Life’s a drag: NHRA kicks off 2014 season with this weekend’s Winternationals

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Like the swallows that return to nearby Capistrano every year, the early bird will likely catch the worm as the NHRA Mello Yello Series kicks off its 24-race 2014 season this weekend.

The Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., have traditionally been where championships begin.

Defending Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon is the perfect example of that: he began his quest for his first NHRA pro title by winning last year’s Winternationals.

And then, as if to add emphasis – if not to clinch the championship – Langdon returned to his home track (he grew up about 20 miles away in Mira Loma) last November to win the season-ending finals.

Judging by preseason testing, Langdon is prepared to maintain his stranglehold on that championship trophy in 2014, as well. Once you get a taste of being the best of the best, it grows on you, and that’s certainly the case with Langdon.

Even if you’ve won a record 16 championships, as Funny Car legend John Force has done, the hunger for No. 17 hasn’t changed one iota. If anything, Force may be more determined than ever to win yet another Funny Car crown for several different reasons.

First, he’ll turn 65 in May. He became the NHRA’s oldest champion across all pro classes when he won the Funny Car title last season, his first since 2010, but also his 16th in 24 seasons.

Even though he’s a senior citizen, Force is still driving like a 20-something. And that should be no different this season, which leads to the second reason why this year will be one of the most significant and poignant of his career.

Force will part ways at the end of the season with long-time sponsor Castrol GTX motor oil, as well as car manufacturer Ford. Both companies announced in the offseason that they would be ending sponsorship of Force’s car and will likely allocate those resources in other areas.

Given his fierce loyalty to Castrol and Ford, Force would like nothing better than to have them go out in style with yet another championship.

And, who knows, if his bid to find a new primary sponsor and new manufacturer doesn’t go as smoothly as he hopes – he said in a recent NHRA teleconference that his yearly racing budget for all the teams under the John Force Racing umbrella is $24 million – it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to think Force may also end his relationships with Ford and Castrol by also going out as a champion.

In other words, 2014 could potentially be Force’s last season as arguably the greatest drag racer the NHRA has ever known. He’s at a point in his life that watching daughters Brittany and Courtney build their own respective drag racing careers has become his top priority.

Brittany Force is coming off a Rookie of the Year season in Top Fuel.

There’s also a chance that John Force may switch rides with daughter Brittany next season: she would drive a Funny Car and he would compete in a Top Fuel dragster for the first time in his career.

It wouldn’t be the first time a driver has switched classes. Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Gary Scelzi and Tommy Johnson Jr. (who returns to a full-time ride this season in Funny Car for the first time in five seasons) are among only 15 drivers that have won national events in both fuel categories.

Of all the things he’s done in his career, that’s one thing Force has not achieved, and could provide incentive – not to mention possibly start him writing yet another chapter of his life story – if business reasons (i.e., sponsorship) dictate such.

If Force foregoes a possible switch to Top Fuel – which he’s thought about off and on for more than 15 years – there is also the possibility (dare we even think it, let alone say it) that Force may not be at the 2015 Winternationals … as a participant, that is.

In the Pro Stock ranks, defending champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., is already on the hunt for his sixth championship. Winning two races in last year’s Countdown to the Championship clinched the title for the Ohio native, who amassed four wins overall in the season.

One driver Coughlin won’t have to worry about, at least early in the season, is four-time Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson, who surprised the sport earlier this week when he announced he would miss the first three months of the season (likely six events) to undergo and recuperate from non-life threatening heart surgery.

The Winternationals kicked off Thursday and will continue with two rounds of qualifying for pro drivers on Friday and Saturday, with final eliminations set for Sunday.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA Norwalk winners: Blake Alexander, Hagan, Gray, Krawiec

Norwalk winners, from left, Tanner Gray, Eddie Krawiec, Blake Alexander and Matt Hagan. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Blake Alexander captured his first career NHRA Top Fuel win, winning Sunday at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

Alexander becomes the 105th different winner in NHRA Top Fuel history.

Alexander won the race with a 4.011-second pass at 297.81 mph, defeating Terry McMillen.

“It felt really good,” Alexander said afterward. “I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life. I’ve come close but have lost sponsors, thought I was never going to drive the car again and basically we have gone through everything to climb back to the top.”

Alexander qualified 12th for the event and defeated three of the sport’s heavyweight drivers – Don Schumacher Racing pilots Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett – before entering his second career final round.

In Funny Car, Matt Hagan earned his second event of the season with a run of 4.094 seconds at 288.21 mph over points leader Courtney Force.

