Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals
by Phil Burgess, NHRA.com
A dramatic final day of qualifying at the 44th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals set not only the final raceday fields of the 2008 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series season but also the stage for shootouts for the Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle championship battles. Points leader Matt Smith squeezed past second-place Eddie Krawiec to the top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field and will duel with Krawiec for the title Sunday. Tony Schumacher continued his four-year domination of this event by again grabbing the top spot in Top Fuel while Mike Neff was No. 1 in Funny Car and Greg Anderson was at the front of the pack in Pro Stock.
A dramatic final day of qualifying at the 44th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals set not only the final raceday fields of the 2008 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series season but also the stage for shootouts for the Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle championship battles.
Points leader Matt Smith squeezed past second-place Eddie Krawiec to the top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field and will duel with Krawiec for the title Sunday. Tony Schumacher continued his four-year domination of this event by again grabbing the top spot in Top Fuel while Mike Neff was No. 1 in Funny Car and Greg Anderson was at the front of the pack in Pro Stock.
"We were trying to get all four cars to the top and hope to be able to match some of our cars against the guys fighting Robert, and we were able to do some of that," said Neff, who snagged his second low qualifying spot of the season. "The bottom line is that Robert and [crew chief] Jimmy [Prock] are going to have to be on their game tomorrow and put down four good runs to win the championship. It's all up to them at this point. We just want to beat everyone else we can to help him. [If we race Hight], it's going to be 'may the best man win'; we've got our own agenda here; we need to win a race."
While Neff faces a potential second-round race with Hight, their boss, John Force, qualified No. 4 and can help out his hired gun's title aspirations as he will take on second-place Tim Wilkerson. Points leader Cruz Pedregon, who entered the day not among the quick 12, made passes of 4.167 and 4.150 to take care of that business but will surrender lane choice to No. 5 qualifier Jerry Toliver in the first round. If both Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon should win in round one, they will face one another in round two. In the opening round's marquee matchup, third-place Robert Hight will take on the reigning champ, Tony Pedregon, who is fourth in points. Pedregon, who qualified No. 8 will have lane choice, but Hight accomplished his main qualifying goal by keeping his deficit to Cruz Pedregon below 40 points.
All three of those pairings are on one side of the ladder and fifth-place Jack Beckman is on the opposite side of the ladder and will face Gary Scelzi in round one.
Despite all of those matchups, the math for Cruz Pedregon, Wilkerson, and Hight is quite simple; each controls his own destiny in that if they win the race they win the championship, regardless of what their opponents do.
Local hero Jeff Arend, from nearby San Dimas, pushed the DHL Solara into the field on the bump spot on his final pass with a 4.200 and will race Neff in the initial stanza Sunday.
"It didn’t matter who qualified No. 1 or No. 2 the way the tiebreaker works," said Smith, who won last year's championship in winner-take-all fashion against Chip Ellis. "We'll just go out here and win the race like we did last year and none of it will matter. I'm up for the task; we have a fast bike and I'm right where I want to be on the lights – I'm .02 and .04 every pass; those guys who are going double-oh, it's going to bite them – and I'm just not going to give it away on a red-light. If I'm .043 or .03 on the bike that should be enough to win the race; if it isn’t, it wasn't meant to be.
"We're just going to run our own race and not worry about who's in the other lane or what Eddie is doing or what anyone else does. If we can win all four rounds, there's no way we can lose this championship."
Smith will open against No. 16 qualifier (7.148) Mike Berry while Krawiec will take on the 15th rider (7.146), Peggy Llewellyn.
Chris Rivas, the only other driver with a chance to win the championship, struggled throughout qualifying with the Drag Specialties Buell and wound up No. 9, meaning that Rivas' first hurdle will be rookie of the year hopeful Junior Pippin, the No. 8 qualifier. He's 45 points behind Smith and 25 behind Krawiec, meaning he'd need to go three and two rounds, respectively, further than Smith and Krawiec to pass them.
Hector Arana also looked especially strong aboard the Lucas Oil Buell with back to back runs of 6.99 and 7.00 Saturday to qualify No. 3. He'll face Michael Phillips in the opening round.
Gatornationals champ Matt Guidera is the biggest surprise on the non-qualifier list.
"The last thing we wanted to do in our last race as a team was to not qualify," said Schumacher, who will lose longtime tuner Alan Johnson next season. "I was nervous this morning, but I also knew we'd get in. We go out and try to go fast; we race the track, but we try to go as fast as the track will let us. We're very much not the kind of team who says, 'Let's just get it down there.' Alan doesn’t know how to do that. Alan's been much better this year – it used to be 'Low e.t. or no e.t.' – but he's been pleased to get qualified and then go for No. 1, like we did here."
It's a fitting place for Schumacher, who locked up his fifth straight and sixth overall championship two weeks ago and should he win the second round, the team will break Greg Anderson's record of 76 round wins in a season and if they win the entire event they will set a new record for most wins in a season at 16; Schumacher and Anderson currently share that mark at 15 wins.
"With the records that we set this year, we've only got one shot to do this; when's the next time someone's going to win 15 races in a season," said Schumacher. "One thing's for certain, we're not going to leave anything on the table. Tomorrow we'll just go out and do what we know how to do."
Brandon Bernstein's 3.849 also had moved around Todd early in the session, but Todd grabbed back the fourth spot with a fireballing 3.848 to end a dramatic day of final qualifying. Bernstein finished fifth.
Tim Boychuk grabbed the 16th and final spot in the field with a 3.925 bump that was too steep for class rookie Antron Brown, who suffered his first DNQ of the year, and defending event runner-up Bob Vandergriff Jr.
"I broke something on the engine in my car – we're not sure what yet," said Anderson, who nabbed his seventh No. 1 spot of the season. "We changed everything but the engine and the gas cap on the car last night and it snapped right around and I think we would have been even quicker. The right lane certainly is a little different for us than the left – it has to do with the taper of the starting line and you lose the wheelie bar a little –but a lot of people can get down there; if you find the right combination you can run just as fast over there, like Jason did last night. Anyway, it's better that it happened there instead of tomorrow because it can teach us what we can’t do.
"We don't deserve to be the champion this year; Jeg [Coughlin] does, he did a better job throughout the Countdown. I'm not going to lie or make any excuses, but we are a better team than we've showed lately, or even on that last run. We've started to make some better runs and are putting the round pegs in the round holes and we need to find a way to put both of the Summit Pontiacs in the final round and finish the year with a win that will give us all of the confidence in the world and allow us to keep our chins up over the winter."
Kurt Johnson locked up the third spot with a 6.643 at 207.91 to earn his ACDelco Cobalt the position on speed from Allen Johnson, who ran the same e.t. but a bit slower, 207.69, in his Mopar Stratus. Mike Edwards held onto the fifth spot with a 6.649.
By qualifying for the field, albeit in just the 13th spot with a 6.678 best, Jeg Coughlin locked up his second straight and fourth overall. Coughlin will face Allen Johnson in round one.
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