COMMERCE, Ga. — With five different winners in six races and several more drivers showing they have the potential to win races, to say the NHRA Funny Car category has been competitively balanced would be an understatement.
Perhaps brutally tough would be a more fitting description.
If there has been a driver that has stood out so far among the pack it would be two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon. The veteran driver who is pulling double-duty as both driver and crew chief this season for his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry has raced to victories in Las Vegas and Houston and has been the No. 1 qualifier two times.
For his efforts Pedregon has ascended to the No. 1 position in the points standings in the early goings. It is the first time since his brother Tony held the lead in Sept. 2009 that a driver who is not a part of John Force Racing or Don Schumacher Racing has led the standings. If you’re counting, that’s a span of 78 events.
Pedregon hopes to keep the momentum going at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals, May 3-5 at Atlanta Dragway.
The last time Cruz held the series lead was at the end of the 2008 season, when he won the second of his two world championship crowns (also 1992). He’s very proud to be back on top once again, especially since he’s doing it with his well-publicized “No Name” crew.
“It’s a by-product of what we’re doing and it’s an honor and a nice feather in the cap,” said Pedregon, whose only win at Atlanta Dragway came in 1998. “It’s still early and there’s some guys grouped together pretty tightly (in the points), but we’ll take it. It’s a credit to the team and what we’ve been able to accomplish. We have a little momentum going and that’s important.”
With back-to-back final round appearances, another driver in the 8,000-horsepower category with some momentum is also one who makes the tuning decisions and drives the car. Tim Wilkerson posted a runner-up finish to Pedregon at Houston and feels certain that he’s a win waiting to happen in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang.
“As good as it’s been, being in contention to win the last two races, I’m about tired of wearing my bridesmaid’s dress,” said Wilkerson, who last hoisted a Wally at Seattle in 2011. “It’s worn out, over the last year or so, and now we’re working on a streak of being in four straight final rounds without getting the win. Believe me, we all want to take that next step and get back in the Winner’s Circle.”
The talent level runs very deep in Funny Car. Sophomore driver Alexis DeJoria has pushed her way into the top 10 at the controls of her Tequila Patron Toyota Camry by posting a pair of semifinal finishes and two eighth place qualifying efforts. She is one of several young drivers – including Charlotte runner-up Blake Alexander and Charlotte No. 1 qualifier Chad Head – who have been making great progress in the Funny Car category.
DeJoria, who has defeated John Force, Robert Hight, defending world champ Jack Beckman and last season’s top rookie Courtney Force in recent head-to-head elimination pairings, is confident that more success is coming her way.
“I’m proud of my team,” said DeJoria, currently ninth in the standings. “We’re going rounds and gaining points with every round, and that’s what’s important right now. I’m looking forward to getting right back out there in a few days in Atlanta.”
Speaking of veteran driver Hight, the two-time winner at Atlanta Dragway says the incredible level of competition in Funny Car could force many teams to start counting points a lot earlier than they would have in previous seasons.
“The points are tightening up and we are only six races into the season,” said Hight, who was the runner-up and No. 1 qualifier last season at Atlanta. “I am not really looking at the points, but you do want to qualify well and go rounds so you get data for the Countdown. We want to be peaking in the Countdown and there is no doubt we want to get one of the guaranteed spots in the Traxxas Shootout. There have been five different winners in Funny Car, so there are only two guaranteed spots left.”
Others to watch in Funny Car include defending event winner Capps, 15-time world champ J. Force, who is a seven-time winner at Atlanta Dragway, Johnny Gray and Matt Hagan, the 2011 world champ who won the recent Four-Wide Nationals in North Carolina.