POMONA, Calif. — And then there were 12.
When NHRA last visited fabled Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in February for the 2010 season-opening Winternationals, every driver in each of the four Full Throttle Drag Racing Series categories was full of confidence and dreaming of putting together a championship season.
As the circuit returns to Southern California 22 races later for this weekend’s finale in the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, the 46th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals, four or fewer drivers in each category can make a claim to the championship. The remaining 143 pros who earned points this season have been officially eliminated from title contention. Three remain in Top Fuel. Four drivers are still in the mix in Funny Car. Three are mathematically alive in Pro Stock and only two remain in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
For the first time since the initial Countdown season in 2007, all four Full Throttle world champions will be crowned at Pomona.
Perhaps most intriguing is the face-off in Funny Car. Matt Hagan, a 27-year-old cattle rancher from Virginia, is trying to hold off 61-year-old NHRA legend John Force, who is out to prove that he’s still got what it takes to add to his 14 world championship titles.
After moving into the lead with a record-setting weekend in Pennsylvania last month, Hagan saw his lead cut to 37 points by Force in Las Vegas, who defeated Hagan in the final round with gritty determination.
With one race remaining and a 30-point maximum on the table for a single driver in qualifying, along with the 20-point record bonus which will be in play at Pomona, this one might require a photo finish.
“It will be what it will be,” Hagan said. “We can’t force anything. We obviously gave up a lot of points (in Las Vegas). We have to do better, no doubt about it… We just can’t let this championship slip out of our hands.”
Force, who has been down this path many times in a career that spans parts of five decades, is ready for the fight. He knows he will need to earn close to the maximum 150 points available to him at Pomona if he’s to officially stamp his comeback season a success.
“The pressure is what I am all about,” Force said. “It keeps me wide awake… You have to come in with the right attitude. We have to do everything right.”
Two others are still mathematically alive in Funny Car, but Jack Beckman (-136) and Ashley Force Hood (-149) will mainly be battling each other for third place money.
In Top Fuel, Larry Dixon has won a record 12 races in 12 final rounds and appears poised to win his third world championship title. He leads seven-time world champ and arch-rival Tony Schumacher by 85 points. Dixon could have clinched the title in Las Vegas with a victory, but a second-round loss kept Schumacher’s hopes of winning a seventh-straight title alive.
While many in the media have already notched this one as a done deal in their notebooks, feeling an 85-point deficit is too much for even a Schumacher miracle to overcome, Dixon knows it isn’t over, until it’s over.
“I’m not there yet because nobody’s cut us a check or passed out the trophies yet,” Dixon said. “It’s open until they say it’s not open anymore. We’ll go (to Pomona), do the best we can and hope it’s enough. That’s what I’ve been saying all season, and it won’t change for Pomona. That’s what we did last year, but it wasn’t enough, so we have the same team and the same people; we’ll see if we can get it done this time.”
Schumacher pulled off miracle final-round comebacks to overtake Doug Kalitta in 2006 and Rod Fuller in 2007. Last season he edged Dixon by two points for the title. If anything, his U.S. Army dragster team led by crew chief Mike Green can draw confidence from those past performances.