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NHRA Finals Delivers Great Performances And Emotion
Josh Crawford
Oakdale racer Josh Crawford took part in the NHRA finals in Pomona, competing in the funny car category but was bumped out of the qualified racing ladder during the final day of qualifying. - photo by JEFF BURGHARDT

The 49th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at the famed Pomona Raceway represents the end of another season of NHRA Mello Yello championship drag racing. The event is the sixth and final race of the “chase to the championship” and 24th event of the season. This season, two of the four professional category championships were claimed by the season’s 23rd event, held two weeks prior in La Vegas. Coming into the Pomona, only the Top Fuel and Pro Stock titles were left unclaimed. In Funny Car, John Force, the fan favorite and winningest driver in drag racing history, took the championship in dominating style by scoring a runner-up finish followed by three consecutive wins in the first 5 races of the championship chase. Matt Smith claimed the Pro Stock Motorcycle season title by scoring on semi-final round finish, one runner-up and three wins in the first 5 races of the 6 race championship playoff chase. As the series came into Pomona for the final event of the 2013 season, Shawn Langdon had just over a 100 point lead over the 2012 Top Fuel season champion, Antron Brown. Depending on how things went during qualifying, Langdon had a chance to close the deal by the end of the qualifying sessions. In Pro Stock, Jeg Coughlin (known as “Jeggie”) also came into the event with a fairly substantial, but not a clinching point lead. Though they had already clinched their category season championship titles, John Force (Funny Car) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) still wanted to close the season out with a win. Force now had an unprecedented 16 professional drag racing championship titles and Smith now had two. Only Frank Manzo has more championship titles in drag racing, but those have all occurred in the professional sportsman category of Top Alcohol Funny Car.

In Top Fuel, Shawn Langdon and his Al-Anabi Racing team (co-owned by famed crew chief and engine manufacturer Alan Johnson and the prince from Qatar, Sheik Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani) would do battle with Antron Brown and his Matco Tools/US Army/Don Schumacher Racing team. Langdon would seal the deal in the fourth and final qualifying session as both he and Brown would lose traction and smoke the rear tires, ending any chance Brown would have to gain enough qualifying “bonus points” to have a chance at the season title, giving Langdon his first ever professional championship title.

In Pro Stock, thanks to the qualifying efforts of 2011 Pro Stock champion, Mike Edwards and his Interstate Batteries race team, Jeg Coughlin and his Jegs Performance race team could not garner enough qualifying “bonus points” to seal the deal. He would need to finish the event at least two rounds ahead of the second place driver, Jason Line and his Summit Performance Parts race team. Also, the 2012 Pro Stock champion and Dodge teammate, Allen Johnson, was sitting within reach of “stealing the title” if Coughlin stumbled during eliminations.

Final eliminations showcased some spectacular performances of all four professional categories. But, the nitro categories really stepped up to bring the crowd to its feet. Popular Brandon Bernstein and his “Protect the Harvest/Lucas Oil” dragster race team had captured the top qualifying spot and looked to be a favorite to win, based on his qualifying efforts and his strong #1 3.748 at 325.47 mph effort. But, qualifying and race day often give different results and Bernstein would feel the difference. After getting a “lucky break” in the first elimination round, when both he and his competition (Billy Torrance CAPCO Contractors, Inc. racing) lost traction and smoked the tires, Bernstein was able to recover first and drove his dragster across the finish line first in a sub-par 4.41 seconds at 222.07 mph. The second round of eliminations would spell the end for the number one qualifier as Brittany Force (one of four daughters of 16-time champion John Force) would take out a “faltering” Bernstein with a strong 3.856 at 313.37 mph effort with her Castrol Edge/Breast Cancer Awareness “Pink Dragster”. Force would then be taken out by Doug Kalitta and his Mac Tools dragster in the semi-final round, as her car lost traction. Kalitta would power straight down the track to a 3.791 at 325.77 mph effort to Ms. Force’s off-paced 12.4876 at 43.18 mph. The newly crowned Top Fuel champion, Shawn Langdon was pounding away the competition as he advanced to a final round match up with Kalitta. Langdon utilized consistent 3.7 second performances in route to the final round match vs. Kalitta for the event Top Fuel title. In the final, Langdon took a starting line reaction time advantage and stretched it out for a 3.784 at 325.58 mph to 3.808 at 323.04 mph win.

