The 44th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, the 24th and final event of the season, features a number of championship battles, highlighted by the duels in Funny Car, where Cruz Pedregon holds a slim lead, and Pro Stock Motorcycle, where defending series champ Matt Smith occupies the top spot. In this rolling column, we'll highlight notes and quotes from the title contenders.
SUNDAY, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE, SEMI'S
Eddie Krawiec is the 2008 Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion after he defeated teammate Andrew Hines in the semifinals in Pomona. Hines got the jump on the starting line, .007 to .361, but he then slowed to a 7.609, allowing Krawiec to move around him and easily win with a 7.098.
In the pair in front of the Vance & Hines teammates, Chris Rivas did exactly what he needed to do to keep his slim title hopes alive, beating Craig Treble, 7.049 to 7.119. He was eliminated from contention when Krawiec won, however, because he is 25 points back and, even if conditions would allow for it in the final, does not have a back up for a national record.
"Troubles in qualifying killed us. We had an electrical problem in the bike all weekend and actually completely rewired it last night," said Rivas. "Beating Matt [Smith] in the second round was by far the biggest win of my career."
Provisional points totals after the semifinals
Smith: 2,451 (-20)
Rivas: 2,446 (-25)
SUNDAY, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE, SECOND ROUND
The battle for the world championship is now officially just a two-rider competition between Eddie Krawiec and Chris Rivas. Matt Smith, who entered the event as the points leader, lost and therefore is mathematically eliminated.
The marquee match-up of the second round was between Smith and Rivas, who ran in the last pair, and whoever lost would be officially eliminated from contention. Rivas took control of the race at the Tree, getting a .002 to .060 jump, then he got a little help when mechanical troubles bit Smith midway through the run and he slowed to a 12.002. Rivas cruised to a 7.050 to win.
"It just broke, that's all there is to it," said Smith. "We had the best bike today, and something broke on it. That's what's plagued us the last three races. We had mechanical failure in Memphis, Vegas, and here. It bit us. It cost us the championship."
Krawiec got the reaction-time advantage in his race against Chip Ellis, .019 to .043, and that proved to be key. Ellis ran a better 7.022, but it wasn't enough to move him around Krawiec, who won with a 7.042.
Krawiec's win combined with Smith's loss moves the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle rider into a tie with Smith. Krawiec wins the tiebreaker, giving him the No. 1 spot in points right now.
Krawiec faces teammate Andrew Hines next round, and Rivas lines up next to Craig Treble. If Krawiec wins the round, he is the champion. Rivas needs to win the event and have Krawiec lose in the semi's in order to claim the title.
Provisional points totals after second round
Rivas: 2,426 (-25)
SUNDAY, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE, FIRST ROUND
The fight for the 2008 POWERade world championship remains a three-man battle with Matt Smith, Eddie Krawiec, and Chris Rivas all winning their opening-round match. Rivas was in the first pair of motorcycles, and he led Junior Pippin wire to wire, cutting a strong .017 light and running a 7.070 to beat Pippin's 7.101.
Krawiec and Smith were in the final two pairs of the round, and as the cliché goes, they saved the best for last. Krawiec clocked a 7.012, which was low e.t. of the round to that point, to defeat Peggy Llewllyn. Smith then one-upped him with a 6.984 against a red-lighting Mike Berry.
The motorcycles will take center stage in the second round when Rivas and Smith square off. The pairing is obviously a do-or-die situation for Rivas, whose title hopes will end with a loss.
Provisional points totals after first round
Krawiec: 2,431 (-20)
Rivas: 2,406 (-45)
SUNDAY, FUNNY CAR, FIRST ROUND
The opening round of Funny Car lived up to the hype with the high drama coming fast and furious, but that drama will also be shortlived after Tim Wilkerson and Robert Hight exited and Cruz Pedregon advanced to lock up his second career world championship. The excitement began in the very first pair when Pedregon faced Jerry Toliver. Toliver had lane choice and elected to take the left side of the famed Pomona track. That lane wasn't too kind to him; he smoked the tires early in the run and could only watch as Pedregon went straight down, clocking a 4.142 to advance. His win eliminated his brother, Tony, and Jack Beckman from contention, leaving only Wilkerson and Hight to spoil a second straight Pedregon family title.