It was Hagan’s first win since the season-opening race at Pomona, California.

“We just had a good solid car all weekend,” Hagan said. “We qualified well and went down the race track pretty much every lap.

“It’s been a while since we turned on four win lights but it’s a nitro Funny Car; you never know what you’re going to get.”

Hagan was the No. 3 qualifier and defeated fellow DSR teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman, followed by Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd in the semifinals en route to meeting Force – who had qualified No. 1 – in the final round.

Courtney Force defeated John Smith, Shawn Langdon and her father, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force.

In Pro Stock, young Tanner Gray earned his third win of the season and eighth of his career. Gray covered the quarter-mile in 6.615 seconds at 209.62 mph, defeating two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders in the final round.

Gray becomes the only Pro Stock driver to reach the winner’s circle three different times this season.

“This was definitely a huge accomplishment,” Gray said. “We struggled a lot at the beginning of the season.

“We did a lot of testing and couldn’t really see where that hard work was because the results weren’t showing. It feels good to have finally turned a corner and see where all of the hard work has paid off.”

Gray defeated Chris McGaha, Matt Hartford and Drew Skillman prior to his final round win over Enders, who now has one win and four runner-up finishes in the first 12 races of 2018.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec won for the third time in his career at Norwalk with a pass of 6.923 seconds at 195.05 mph, defeating 2016 PSM champ Jerry “The Alligator Farmer” Savoie.

“It was a good one for me,” Krawiec said. “It’s been a good weekend for us. It was a struggle early on trying to dance through the rain drops.

“We were trying to get a handle on a new track and understand what it is we need to do. We were able to get it done and get our bike in the winner’s circle.”

Savoie is now 1-1 in final round appearances, with a win at Charlotte and runner-up Sunday.

The next NHRA national event, which kicks off the second half of the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, takes place July 6-8 at New England Dragway in Epping, N.H.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Blake Alexander; 2. Terry McMillen; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Leah Pritchett; 5. Tony Schumacher; 6. Richie Crampton; 7. Clay Millican; 8. Mike Salinas; 9. Doug Kalitta; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Pat Dakin; 12. Dom Lagana; 13. Kyle Wurtzel; 14. Chris Karamesines; 15. Brittany Force; 16. Luigi Novelli.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Courtney Force; 3. J.R. Todd; 4. John Force; 5. Jack Beckman; 6. Shawn Langdon; 7. Robert Hight; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 10. Jim Campbell; 11. Dale Creasy Jr.; 12. John Smith; 13. Del Worsham; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Jeff Diehl; 16. Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray; 2. Erica Enders; 3. Drew Skillman; 4. Bo Butner; 5. Jason Line; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Vincent Nobile; 8. Matt Hartford; 9. Greg Anderson; 10. Alex Laughlin; 11. Deric Kramer; 12. Chris McGaha; 13. John Gaydosh Jr; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. Charlie Westcott Jr.; 16. Kenny Delco.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. LE Tonglet; 4. Angie Smith; 5. Hector Arana Jr; 6. Angelle Sampey; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Jim Underdahl; 9. Matt Smith; 10. Mark Paquette; 11. Scotty Pollacheck; 12. Cory Reed; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Steve Johnson; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Joey Gladstone.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Blake Alexander, 4.011 seconds, 297.81 mph def. Terry McMillen, 4.155 seconds, 289.20 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.094, 288.21 def. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: Tanner Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.615, 209.62 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.923, 195.05 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.071, 175.39.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Richie Crampton, 3.802, 321.81 def. Pat Dakin, 3.834, 318.24; Mike Salinas, 3.884, 268.38 def. Luigi Novelli, 14.101, 30.94; Terry McMillen, 3.816, 324.98 def. Brittany Force, 9.389, 79.86; Clay Millican, 3.759, 332.26 def. Dom Lagana, 3.837, 323.89; Steve Torrence, 3.800, 329.99 def. Chris Karamesines, 4.052, 300.06; Tony Schumacher, 3.807, 327.66 def. Kyle Wurtzel, 3.902, 306.74; Blake Alexander, 3.802, 319.75 def. Antron Brown, 3.808, 326.71; Leah Pritchett, 3.794, 328.94 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.805, 321.73; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.798, 330.15 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 330.31; McMillen, 3.793, 327.11 def. Crampton, 3.810, 320.51; Pritchett, 3.788, 327.74 def. Millican, 3.817, 327.03; Torrence, 4.027, 269.89 def. Salinas, 4.001, 232.07; SEMIFINALS — McMillen, 3.854, 317.57 def. Torrence, 3.929, 302.96; Alexander, 3.799, 329.91 def. Pritchett, 4.185, 254.28; FINAL — Alexander, 4.011, 297.81 def. McMillen, 4.155, 289.20.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.998, 322.58 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Dodge Stratus, 4.338, 224.21; Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.994, 327.19 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.990, 323.27; Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.994, 324.51 def. John Smith, Toyota Camry, 4.373, 248.52; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.034, 315.05 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; John Force, Camaro, 4.066, 320.13 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.140, 311.49; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.047, 319.07 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 9.812, 93.13; J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.016, 316.01 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 5.438, 142.39; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.045, 318.77 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.847, 202.00; QUARTERFINALS — Todd, 4.004, 321.27 def. Capps, 9.588, 81.56; J. Force, 4.085, 319.75 def. Hight, 4.116, 308.07; Hagan, 4.010, 322.27 def. Beckman, 4.022, 321.73; C. Force, 3.971, 325.37 def. Langdon, 4.025, 315.19; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.981, 320.58 def. Todd, 4.031, 321.50; C. Force, 4.007, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.053, 321.27; FINAL — Hagan, 4.094, 288.21 def. C. Force, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.632, 208.26 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.614, 208.78; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.607, 209.65 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.603, 209.07; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.608, 209.04 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.648, 208.55; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.616, 208.23 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.632, 208.23; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.626, 208.42 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.765, 205.66; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.751, 207.40 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 6.802, 203.52; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.599, 208.94 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.588, 208.88 def. Charlie Westcott Jr., Ford Mustang, 6.848, 201.85; QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.671, 207.85 def. Nobile, 7.216, 141.86; Gray, 6.600, 209.04 def. Hartford, 15.697, 42.27; Skillman, 6.614, 209.14 def. Line, 6.625, 208.59; Enders, 6.634, 207.56 def. Coughlin, 6.737, 207.50; SEMIFINALS — Enders, 6.636, 207.59 def. Butner, 6.651, 208.42; Gray, 6.610, 209.30 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Gray, 6.615, 209.62 def. Enders, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Angie Smith, Buell, 6.932, 192.17 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.993, 190.19; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.907, 195.56 def. Mark Paquette, Buell, 6.932, 189.60; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.906, 193.85 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 6.959, 192.11; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.896, 194.60 def. Hector Arana, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.903, 193.29 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.066, 189.71; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.866, 195.39 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.964, 193.71; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.926, 193.32 def. Matt Smith, 6.899, 195.48; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.953, 192.69 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — A. Smith, 6.972, 191.10 def. Underdahl, 7.080, 188.73; Krawiec, 6.889, 193.46 def. Sampey, 6.922, 193.35; Savoie, 6.916, 193.13 def. Hines, 6.991, 192.25; Tonglet, 6.940, 194.58 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.187, 155.10 def. A. Smith, 7.627, 128.07; Krawiec, 6.865, 194.24 def. Tonglet, 6.898, 195.11; FINAL — Krawiec, 6.923, 195.05 def. Savoie, 7.071, 175.39.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 964; 2. Clay Millican, 847; 3. Tony Schumacher, 817; 4. Doug Kalitta, 749; 5. Leah Pritchett, 736; 6. Terry McMillen, 643; 7. Antron Brown, 622; 8. Brittany Force, 594; 9. Mike Salinas, 475; 10. Scott Palmer, 471.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,038; 2. (tie) Jack Beckman, 788; Matt Hagan, 788; 4. Robert Hight, 771; 5. J.R. Todd, 767; 6. Ron Capps, 755; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 637; 8. John Force, 577; 9. Shawn Langdon, 537; 10. Bob Tasca III, 532.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray, 882; 2. Greg Anderson, 856; 3. Erica Enders, 830; 4. Vincent Nobile, 812; 5. Drew Skillman, 751; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 732; 7. Bo Butner, 717; 8. Chris McGaha, 691; 9. Deric Kramer, 659; 10. Jason Line, 628.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec, 515; 2. Andrew Hines, 510; 3. LE Tonglet, 440; 4. Jerry Savoie, 389; 5. Hector Arana Jr, 377; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 363; 7. Matt Smith, 355; 8. Angie Smith, 272; 9. Angelle Sampey, 257; 10. Hector Arana, 255.

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