Championship Drag Racing

CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals
Pomona, Calif.
(February 7-10)

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CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals
Brown and Anderson maintain leads; Wilkerson leaps to No. 1 in Funny Car

By Rob Geiger,

It only took four competitive passes in a Top Fuel car for Antron Brown to reach the head of the class as the rookie dragster driver earned low qualifier honors at the season-opening CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals. Brown, a 10-year veteran in Pro Stock Motorcycle, has adapted well after his rare move from two wheels to the fastest accelerating machine known to man, as evidenced by his 4.49-second quarter-mile clocking at 330 mph.

Standalone Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson surprised all the big-buck mega-teams by joining Brown on Auto Club Raceway's low qualifier's podium. Wilkerson used the final qualifying session to post his 4.79 at 325 mph. Greg Anderson maintained control of Pro Stock but he had to reset both ends of the track record to do so, running a 6.62 at 209 to earn favored status heading into race day.

Antron Brown

This marks the 12th time Brown will lead his class into Sunday's eliminations. His other 11 low qualifiers happened aboard a Suzuki. Now the Matco Tools pro will try to become the third driver in the last 11 years to win his first Top Fuel race in his inaugural event in the class, joining Darrell Russell (2001) and Gary Scelzi (1997).

"I saw [Larry] Dixon run a 4.49 in front of us and Lee [Beard, crew chief] came back over and jumped in the [timing] box and I saw Alan Johnson [Army crew chief] do the same thing and I said, 'Oh man, it's good out there, they're putting the screws to me,' " Brown said. "But I was already happy because by then I knew we had qualified and I'd be racing Sunday so the rest was a bonus.

"The whole weekend is crazy and it's getting more and more insane. We got back to the pits and this big crowd was there chanting my name. I was like, check this out, we got our own cheering section. It's just such a wild deal and to be No. 1 is just an awesome deal for the entire Matco team."

Larry Dixon made the most concerted run at Brown on Saturday, driving Don "the Snake" Prudhomme's U.S. Smokeless Tobacco dragster to the second spot with a run of 4.497 at 325.14 mph.

Class dominator Tony Schumacher was relegated to third place when he failed to improve on his previously posted 4.513 at 331.53 mph. Fifth-place qualifier Hillary Will impressed with her top speed of 334.65 mph. The number matched the track record held by Schumacher and ties her for fifth on the all-time list.

FIA European champion Urs Erbacher drove his dragster to the 16th position with a laboring 4.859 at 296.11 mph and will face Brown in Round 1.

Tim Wilkerson

He's one of the last independent racers in the Funny Car class, but years of experience tuning his own hot rods and a new alliance with Don Prudhomme paid off for Wilkerson, as the driver of the for Levi, Ray, and Shoup Chevrolet Impala SS notched his 11th low qualifier award Saturday. Wilkerson waited until the final session to run a 4.790 at 325.22 mph and clinch top honors.

"We're obviously pretty happy with that run," said Wilkerson. "We left some on the table this morning and we knew we had some room to improve this afternoon, so we were ready with three tuning scenarios depending on whether we were in the show or not when we ran. When we knew we couldn’t get bumped out we went for the throat and it worked.

"This is partly the result of our new alliance with Prudhomme. I've been over to his shop numerous times working on their blower and clutch dynos and learned a lot. I've had a good relationship with [Prudhomme crew chief] Donnie Bender for a long time, so it's a good fit. Working with them increases my chances of running better everywhere we go instead of just sporadically. That and Dick Levi's support will take us a long way this year."

Jerry Toliver matched Wilkerson's E.T. but wound up second due to his slightly slower top speed of 320.51 mph in his Rockstar Energy Drink Dodge Charger R/T. Melanie Troxel, a rookie in the category after racing Top Fuel dragsters for six seasons, ended up third with a 4.810 at 327.90 mph in her ProCare RX Dodge.

The largest applause of the day was reserved for returning 14-time champion John Force of nearby Yorba Linda. The sport's most prolific drag racer was outside the field entering Round 4 but managed to post a 4.823 at 321.58 mph in his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, which eventually placed him fifth overall. His daughter Ashley was next with a 4.828.

Racebricks pro Gary Densham set a quick bump of 4.866 at 315.93 mph despite an earlier trip to the top-end sand trap. 

Greg Anderson

set a double track record in Saturday's first session, claiming the first low qualifier award of the season with his 6.629 at 209.39 mph in his Summit Racing Pontiac GXP. Anderson won this event in 2007.

"We thought that as the weekend went along and the track got better that we'd be able to improve and we did," Anderson said. "You always want it to go that way but we all know that anything can happen. This time we did our job, although I'm still trying to figure out the right-hand lane because we can't do anything over there.

"Still, there're more positives than negatives. We're at Pomona and we're the No. 1 qualifier so that's a pretty doggone good way to start the year. I can see already that it's going to take an exceptional effort to earn that championship trophy back because there are so many great cars in this class once again."

Defending series champion Jeg Coughlin, who won the last race held here in November, jumped up to second with a 6.644 at 208.23 mph in his Chevrolet Cobalt. The man he bumped down a spot, ACDelco's Kurt Johnson, posted the exact same time and speed as Coughlin but since Coughlin did it first, he got the higher ranking.

Rookie Matt Hartford successfully qualified for his first professional race in his fourth attempt, taking David Nickens' Dodge Stratus to the No. 12 spot.

Former Funny Car driver Johnny Gray earned the final spot in the field with a 6.718, becoming the first driver ever to have qualified for this event in a Funny Car and a Pro Stock car. His reward is a first-round date with three-time champion Anderson.

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