Wilkerson was in the pair directly behind Pedregon, and his hopes came to a quick and heartbreaking end when he red-lighted for the first time in 97 races (his last foul start was Dallas 2004), negating a 4.161 that likely would have beat the 4.226 of opponent John Force.
"I'm apologizing to my guys down here," said Wilkerson from the top end of the track. "I just stuck it in deeper than I wanted to. I thought I saw a lot of yellow there. It's my first [red-light] in a long time, and it was a terrible, inopportune time. We've got a lot of people here who made special trips just to root for me, and I hate when that kind of thing happens. But you know what? It's been a great year."
That left just one competitor, Hight, who was another five pairs back, racing Pedregon's brother, Tony. The most anticipated match of the first round certainly fit the bill in a dramatic tire-smoking match that eventually went to the 2007 champ. Hight struck the tires on his Mustang first and looked to be completely out of contention, but Tony Pedregon's Toyota soon followed suit, once again opening the door for Hight. Hight attempted to get his car to recover, but it didn't happen and Hight lost in a 4.252 to 4.443 decision that gave the title to Cruz Pedregon, the 1992 world champion.
"Four years ago when John Force gave me this opportunity, I never thought this would happen as a driver, to be here on the last day of the year with a chance to win a championship," said Hight. "It's happened three years in a row now. We couldn't pull it off this year, but I can guarantee you we'll start next week to get back here to the Winternationals and try to get a win and get this championship because we're too good not to win it."
Said Tony Pedregon, "I didn't win [the championship], but I feel like I did. We're a close family. We grew up in this area down the street in Chino, Carson, Gardena, Torrance, and a lot of people who grew up in the same area know how tough it's been. Cruz and I worked hard a lot of years. We've partnered up with a lot of good companies, a lot of good people who have helped us along the way. I'm happy for him. He's helped me a lot, and I'll be coming to him for a loan."
Provisional points totals after first round
C. Pedregon: 2,501
Wilkerson: 2,468 (-33)
Hight: 2,442 (-59)
T. Pedregon: 2,440 (-61)
Beckman: 2,437 (-64)
SATURDAY, FUNNY CAR, SECOND SESSION
Though a number of cars picked up in the final session of qualifying, Robert Hight and Tony Pedregon did not, and that is significant because the end result is a first-round match between the two championship contenders tomorrow. Pedregon and Hight ran identical 4.122s on Thursday, which helped them secure the eighth and ninth positions on the ladder; Pedregon earned the higher spot on the speed tiebreaker, 301.67 to 298.14.
"You know what, I'll take it," said Pedregon of the match. "I'll take him anytime. I never back down for anybody. I feel as good as ever. I like this track. I like these people who come out here. Tell Robert to get in line. I've still got that championship, and I'm not conceding yet. If somebody's going to take it, I hope it's Cruz, but if not, the other guys are going to have to work for it."
Said Hight, "Tomorrow's going to be exciting, there's no two ways about it. We have to perform. In qualifying, I don't feel like we did our best. We're not normally a bottom-half car, and on the run with the best conditions, which was [fourth] round, we didn't step up. We backed it off too much from the previous two rounds, where it smoked the tires, and I guess we know each side of the coin for tomorrow: We know what not to do to smoke the tires, and we now know what to do to tune it up a little. Maybe that will help.
"Racing Tony Pedregon, we're going to have to beat the champion. He's still in this hunt, too, and he wants it bad. They said that if I win the race that will mean Tim and Cruz are out of there by the semi's. We've won the last few races here, and that's what we came here to do; that's what we intend to do. We also have John Force to help us with Wilkerson first round. They're all tough, tough races. I wouldn't pick anybody else over Tony Pedregon first round because they're all tough. You've got to beat whatever is dealt to you, and I don't think there's a car in the class that you could say is easier to race than Tony Pedregon; that's just not the way it is. We're looking forward to getting pumped up and winning this race tomorrow."