In Funny Car, John Force and his Castrol GTX/Ford Mustang race team looked to be invincible. He came into this event with 12 consecutive elimination round wins, which led to three consecutive event titles. During qualifying, he took over the top spot during the second qualifying session with a strong 4.015 at 318.62 mph effort. During the fourth qualifying session, Force crushed the field with the first ever 3-second Funny Car pass at the famed Pomona Raceway, stopping the clocks with an amazing 3.995 (track record) at 319.37 mph. The 2011 series funny car champion, Matt Hagan, took the second qualifying spot with a 4.014 at a track record 320.20 mph effort. Hagan and his Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger race team were battling to hold onto the second place position for the season, over (2012 champion) Jack Beckman and (2008 champion) Cruz Pedregon. As final eliminations progressed, both Force and Hagan marched their way to a final round match up for “all the marbles”. Going into the final round, Force had the lowest elapse time of eliminations with a 4.036 second effort in the first round and a 4.043 at 314.83 mph effort in the semi-final round. This would give him lane choice over Hagan in the final round. These two drivers had faced each other 18 times, splitting the decisions 50/50.

As the two drivers staged their race cars, the packed grandstands of fans were on their feet. The fan expectations were high. This could be the quickest funny car race in history, as the weather and track conditions appeared to be nearly optimal for strong performances. As the starting lights flashed, both drivers left with identical 0.47 second reaction times, but Hagan would have the ‘hammer of Thor’ this time, as he steadily pulled away from the champ all the way to the finish line. Hagan took the win with a 4.018 at 320.66 mph to 4.057 at 317.94 mph effort. It was Hagan’s best performance of the day and he saved it for last. Force took it all in stride and congratulated Hagan on his NHRA Finals Funny Car event win, knowing that he was the 16-time NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car Champion and still king of the class. Though he didn’t win, Force was still mobbed by his legions of fans, waiting for him at his pit area, all wanting to cheer him on. Force’s youngest daughter, Courtney is also a crowd favorite. Though her race day ended early in the first round, she still mustered enough season event points to claim a fifth place finish is the season series. Local Oakdale racer, Josh Crawford also competed in the funny car category but was “bumped out” of the qualified racing ladder during the final day of qualifying.

In Pro Stock, Jeg Coughlin “fouled out” with a red light start in the second round, putting himself in a vulnerable position. But, just as quick as he had become vulnerable, he became invulnerable as Jason Line (his closest competitor) ran his worst run of the event, losing moments later. Line’s second round loss, clinched the Pro Stock championship for Coughlin. The title would be the fifth of his career.

In an emotional final round young Rickie Jones in his Quarter-Max/Elite Performance Chevy Camaro took his first ever national event win over the 2012 Pro Stock Champion, Allen Johnson and his Mopar Performance Dodge Avenger. After taking the win light, the young driver sat in his car for several minutes, while he tried to collect his emotions for his post-race TV interview. His dream to win at a major NHRA event in Pro Stock since he was a youngster had finally come true and the heartfelt emotions were powerful.

Matt Smith came into the event as the “newly crowned” Pro Stock Motorcycle season champion, but would find his race day ending much earlier than he would have hoped, as he was taken out in the opening round of eliminations. The 2012 category champion, Eddie Krawiec, would put his Harley-Davidson V-Rod into the winner’s circle over Scotty Pollacheck and his Buell XB12R with a 6.918 at 192.41 mph to 6.963 at 193.57 mph winning effort. After winning every event on the 2012 NHRA season tour, the Harley Davidson team of Krawiec and (Andrew) Hines found the going tougher, following class rules changes made by NHRA before the start of the 2013 season.

The 2013 NHRA racing season closed with great performances, fireworks, and “tears of joy”. The newly crowned champions have 88 days to celebrate their accomplishments, while others have those days to prepare to capture a title for themselves. The 2014 season begins in Pomona for the Winter Nationals in early February and then it is another 24-race battle towards a championship dream.