Photos: Larry Chen

NHRA: Cruz Pedregon ready to do some home cookin’ in Pomona season opener

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Like many of his fellow drag racers, two-time NHRA Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon loves Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

It’s Pedregon’s home race track, having grown up in nearby Chino, about 20 minutes away. Formerly known as Pomona Raceway, it was where Cruz and brother (former NHRA champion and current FOX NHRA TV analyst) Tony first got their exposure to drag racing from their late father, Frank, and where they both cut their own quarter-mile teeth, so to speak.

Even though he now lives in suburban Indianapolis, Cruz Pedregon always looks forward to the two annual NHRA national events at Pomona: the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals and the season-ending Auto Club Finals.

Going back to the West Coast is a definite homecoming for the veteran drag racer, who is starting his 28th season in NHRA competition at this weekend’s season opener. He’s looking forward to catching up with family, maybe grab a Double-Double or two from In-n-Out Burgers, and potentially catch some rays and take a dip at the beach.

Pedregon debuted his new Dodge Charger during the NHRA preseason test last weekend in Chandler, Arizona.

But most importantly, the man nicknamed “the Cruzer” wants to start the 2019 season with a win. It’s been a long time since he’s won at his home track – one win in the Winternationals (1995) and two wins in the Finals (2008 and 2012) – something he hopes to change this weekend.

“I’m very optimistic about this season,” Pedregon told NBC Sports. “We always feel optimistic at the start of the year. We have the holidays, come out refreshed, ready to go. But I’ve always felt like there was work to be done and things had to kind of fall in line.

“This year, I just have a good feeling and feel like making the moves that we’ve made as far as personnel-wise and shuffling, I guess the best way to say it is I trust me more than I trust other people.

“I’ve put the bar pretty high so our expectations are to go out and be right there in the middle of everything. Pomona is one of the legendary races. I love the sport, I feel good about it, I haven’t lost the edge or the desire or anything like that. I’m just more experienced and know more about what to do and what not to do. It would be big to start off right there at Pomona. We’re notorious slow starters but I hope to change that this year.”

There’s several reasons why Pedregon has a good feeling about this weekend:

* First, after two seasons of delegating motor tuning duties to others, Pedregon will once again tune his hot rod, in addition to his driving duties.

“For me, to go back to that role is exciting, it’s a challenge but I’m up for the challenge,” Pedregon said. “I’m kind of reinvigorated – not that I needed that before – but I felt like there’s a lot of knowledge in my brain being a sponge working with all the crew chiefs I have over the years. Will I be busy? Absolutely. Is it something I can manage? Sure. I welcome it.

“I have a good feel for what I have to do. … For me, it’s good, old-fashioned experience that plays an important role in being a tuner. You have to go off the seat of your pants quite a bit. It’s just got to be a feel, you have to know what to do, you have to study, you have to be dedicated and committed. I felt that guy is hard to find, so I looked in the mirror and I said I better use this resource.”

* Second, he has a new crew chief (Glen Huszar) and assistant crew chief (Nick Casertano).

“It’s like a football team,” said Pedregon, who is a diehard Raiders fan and whose race helmet is similar to the Raiders’ football helmets. “Some head coaches call their own plays, others don’t. I guess you could say I’m going back to calling my own plays.

“For me, all that was left was to do was to put the emphasis to make sure I hired not one but two key guys that could oversee the operation. With Glen and Nick, I feel like we’re going to be as strong as ever.”

* Third, after 11 years running a Toyota body, Pedregon has switched to driving a Dodge Charger body for 2019.

“Toyota informed me middle of 2018 that the support was going away, so that left me kind of a free agent, so to speak,” he said. “I’m very happy to be with Dodge. It worked out very well that I was able to obtain Dodge bodies over the winter through my connection with Don Schumacher Racing. So, basically overnight, we went from Toyota to Dodge.

“Let’s face it, the engines in these cars are (Dodge) Hemis. Dodge goes way back in NHRA racing. Dodge is a racing group, a racing family and their hot rod cars that they come out with now, all the things they’re doing in the high-performance world, makes a guy like me want to be a part of that.”

GOING FORWARD AFTER A ROUGH 2018

Pedregon will be the first to admit last season was a rough one. He won one race (spring event at Charlotte) – his first victory in four seasons — but because of oil-down penalties at three other races due to major – and very expensive – motor explosions, he lost valuable championship points that ultimately cost him a spot to qualify in the top 10 for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“That was financially a big hit for us but we survived,” Pedregon said. “We’ve since addressed those issues, but that was definitely not the most fun part in any way, shape or form, particularly for the owner, who has to write checks to replace them.

“The thing that hurt most is we were in good position to make the top 10, however, with the point deduction based upon the NHRA rule where if they roll trucks to clean up your mess on-track, they actually deduct points. I had enough penalties or infractions that it bumped me out of the top 10, so that was a double whammy for me.

“If we would have made the top 10, we would have salvaged our season. … It was probably one of the most frustrating times of my career.”

Pedregon has put the struggles his team has gone through the last few seasons in his rearview mirror. He’s perhaps as positive and optimistic as he’s been since he won his last Funny Car championship in 2008.

“I’ve set my goals pretty high,” he said. “I want to be top five in qualifying every race and I want to win five races this year. I’m throwing it out there, lofty goals.

“To me, it starts with goals and you have to do things that are consistent with those goals. I’ve made the financial investment on the right equipment and hopefully the right people.”

The 55-year-old Pedregon is hoping 55 is the new 35 for him. He’s ready to win a ton of races and a third championship. He’s far from climbing out of his race car or turning it over to anyone else. He knows he has a big job to turn things around, but he’s up for the task.

“I really want to perform at a high level and win,” he said. “I know I’m no spring chicken. I don’t know how many years I have left, so I’m not going to look back, I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been, so yeah, I’m very optimistic.

“Last year, there were too many chefs in our kitchen. This year, there’s going to be only one chef – and I make a heck of a steak.”

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Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?