POMONA, Calif. – Defending world champion and Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence made a statement during the final qualifying session on Saturday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, vaulting to the No. 1 spot at the Auto Club NHRA Finals.
Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are all No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the last race of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
After struggling on Friday, Torrence unleashed an outstanding run to close out qualifying on Saturday, jumping to the top with a run of 3.686 seconds at 329.99 mph in his Capco Contractors dragster. Looking to win his second straight world title, Torrence earned his fifth No. 1 qualifier this year and 24th in his career and will face Cameron Ferre to open eliminations.
He takes a 22-point lead over Brittany Force into race day, and the past two world champions could meet in the second round. Force qualified eighth with a 3.726-second pass at 331.69 mph and races Antron Brown in the first round. If Torrence and Force both win, they would face off in the second round.
“It’s a little bit disturbing how relaxed I’ve been coming into this weekend,” said Torrence, who has nine wins in 2019. “I’ve been in this situation before and come here with the lead, and it didn’t pan out the way we wanted it to. We came here last year and were already the champs, but you just have to step back and look at what we’re doing here. It’s the final race of the year and you need to go four rounds. Tomorrow, it’s going to be sudden death. You’ve got Brittany and I, and we’ll try to keep Doug (Kalitta) from jumping on us, and try to keep my dad from getting there, too.”
Leah Pritchett qualified second and Clay Millican is third. Doug Kalitta, who is 63 points behind Torrence, sits sixth, while Billy Torrence is 89 points back of his son heading into race day.
Hagan continued to impress on Saturday with a pair of solid runs, taking the No. 1 spot on the strength of his 3.872-second pass at 333.58 mph from Friday in his MOPAR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody. He earned his second No. 1 qualifier this season and 36th in his career, matching up with Jonnie Lindberg in the opening round. Thanks to his performance in qualifying, he’ll head into eliminations 44 points back of leader Robert Hight, who qualified fifth.
“We’ve had a great race car for a while and now it’s really shining,” Hagan said. “I’m feeling really good about things and you can’t ask for too much more. I’m excited and we’re hungry for it. We all live to be in this position to have the opportunity to win world championships, and we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing to get here. I feel no pressure right now, but that’s why you race on Sunday. I’m really excited about it and I feel really confident in my guys. They’re going to put a great racecar underneath me, and I’m going to drive my butt off and see what happens.”
Jack Beckman shot up to the second position on his final run, going 3.876 seconds at 332.43 mph. He’ll start Sunday 38 points back of Hight. Tim Wilkerson took the third spot in qualifying. John Force trails Hight by 76 points going into eliminations.
Coughlin’s 6.533-second run at 210.70 mph in his JEGS.com Chevrolet Camaro from Friday gave him his third No. 1 qualifier this year. The five-time champ impressed on Saturday, making the quickest qualifying run of the final qualifying session, getting within 81 points of leader and Elite Motorsports teammate Erica Enders heading into eliminations on Sunday.
Coughlin faces off with Joey Grose to open race day, while Enders, who qualified second for the third straight race, meets No. 15 qualifier Greg Anderson in the first round. Enders is seeking her third world title.
“We’re just trying to make good quality runs tomorrow,” said Coughlin, who has 32 career No. 1 qualifiers. “Erica’s had a good season and a great Countdown. We’re working hard to get every point we can and see if we can parlay this into something exceptional, which would be a Pro Stock championship or at least the top two in points. There’s a lot of racing left. Pomona is a fun place to be and I like where I’m sitting. Sunday is going to be a fun day.”
Jason Line qualified third. He is 110 points behind Enders, while Bo Butner qualified fourth and sits 111 points behind Enders. Should Enders knock off Anderson on Sunday, everyone but Coughlin would be eliminated. From there, Coughlin would need to win the race and Enders would have to lose in the second round to slip past her.
Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ Smith earned his third straight No. 1 qualifier on his Denso Auto Parts/Stockseth/MSR EBR thanks to his 6.815-second pass at 197.33 mph from Friday. It’s his seventh top spot this year and 38th in his career, and he’ll head into eliminations 106 points behind leader Andrew Hines knowing he’ll need something incredible to happen to defend his championship.
“I feel good about tomorrow,” Smith said. “We were basically low of every round but one and we’ve been good all weekend long. I’m just going out there to run my race and try to turn on a win light each round. If I get lucky enough and turn four of them on, and Andrew loses in the first round then we become the champion. I’m really just going to go do my job and see what happens.”
Karen Stoffer qualified second, and Jerry Savoie, who trails Hines by 116 points, will start from third. Hines can clinch his sixth world championship by simply winning in the first round tomorrow. He’ll meet Jianna Salinas to open eliminations after qualifying fourth.