Tim Wilkerson also failed to improve, running into problems early and coasting to a 7.36. That bad run, combined with the improvements of other racers, dropped Wilkerson down to the 13th spot, setting up a first-round date with John Force.
"I don't know that it's really sunk in that we have the chance to do this, to tell you the truth," said Wilkerson. "It's just been a terrific year for the whole Levi, Ray & Shoup team. We're just proud to be here, and no matter what happens, it's been a great year. To race John Force first round just tops off the year, if you think about it. If you want to be the champ, you've got to beat the champ, so that's what we're up to. This year has definitely been the best year that I've ever had in my career. It's just been a spectacular season. Like I said, we're proud to be in the position we're in, and it's going to make for a dogfight tomorrow.
"It certainly makes it dramatic for the fan, and that's what we're here for. If I had my way, I would have let you crown me some place else, but unfortunately, that wasn't the way destiny wanted it to be because here we are at the last race of the year, and the guy who wins the race is going to be champion. I hope that I can get past John tomorrow, and whatever happens from then on, it will be good."
Cruz Pedregon and Jack Beckman both bettered their earlier runs with respective 4.150 and 4.123 clockings. Pedregon starts from the 12th spot and meets up with Jerry Toliver in round one. If Pedregon and Wilkerson both win their opening-round matches, they will face one another in round two.
"It's hard not to look at it, but we can't race everybody out there like NASCAR," said Pedregon of the ladder, which includes four of the five contenders one side. "There's some good match ups, and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top. I just don't want to get caught up in all of that. I'd like to sit here and say we'd like to win a championship, but who wouldn't want to win a championship; this means everything to us. I will say this to my opponents: Whoever wins the championship is going to earn it. I'm going to shake their hand if it's not us because Tim Wilkerson has been absolutely phenomenal this year. Robert's there like he has been in the last several years. If it isn't us, I'll shake his hand, and, as Bob Frey would say, sit there and admire his handiwork. It's come down to this, and we've all done as well as we can do.
"We were fighting for 10th place at this time last year, so I feel like, man, we've had a heck of a year. But it's also a double-edged sword because if we don't win the championship, it's going to be disappointing, but we still had a good year either way."
Beckman's 4.123 places him 10th and on the opposite side of the ladder from the remaining four title chasers. Beckman races teammate Gary Scelzi in the first round.
Provisional points totals after qualifying
C. Pedregon: 2,481
Wilkerson: 2,468 (-13)
Hight: 2,442 (-39)
T. Pedregon: 2,420 (-61)
Beckman: 2,417 (-64)
The Countdown to 1 has provided a lot of drama for the five Funny Car drivers still in contention, but Hight had a little more added when he and his family were evacuated from their home due to wildfire in the area.
"My wife and daughter are out here with me, so that's cool," said Hight. "One of John's employees went over there and picked up a few things. They asked me what we needed, and the main thing I said was my Wallys because that's really important to me. I just hope nothing happens to the house and Sunday night we can bring a brand new trophy home."
SATURDAY, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE, SECOND SESSION
As expected, nothing changed in the fourth and final qualifying session with Matt Smith maintaining the top spot on the ladder and Eddie Krawiec right behind him in second. As they have in every session, Smith and Krawiec set the pace in the final session with Smith running a session-best 6.997 and Krawiec clocking a 7.003 that tied Angelle Sampey for the second-best time of the session. The two enter race day 20 points, or exactly one round apart, setting up the possibility of a second straight winner-take-all showdown for the crown should they both get that far.
Chris Rivas made a second straight run right down the quarter-mile, putting a 7.115 on the boards. He is qualified ninth.
