 326.08 mph) in the U.S. Army Dragster and Clay Millican's career-best 3.799, 325.77 in the Parts Plus Dragster.

"We get behind the eight-ball sometimes when you don’t geta good run on that first run," Bernstein said. " I doubt it’s going to hold up, but to run a (3.)76 out of the gate, that's a great start for us. It's nice to be in that No. 1 [spot] right now."

He did say he expected his run to remain toward the top of the pack, at least.

"It'll be up in the top five," Bernstein said. "If we have conditions like we have today, you're going to see cars that are going to make adjustments and definitely take a shot at it. So we'll see."

The "going-to-be-a-better-year" vibe hit Bernstein during testing, he said. Winning the trophy on the final day of the 2012 season "gave us a tremendous boost of confidence." And he soon began to see no reason his success couldn't continue.

"We tested well. Joe tried a few little things but not much," he said. "Toward the end of testing, we tried a lot of different stuff and he went in different directions. But he said coming into Pomona, he's going to put the car right back where we left it.

"And you can see it's right where we left it," Bernstein said.

Khalid al Balooshi was fifth on the grid after Thursday's session, as his 3.802, 325.37 came alongside Millican's performance.

Steve Faria is on the bump spot overnight with a 5.592-second E.T.

Still looking to get in the field are Shawn Langdon, Spencer Massey, and Steve Chrisman.

SWEET 17? - Will this finally be Doug Kalitta's year? The Jim Oberhofer-led Top Fuel team, which will carry the Mac Tools banner all season long, thinks so. The crew's motto this season is "It's Time To Make Our Champion A Champion Again." That refers to Kalitta's 1994 USAC National Sprint Car championship. The Ann Arbor, Mich., resident's 16 straight years as a top-10 driver -- in each year since he began drag racing -- has included a 2009 Winternationals victory and 2010 final-round appearance. He has led the Top Fuel field here twice, and once was in 2004, when he also advanced to the final. Kalitta ran the fastest speed at the recent PRO Winter Warm-up in South Florida -- 328.30 mph.

DESERVING BETTER - Top Fuel's Shawn Langdon is an easygoing young man, but when he has his mind made up to correct an injustice he is a bit of a steamroller. And he's in fight mode, starting this weekend. "We are looking for a little redemption this year from what we were trying to accomplish last year. I think, as a team, our two Al-Anabi cars are definitely better than 11th and fourth-place finishes," he said. Noting that last season was teammate Khalid al Balooshi's rookie year, and you could look at all of last season as kind of a learning curve for him. With his slow start, he still finished the season a lot stronger, and he should have some momentum from last year’s finish rolling into this season."

As for himself, Langdon -- who grew up just a few miles from this fabled racetrack and attended Riverside's Jurupa Valley High Schiol along with Morgan Lucas -- said, "Even though I had my best career finish and got my first Top Fuel win, I think our team has a great shot to win a lot of races and make a strong run at the championship this year. We need to prove to everybody that we are better than a fourth-place team and that we can win more than one race in a season."

Moreover, Langdon said, "We don't want to have any regrets this year. Last year, we had a lot of 'shoulda, coulda, wouldas,' and this year, we need to be stronger as a team. We can definitely feed off each other's confidence. Knowing how I am as a driver, how the crew chiefs and crew guys are, everybody’s pretty confident going into this season. We did the best we could do last year but came up short. If we carry ourselves through this season with the ability and confidence we all have, I think the Al-Anabi team can turn some heads this year."

force brittany 02TALE OF TWO DEBUTS - Brittany Force's debut in the Castrol Edge Dragster was anticlimactic, thanks to an immediately unknown problem in with the brakes. Her burnout appeared to be flawless. However, she said that as she applied the brakes, she knew her dragster -- the first in John Force Racing history -- was going to have a problem.

Her instincts unfortunately were correct, and her car rolled through the staging beams for an automatic disqualification. All she could do is sit idly inside while her team pushed her off the starting line.

"I have had a problem with the brakes before," Force said after she exited the car. "There have been times when I have been pulling on the brakes and the car hasn't stopped. That time was the worst instance. I was pulling on the brakes harder than I was in testing, and I couldn't get the car stopped. That was the reason I did a longer burnout -- because I was pulling on it and it kept pulling down track until I got it stopped. Rolling into stage, I had a feeling I was going to roll the lights.

"I really just wanted to get that first run out of the way," she said. "And now I have to wait a little longer."

Meanwhile, Leah Pruett lined up against her for her maiden Top Fuel  pass and recorded a 4.018-second, 251.86-mph effort in the Dote Racing Dragster.

mcmillen terryDIFFERENT STRUCTURE - Crew chief Richard Hartman traditionally has had owner-driver Terry McMillen's Amalie Oil / UNOH / Motor State Dragster at his Anderson, S.C., race shop for only a handful of early-season races each year.

This season the car will spend more time there than in Elkhart, Ind., home of McMillen's Hoosier Thunder Motorsports operation.

He has selected the two new members of the crew and they are working closely with him to prepare the car. Such improved communication, McMillen said, surely should translate to improved performance on the racetrack, eliminating an extra layer of consultants. Having an advisor, he said, is not the way he plans to go anymore.

He was quick to praise Lee Beard, who filled that role last year. However, McMillen had to share Beard with Funny Car veteran Cruz Pedregon last year and with the Rapisarda Top Fuel team that featured driver Cory McClenathan. McMillen had unofficial advisors before Beard's input.

"Working with Lee was great, but when he got busy over there and they were in a thrash, we didn't get any input an vice versa. We're just going to groom somebody in-house to be that person," McMillen said.

"We're still not overly funded. We have to run race to race. We don't have extra parts sitting on the shelf," he said. "I'd like to be able to change that, but I only get so many dollars each month and I have to make everything fit. We've just figured out how to make things work."

McMillen said, "We stumbled a lot last year. But I really think we're going to have a great car this year."

And, he warned, no one should tell his crew otherwise.

"My guys have the heart of a champion. They believe we're going to get it done," McMillen said.

dixon larryBACK IN THE SEAT - With the Rapisarda Autosport International team's rush job to prepare the dragster for the season opener and fresh funding from Prolong Super Lubricants, Larry Dixon posted a first pass of the season at 3.96 seconds at 244.74 mph. "At Rapisarda Autosport International, we're all about performance, both on the track and on behalf of our sponsors," The three-time champion said. "Prolong has a long history with drag racers and their wide variety of products can be used by any type of racing team. We're excited to have them as a sponsor for the 2013 season." Dixon drove the Dote Family Dragster at three races late last season but is coming back in a much bigger way this year. The 62-time winner, second most successful in the Top Fuel class, has three-time NHRA championship crew chief and team manager Lee Beard in his camp.

'I (HEART) CONNIE' - Connie Kalitta's team doesn't spare expenses when it comes to its stable of drag-racing cars. So naturally the gang wouldn't want garden-variety Valentines Day candy. At Kalitta Motorsports, a team member or friend could satisfy his sweet tooth with conversation hearts bearing the messages "I love Connie," "I love nitro," and "Team Kalitta."

FAIR WARNING - Sophomore Top Fuel driver Khalid Al Balooshi is issuing a warning for the 2013 season: "Everyone needs to watch our team this year. Our team will be way better than it was last year." The Reading, Pa., first-time winner during the Countdown said, "I want to try to win more races this year. Winning the race at Reading last year was special. That race track will always be my favorite, and it will always be a special place for me. But we want to do more. We want to put our team in a better position and make a run for the championship. We hope that both Al-Anabi cars, my car and Shawn's [Langdon's] car, will be in the Countdown."

CELEBRATING A DECADE - Dave Grubnic, an 18-year Top Fuel veteran, is celebrating his 10th season with Kalitta Motorsports. Grubnic's 16 round-wins last season marked his best in six seasons, and that has him champing at the bit to get his Connie Kalitta-tuned Optima Batteries Dragster back on track after inning at Topeka again and earning semifinal finishes at Norwalk, Seattle, and St. Louis to make the Countdown again. "First off, let me say how excited I am to be starting my 10th year with Connie and Kalitta Motorsports. I'm also excited to be partnered up again with all the great people at Optima Batteries and Candlewood Suites. After a great pre-season test session which further capitalized on our record-setting performance from last season, we are all anxious to get on the track."

wilkerston timNEW LOOKS, NEW TEAM MEMBERS - No matter what race at which he's about ready to begin qualifying, Tim Wilkerson is eager to get rolling. As this year kicks off with a new series sponsor in Coca-Cola's Mello Yello brand, the Springfield, Ill., Funny Car veteran said he's especially excited because he had a few new features to show off.

"We're all excited to have such a famous brand from the Coca-Cola Company as the title sponsor of the series, and I think it gives us all a bit of a higher profile, so that's a good thing for everybody. Our team is pretty different too, with some new crew guys, some shifted positions, a new paint scheme that's pretty nice to look at, new uniforms, and kind of a fresh start," Wilkerson said.

He said newest hires Ryan Wirth and David Shaff "aren't just new to us, either. They're both rookies, but I'm happy with how focused and attentive they are and I think they're going to do just fine. With the new look and the new blood, it's been a very different off-season and I think the guys' excitement about getting started is kind of infectious."

Ryan Wirth and David Shaff had some pretty trusty mentors on this team besides Wilkerson. Each has a brother on the team. Wirth joins brother Travis Wirth, who has been moved to the clutch specialist position, and David Shaff joins his brother, Nick Shaff, the team's cylinder head specialist.

"Like any team with new guys or guys in new positions, it's going to take them a while to gel and get totally up to speed, but what's made me feel good about it is how focused and attentive they are," Wilkerson said. "These guys take it very seriously, they ask good questions, and they want to do everything right. They're good guys, and they really want to do well, so that's a good thing.

"When you have so many new people and guys learning new positions, it changes everything from the top down, because you have to start over and focus on every little detail," he said. "I can't just show up and assume my crew is going to have everything figured out, because there are always a lot of questions or things coming up they haven't dealt with before. I think that's a good thing for all of us, because that new attention to detail is contagious. New guys, old guys, and this guy are all ready to get going. And right now, we're tied for first place in the standings with everyone else, so we're geared up to get after it."

STILL IN THE GAME - John Force has won at Pomona in three different events, including 2001's 50th anniversary NHRA Nationals. He has won at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona 15 times, 110 racing rounds' worth, both records for a single venue. And he kicked off last season with a victory here -- at the final-round expense of Mike Neff, the man who's tuning his Castrol Mustang again this year.

After two successful seasons as both driver and crew chief, years in which he finished fifth and third in points, Neff asked to return to the tuner's role solely.

"It was Mike Neff's decision," Force said. "He obviously proved he could do the job as a driver, but he thought that to do both, drive and tune, was getting to be too much. I'm excited to have him back tuning my hot rod."

Force has won at least one event in 25 of the past 26 seasons and has a record 28 consecutive top-10 finishes. But the 36-year NHRA racer has had a winning record in only one of the past four campaigns (18-22 last season), and he said he wants to add to his unprecedented numbers. "It doesn't matter how many you win, trophies or championship rings, you always want to win one more," he said. "As a driver you want to win for the crew chiefs, the sponsors, the people in the office, the people in the chassis, paint, and machine shops, because without them you wouldn't be able to do the job you love. On top of that, there's your own personal satisfaction. I still want to prove to Robert [Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford] and my two daughters that drive [Courtney in the Funny Car class and Brittany in Top Fuel]  that I'm still in championship form. I work out every day to stay in the game."

HE'S BAAACK, FUNNY CAR FOLKS - Del Worsham won the last time he drove at Pomona -- in a Top Fuel dragster to clinch the 2011 championship that November. He's talking record-setting performances as he returns to the seat -- but this time he'll be back in Funny Car competition, where he won 25 of his 33 Wally trophies. The Chino Hills resident who's driving for drag-racing pioneer Connie Kalitta, said, "Pomona is my home race. And to start driving Funny Car again in front of my family, friends, and sponsors will be cool. Pomona is a very fast track that can hold national-record times, and I think our DHL Toyota Camry is ready for the challenge."

CAN HISTORY REPEAT? - Robert Hight has driven his Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car into the winners circle at the Winternationals three times, most recently in 2011. This time a victory here could keep a pattern rolling for him. "The last time NHRA had a new sponsor in 2009, which was Full Throttle, I won the championship. To come out and be the first Mello Yello champ, that's my goal. We've all had good luck at Pomona. We've won that race quite a few years in a row, the Winternationals. No different this year," he said. "We have three great Ford Mustang Funny Cars that can come out and win [including boss John Force's Castrol car and Courtney Force's Traxxas Mustang]. What I'm looking for with my Auto Club Mustang is a little more consistency. We got hot last year and won four in a row, but I want to win races throughout the whole season and definitely be ready for the Countdown to win the championship. We signed a long-term deal with Auto Club. They're on for five years. That's big. We have to prove to them that we can do this and do a good job for them."

Hight said, "I think we definitely learned a lot in testing. We have trying a number of different things. Jimmy [crew chief Prock] has been slowly making adjustments so we don't over-correct. These Funny Cars are so complex now that you really have to make small adjustments. Jimmy has a great handle on the direction we are going, and it really showed on the last couple of days of testing. You can test a lot, but it really matters once you start racing."

PUSHING HERSELF - Courtney Force no longer is a Funny Car rookie, not that she drove much like one last season. "Looking back, it's crazy how far we've come. And thinking back to the opening race in my rookie season, so much has changed. Last year we had high hopes of trying to qualify at most, if not every, event and we met that goal. I picked up my first win in Funny Car in Seattle, and our team finished fifth in the overall standings by the end of the season. I'm so proud of everything we were able to accomplish," she said. And although I am still a new driver, I look forward to pushing myself this season to do a better job and learn from any mistakes. I think we've got a great car and team and are capable of a lot this season."

THREE'S HIS CROWD - Pro Stock veteran Greg Stanfield and his team already should be eligible for the Hard-Working Crew Award. Counting Stanfield, it's a trio. Brother Mike Stanfield and longtime crew member Mike Stryker are the only ones helping the Bossier City., La., racer this weekend with MAVTV/Lucas Oil Chevy Camaro. "Getting everything ready to go racing is a challenge for a team as small as ours. It's been a thrash, getting this thing put together," Stanfield said. "We're trying to get everything dialed in so we can go to these races and do some good." He did some preseason testing at Las Vegas to make sure his tires and clutch discs, which are among the more critical components of the race car, were set for the season-opener. He said this weekend the group is "going to have to work smart, because there's not many of us on the team. We'll do whatever it takes to get the car ready to go. We work well together." With a limited schedule and budget last season, Stanfield raced 14 times and reached the semifinals twice. Still, Stanfield dreams big. "We're working on some new stuff," he said. "We probably won't have it done for a while, but we'll take what we have and do our best to get the car in the show this weekend."

TIME FOR BIG REVEAL - Finally Rodger Brogdon and Steve Kent will find out just how much improvement they'll experience because of all their massive changes throughout the past few months. The two Pro Stock competitors expect to say good-bye to that depressing feeling they had before, when they came to the races, knowing they didn't have all the right components to qualify in the top part of the field. "If you look at the numbers, about 75 percent of the winners in Pro Stock come out of the top four qualifying positions," Brogdon said. "It's depressing to leave the shop and know you're only going to qualify 12th or 13th and have about a five percent chance of winning. That's where we were. It's all a numbers game, like any business." So they got to work on the numbers -- spent a large number of dollars on buying an engine-building company and moving it to a new 10,000-square-foot shop in northwest Houston. They added experienced Pro Stock mechanics Tommy Lee (from retired Ron Krisher's crew) and Terry Adams (who had worked with 2009 champion Mike Edwards). He said their savvy made a huge difference in their preseason test sessions. "I can't see why it won't carry over to the first race in Pomona," he said. He continued to test his ProtectTheHarvest.com Chevrolet Camaro at Las Vegas this past week and said, "I don't see why we can't qualify in the top half of the field. I'll be disappointed if we don't at least do that."

RIDDLE OF THE DAY - What distinction do Robert Hight, Brittany Force, Morgan Lucas, and Jason Line share? As John Force Racing public-relations representative Dave Densmore pointed out, all qualified No. 1 in their most recent appearances in the O'Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Lucas, Hight, and Line did so in the three pro classes in 2012, and Brittany Force led the Top Alcohol Dragster field in 2010.

OH WELL, IT'S STILL FUN! - Larry Morgan, the 58-year-old Lucas Oil Ford Mustang driver, might have more than 25 years of experience, having competed first in 1987. But he still gets giddy about the opening of another season. "I still get pumped up for the season," he said. "I've never lost any of that drive. I still like to do it, and I like the challenge. I still get kind of wound up about it. I'm very excited about going to Pomona and getting the season started, I can tell you that. When that feeling goes away, I'm not going to do it anymore, but that's still a long way off. I'll be like 'the Greek' (veteran Top Fuel driver Chris Karamesines, who is in his 80s). I don't have any reason to quit. I'm lucky to have Lucas Oil, Summit, Speedco, and all of the other people who support us."

The 10-time winner from Newark, Ohio, said, "The biggest challenge to getting ready for the race season is trying to figure out how to do it financially. We've got the drive and the know-how, and we're not afraid to do it, but the key is getting the funding to do it properly. We have a great sponsor in Lucas Oil, and I'm proud to represent Forrest and Charlotte Lucas. We all do the best we can for them. We're running against guys who have budgets 15 times more than ours, and we go out and try to kick their butts, and that's kind of hard to do. It really is. I'm not crying and bitching, but that's the biggest challenge we have. Can we do it right? Absolutely. We're doing the best we can with what we've got, and we don't take shortcuts. We're just broke at the end of the year!"



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