2016 NHRA season comes down to this: 3 tight championship battles to be decided Sunday

(Photos courtesy NHRA)
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The 2016 NHRA season will end where it began in this weekend’s Auto Club Finals: at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

Since the season-opening Winternationals in February at ACR, dozens of drivers have competed in 23 races and crisscrossed the United States several times.

Whether it was in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle, the goal was the same for every man and woman who put on a firesuit and challenged both themselves and their opponents: to win the championship.

Which brings us to this weekend.

While the Top Fuel championship has already been decided (Antron Brown clinched his second consecutive title and third in the last five seasons two weeks ago at Las Vegas), there will still be plenty of competition at Pomona to determine championships in Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Let’s break down each of those three classes and see who is still in the running to earn the biggest prize of all:

FUNNY CAR

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Ron Capps

Ron Capps has been racing a Funny Car for 20 years. He’s the second-winningest driver in Funny Car history (behind John Force), has finished runner-up four different times, but has never won a championship.

That could change this weekend. Capps enters Pomona with a massive 86-point lead over Matt Hagan and an even larger 113-point edge over Tommy Johnson Jr.

A maximum of 130 points is available for any one driver in Sunday’s race. If Capps finishes 44 points ahead of Hagan, the championship battle is over.

Ironically, not only do all three drivers drive Dodge Chargers, they’re also all teammates at Don Schumacher Racing.

So, no matter who wins the Funny Car title, DSR will have captured both ends of the nitro championships, as Top Fuel champ Brown is also in the DSR stable.

Capps has had an impressive and extremely consistent Countdown to the Championship. In the first five races of the six-race playoff, he’s reached the semifinals each time. That’s allowed him to build an 86-point edge over Hagan coming into the season finale.

Capps has five wins and 10 overall final round appearances thus far in 2016. If he reaches the semifinal round once again on Sunday, the championship will be his. If he goes on to win the race, it’ll be an extra bonus.

“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Capps said in a NHRA media release. “As close as we’ve been before, you don’t want to take anything for granted so we just have to keep going.

“You can tell and feel that there’s a lot of excitement but it boils down to you just have to keep staying busy and stay in your normal mode. But there’s no doubt Pomona is going to be a lot of fun.

“Pomona is such an important track to me personally. I’ve driven for two legends in Don Prudhomme and Don Schumacher, and the fact that (NHRA founder) Wally Parks’ name is there when you make a run, there’s just so much history there.

“It’s such a big race to begin with and then you add all the excitement of what’s going on, to clinch there and be crowned champion there would be surreal.”

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Matt Hagan

Hagan, a two-time champion, knows he has an uphill climb against Capps – but he’s not giving up, either.

“Honestly, it’s a long shot and we know that,” Hagan said. “If we would have won Vegas, then maybe we roll in with a licking our chops-type feeling, but it’s a tall order now.

“There’s some rounds in the Countdown that just didn’t go our way. At the end of the day, I want it to be me (that wins a championship), but if it can’t be me, I’m glad it’s Capps. He was one of the first guys who picked up the phone when I joined DSR. The dude is genuine and legit, and hats off to them, they’ve done a great job all year.”

While Capps is confident, he’s also not taking any chances.

“It’s certainly not a done deal,” he said. “It’s by far not over. We still need to get there and do our business and clinch it. I’ve seen some pretty miraculous things happen at Pomona over the years, and we definitely don’t want to be one of those statistics.”

PRO STOCK

Teammates are supposed to look out for each other. But this weekend, it’ll be every man for himself as former champions Jason Line and Greg Anderson – who have six prior championships between themselves – battle each other for yet another Pro Stock championship.

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Jason Line
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Greg Anderson

Line (eight wins this season) comes into this weekend with an 19-point edge over Anderson (seven wins), his Summit Racing Equipment sponsored/KB Motorsports teammate.

“It comes down to doing the best we can and enjoying the fact that we’re in this situation,” Line said. “I want to go win the race. If I do that, I’ll feel good. We’ve never won (at Pomona) in the fall. It’s always eluded me and it would be nice to do it this year.”

Anderson is looking at this weekend in a similar fashion.

“If we can make our way through competition on Sunday, qualify well, and on opposite sides of the ladder make our way through the rounds and match up in the final round for all the marbles, that would be a dream come true just to have that opportunity,” said Anderson, who has four world titles and 85 career wins. “If it were to happen, that would be the best scenario ever and may the best man win. (We’re) looking forward to this weekend, and hopefully we can execute and make it a dream race.”

Anderson has 11 career wins at Auto Club Raceway, with five coming in the finals, his last championship being in 2010. Line has won four races at Pomona, but never in the fall. His last Pro Stock championship came in 2011.

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Shane Gray

“We’ve haven’t ran as well in the Countdown as we’d hoped, but we’ve outlasted everybody else and that’s all that matters,” Line said. “We’re not satisfied and we want to keep going faster, but it’s going to be a fun weekend no matter what happens.”

Lastly, Shane Gray remains in mathematical contention for the championship, but coming into this weekend at 94 points behind Line, Gray would have to win Sunday’s race like he did two weeks ago at Las Vegas to even have a remote chance at the crown. Still, with this being Gray’s last race (he’s taking a hiatus from racing starting in 2017) for some time, he could emerge with one heck of a Cinderella championship story if all the stars align in his favor.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE

The tightest championship battle heading into this weekend is one that likely will not be settled until the final round of eliminations on Sunday.

Three riders are battling for the championship; two are tied for the points lead and the third is only three points away. Former champ Angelle Sampey is also mathematically still eligible, but at 110 points behind, the odds aren’t in her favor.

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Eddie Krawiec
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Andrew Hines

Teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec are tied for the PSM lead. Hines is a two-time defending champ and five-time champ overall. Krawiec is a three-time champ.

But perhaps the most impressive statistic of this weekend is Krawiec has reached the final round of the Finals for the last eight seasons, winning four and finishing second four other times.

“I think this year Andrew and I have been brought to a better level of riding,” said Krawiec, who has 36 career wins. “Definitely with the level of competition, there’s about eight or ten bikes on any given weekend that could possibly win. It’s definitely good to win on a weekend where you know you pulled it off.”

And then there’s perhaps the biggest wildcard in this whole thing, 57-year-old Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie, who could pull a huge upset if Hines and Krawiec cancel each other out if they’re in the same elimination bracket.

“We both have the desire to want to win this race, so (Eddie and I are) going to do whatever we can to try and take out the alligator that’s chasing us,” Hines said of Savoie.

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Jerry Savoie

Savoie beat Hines in the finals of the most recent race, two weeks ago at Las Vegas, when Hines uncharacteristically fouled at the starting line. Could the pressure of Savoie’s very realistic underdog chance to steal the title away get to Hines once again this weekend?

Savoie was an amateur racer in his late teens and early 20s before putting away his ‘cycle away for 30 years while raising a family and starting his business, which now boasts about 60,000 gators in the Louisiana bayou.

In a sense, and given that Hines and Krawiec have eight championships between them, Savoie could be the sentimental favorite to win the championship. We’ll find out Sunday.

“If you look at the past two races in qualifying and eliminations, we’ve had the top qualifying bike in 15 of those 16 rounds,” said Savoie, who has six career wins. “That says a lot and we’re going into Pomona running really well.

“That’s pretty stout. Hopefully we can qualify No. 1 every round, get those bonus points and continue to run the best every round. I have a lot of confidence in our team, and we’ll be focused.”

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JERRY BONKOWSKI CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS:

Funny Car: Ron Capps

Pro Stock: Jason Line

Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry Savoie

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AUTO CLUB NHRA FINALS FACT SHEET

WHAT: 52nd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals, the final of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the final of six races in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Drivers in three categories – Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – are still in competition to win the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships.

WHERE: Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

COURSE: Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 1,100 feet above sea level; Track direction is north to south.

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 10-13.

SCHEDULE:

FRIDAY, Nov. 11 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at noon and 3 p.m.

SATURDAY, Nov. 12 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at noon and 3 p.m.

SUNDAY, Nov. 13 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

TELEVISION:

Friday Nov. 11, FS1 will televise one hour of live qualifying coverage at 11:30 p.m. (ET).

Sunday Nov. 13, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at11:30 a.m. (ET).

Sunday, Nov. 13, FS1 will televise three hours of live finals coverage starting at 4 p.m. (ET).

2015 EVENT WINNERS: 

Shawn Langdon, Top Fuel; Del Worsham, Funny Car; Allen Johnson, Pro Stock; Eddie Krawiec, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST AUTO CLUB FINALS VICTORIES:

John Force, FC, 8; Kenny Bernstein, TF-FC, 6; Greg Anderson, PS, 5; Bob Glidden, PS, 5; John Myers, PSM, 5; Warren Johnson, PS, 4; Dave Schultz, PSM, 4; Tony Schumacher, TF, 4.

TRACK RECORDS:

* Top Fuel – 3.700 sec. by Shawn Langdon, Feb. ’14 and 332.34 mph by Langdon, Nov. ’15

* Funny Car – 3.884 sec. by Jack Beckman, Nov. ’15 and 331.45 by Matt Hagan, Nov. ’15

* Pro Stock – 6.480 sec. by Erica Enders, Nov. ’14  and 213.84 mph by Drew Skillman, Nov. ’15

* Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.766 sec. by Andrew Hines, Nov. ’12; 198.29 mph by Eddie Krawiec, Nov. ’12

NATIONAL RECORDS:

* Top Fuel – 3.671 sec. by Steve Torrence, July ’16, Sonoma, Calif.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

* Funny Car – 3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.; 335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

* Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.;  215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

* Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.

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POINT STANDINGS COMING INTO THIS WEEKEND’S EVENT:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,581*; 2.  Steve Torrence, 2,424; 3.  Doug Kalitta, 2,413; 4.  Brittany Force, 2,366; 5.  Shawn Langdon, 2,365; 6.  J.R. Todd, 2,352; 7.  Leah Pritchett, 2,334; 8.  Tony Schumacher, 2,332; 9.  Clay Millican, 2,232; 10.  Richie Crampton, 2,227. * Clinched Top Fuel Championship.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,546; 2.  Matt Hagan, 2,460; 3.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,433; 4.  Jack Beckman, 2,395; 5.  John Force, 2,387; 6.  Del Worsham, 2,373; 7.  Courtney Force, 2,334; 8.  Robert Hight, 2,313; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,262; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,184.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,532; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,513; 3.  Shane Gray, 2,438; 4.  Vincent Nobile, 2,394; 5.  Drew Skillman, 2,371; 6.  Bo Butner, 2,369; 7.  Chris McGaha, 2,275; 8.  Allen Johnson, 2,245; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,177; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,167.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  (tie) Andrew Hines, 2,509; Eddie Krawiec, 2,509; 3.  Jerry Savoie, 2,506; 4.  Angelle Sampey, 2,399; 5.  Chip Ellis, 2,359; 6.  LE Tonglet, 2,340; 7.  Cory Reed, 2,281; 8.  Matt Smith, 2,277; 9.  Hector Arana, 2,245; 10.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,236.

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