"It's all falling into our hands; we've got 'em just where want 'em," Rivas joked after his run. "We've obviously been trying too hard, I think, for this weekend, and we tricked ourselves into not qualifying as well as we had hoped. But it will all play out the way it's going to play out. In the meantime, I'm having fun because I got to ride the bike on Q4."
Smith faces Mike Berry in round one, Krawiec is paired with Peggy Llewellyn, and Rivas will race Junior Pippin. If Smith and Rivas win in the opening stanza, they will meet in round two in a must-win situation for Rivas.
Provisional points totals after qualifying
Krawiec: 2,411 (-20)
Rivas: 2,386 (-45)
SATURDAY, FUNNY CAR, FIRST SESSION
After a pretty dismal outing yesterday, most of the championship contenders fared better today with three of the five making it down the track and points leader Cruz Pedregon and fifth-place Jack Beckman each moving from not qualified into the 16-car provisional field. Beckman and Tim Wilkerson ran side by side in the session and put up the best numbers of the five contenders with both running 4.15s. Wilkerson moved up to ninth with a 4.151, and Beckman secured the 10th spot with his 4.156.
"I tell you what, a side-by-side run with Beckman there is what it's all about," said Wilkerson. "The fans come to see some match ups, and we're going to show them a good time this weekend. I just hope we can take home the trophy, but whatever happens, it's been a terrific year for me and my team."
Cruz Pedregon will likely sleep a little easier tonight than he did last night after powering to a 4.167 that put him in the 13th spot and relatively secure into field heading into the later session today, which will be even hotter.
"Hey, what a team," said Pedregon. "Rahn Tobler, our crew chief, came up to me and said, 'I know what we need to do to get our old car back,' and he made us all feel like we're good to go and made my nerves better. We're still on edge, but hey, we're in the show. It doesn't matter where we end up.
Robert Hight and Tony Pedregon both continued to struggle with neither one of them making it down the track under power. Pedregon, who was in the first pair of cars, smoked the tires at about the 330-foot mark and slowed to a 5.01. He holds onto the sixth spot thanks to his 4.122 from Thursday. Hight had a similar outing, hazing the hides of his Mustang at about 200 feet. He, too, ran a 4.122 on Thursday and sits seventh behind Pedregon due to a slower speed.
"The Auto Club team is not stressed out, I can tell you that," said Hight. "Right now, we're just working on the tune-up. It would have been nice to go down the track here, but at least we know what not to do tomorrow. That's definitely not what we're going to do tomorrow."
Provisional points totals after three sessions
C. Pedregon: 2,480
Wilkerson: 2,469 (-11)
Hight: 2,443 (-37)
T. Pedregon: 2,421 (-59)
Beckman: 2,417 (-63)
SATURDAY, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE, FIRST SESSION
The championship picture just got a little more interesting after Matt Smith moved around Eddie Krawiec for No. 1 on the ladder. Smith ran a 6.962 to take the provisional pole heading into the afternoon session, which is expected to be hotter and likely will not allow much, if any, improvement. Krawiec also bettered his previous time with a 6.987 clocking, which put him No. 2. With the position swap, Smith added another point to his lead, putting his advantage at 20 points and creating a potential tie situation. If Krawiec goes just one more round than Smith in eliminations, including beating Smith in the final round, the pair would finish tied in points. The first tiebreaker is round-wins in the five-race Countdown to 1 playoffs, and Krawiec has the advantage, entering the event 11 to 8 up on the reigning POWERade world champ.
"The Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines team keeps plugging away," said Krawiec. "The main thing, I think, is it doesn't matter as long as we stay 1 and 2, even if we get into a tie situation. So he can be 1, and I'll be 2. I can be happy with that."
The other contender in the championship hunt, Chris Rivas, also improved in today's first session, jumping from outside the field up to the ninth spot with a 7.094.
Provisional points totals after three sessions
Krawiec: 2,411 (-20)
Rivas: 2,386 (-45)
FRIDAY, FUNNY CAR
The second day of qualifying wasn't kind to the five drivers still in the hunt for the 2008 POWERade Drag Racing Series world championship with none of them making a full pass in today's lone session. Points leader Cruz Pedregon struck the tires early and coasted to a 6.98. Second-place Tim Wilkerson suffered the same fate on his run and ran a slightly better 6.95.
"We had new tires on the thing, and that really wasn't what we would do in today's conditions, but we have to get to Sunday with some used tires, so we had to skid some in," said Wilkerson. "On top of that, I thought I had backed it up enough to go, but I just had it tuned up too much. It had too much wheel sped when it left, and it kind of washed out at about 60 or 70 feet, and when it was dragging back, it smoked the tires. So it was my fault. I just had it too tuned up. I was trying to a run a .09 or something like that."
Robert Hight and Tony Pedregon did not get times after Pedregon crossed the centerline and hit the 1,000-foot cones after pushing a head gasket out midway through the run. It wouldn't have really mattered for Hight, however, because he banged the blower early in the run and coasted across the finish line.
"If we would have been ahead of Tony, it wouldn't have mattered that he crossed the centerline," said Hight. "He red-lighted, and that screwed me up a little. He left early, and I hit the gas. It just wasn't a good run. It would have been nice to run one of those 4.10s and be up near the top. I don't like being down near the bottom or middle of the pack. If we would have run a .10, that would have really forced those other guys to push a little bit. They are in trouble anyway. Cruz isn't even in, and Wilkerson's .16 I don't think is safe. They both have to step up. We do, too. I wanted to do better."
Beckman had the best run of the contenders, but that will likely be little consolation to him because he stopped the clocks with just a 6.09 after dropping a cylinder early.
Based on their Thursday runs, Wilkerson, Hight, and Tony Pedregon are in the field, holding the 10th, seventh, and sixth, respectively. Beckman and Cruz Pedregon enter Saturday outside the provisional field. If Pedregon fails to qualify and Wilkerson stays in the field, that would move Wilkerson into the lead and eliminate Pedregon from championship contention.
Provisional points totals after two sessions
C. Pedregon: 2,459 (-10)
Hight: 2,443 (-26)
T. Pedregon: 2,421 (-48)
Beckman: 2,395 (-74)
Friday Funny Car polesitter Melanie Troxel left no doubt about who she's pulling for in the Funny Car points battle.
"Short of us winning the race, the next thing I would like to do is be able to come against Cruz [Pedregon] and take him out and help Tim [Wilkerson] win the championship," she said. "Timmy's such a great guy, and everyone in the pits likes him. I think everyone was happy to see him doing so well this year, and to see it come down to the last race and there's a chance he won't win the championship is heartbreaking.
"Tim's had the consistency to win the championship throughout the year, but Cruz is on a hot streak right now."
FRIDAY, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
Little changed in the Pro Stock Motorcycle ranks, particularly with the three racers in the tight battle for the championship. Eddie Krawiec held on to the top spot on the ladder with points leader Matt Smith just behind him on the sheets, keeping the 18-point gap intact between the two. Though he had a better day than Thursday, the end result was still the same for Chris Rivas, who enters Saturday outside the 12-bike provisional field. Rivas, who didn't make it down the track under power on Thursday, made a full pull today with a 7.13 clocking. The run put him briefly in the field, but he was later bumped out when Junior Pippin improved.
"We haven't performed at all," said Rivas. "On our last pass, we had a piece of the motor lock up just before the finish line. As I was trying to decelerate and stop the bike, the rear wheel locked up on me and started sliding around at 183 miles an hour.
"It was interesting. Thank God I have enough laps on it and I was able to get on it right away and didn't let it get out of control." As it was, that run was his quickest, 7.136 seconds, and put him 13th overall.
Provisional points totals after two sessions
Krawiec: 2,412 (-18)
Rivas: 2,385 (-45)
THURSDAY, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE