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Photos: Courtesy of the NHRA

The end of the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Season at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona brought with it two new champions, the retirement of others, and the crowning of the four drag racing champions at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.

TOP FUEL

Top Fuel local favorite Shawn Langdon put the exclamation point on his season by claiming his first championship and then winning the dragster race against Doug Kalitta in the finals.

“This is the top of the cake this weekend,” said Langdon, who secured his first Top Fuel crown following Saturday’s qualifying. “It’s an absolutely special weekend for everybody involved with Al-Anabi Racing. This is what I envisioned as a kid wanting to be a professional drag racer. When you’re living a dream and being part of something special, it almost puts you at a loss for words. I’m very fortunate to be a part of a great team. I still have to keep pinching myself.”

Langdon’s breakout season consisted of seven wins, seven No.1 qualifiers, and a 54-17 win/loss record in 2013.  Al-Anabi Team Manager, Alan Johnson, clinched his 11th Mello Yello Top Fuel championship and 15th overall in the sport.

“It is amazing to watch the Al-Anabi team work under pressure,” said Langdon. “There are certain races you go to, and when you walk in, you just know we need to win this weekend.  We definitely have that feeling every time we walk into Pomona.  Alan’s track record here shows that this is one of the places where he works his magic.

“The crew is absolutely perfect; my crew chief Brian Husen did a great job, and really gave me a phenomenal race car all weekend.  Obviously it was a big weekend for our team winning the Mello Yello championship and then coming back today to win the race.  The team has been in this position before, but this is all new to me.  I was a nervous wreck coming into this weekend, but as the weekend went on, my confidence built up inside of me.  My lights started getting better and better, and my car was getting better and better as well.

PRO STOCK

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Jeg Coughlin won his fifth Pro Stock Championship driving his patented yellow and black Dodge Avenger when fellow competitors Jason Line and Mike Edwards were eliminated.

Coughlin became the eighth driver in NHRA history to win a fifth professional championship, with previous Pro Stock titles in 2000, 2002, 2007 and 2008.  As a sportsman driver, Coughlin also won the NHRA Super Gas championship in 1992.

“This championship is extremely special to us, without question,” Coughlin said. “When I stepped away from professional racing at the end of 2010, I honestly wasn’t real sure how quickly I’d get back in the seat. But shortly thereafter, we put a great program together with our friends at Mopar to run a Dodge Avenger for the ’12, ’13 and ’14 seasons.

“We didn’t rest too long. We transitioned to racing with Allen and Roy Johnson and the J&J horsepower they make and it’s been a great relationship.”

Coughlin sat out the 2011 season, but returned with a vengeance in 2012.  For this season, he joined Allen Johnson as a teammate at J&J Racing, and Roy Johnson’s handmade horsepower put Coughlin over the top.  He won four races in eight final-rounds this year, taking over the points lead after a victory at Reading, Pa., in the fourth of six Countdown to the Championship races.

He never looked back and officially clinched the title when Jason Line lost in Sunday’s second round.

“To bring a second straight championship back to Auburn Hills for our friends at Mopar and another one to Greeneville, Tenn., for the J&J Racing crew, and now a seventh overall world championship to Delaware, Ohio, for everyone at JEGS, it feels fantastic,” Coughlin said. “It ranks right up there at the top.”

The championship was the fourth this year for the Coughlin family. T.J. Coughlin, Jeg’s nephew, won the Division 3 title in Super Gas; Cody Coughlin, another nephew, won the JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour late model championship; and Jeg Coughlin III won the Ohio state high school golf championship. The family also scored its 100th career national-event victory in NHRA when Troy Coughlin won Pro Mod in Las Vegas.

“In this day and age, it is so tough to win out here,” Coughlin Jr. said. “We’ve seen a lot of races won and lost by just a few thousandths of a second. I think this is one of the tightest, and one of the most intense championships I’ve ever won. This ranks right up there with 2007 when we had the two cuts to the Countdown to One in the first year of our playoffs.”

Coughlin qualified No. 4 at this race and had to take on teammate Vincent Nobile in the first round.  Nobile had beaten Coughlin in three final rounds this season, including the season-opener here in February.

Coughlin won his opening bid and was the next pair behind Line in the second round, so he knew he had clinched the title before he raced Johnson.  Maybe because of that thrill, Coughlin tripped the starting beam -.001 seconds too soon, giving Johnson the round win.

“We obviously wanted to win that round,” Coughlin said. “I really felt like we could be somewhere between .010 and .014 on the Tree. I saw where Jason got beat – most of us were shocked at that outcome – and I think I was just ice-cold and relaxed and turned the red light on by one-thousandth.”

But the championship was already his, and now all that was left to do was celebrate.

“It’s been a long road this year,” Coughlin said. “Very tense, very stressful, but that’s what we love about it, right?”

FUNNY CAR

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What do you get your crew chief when he unexpectedly has to go the hospital for surgery?

In Matt Hagan’s case it’s an NHRA Wally.

Their friend and crew chief, Dickie Venables, had to stay back in Indianapolis after having successful intestinal surgery on Wednesday. He was released from the hospital on Sunday.

Taking over to lead Hagan’s team was first-year assistant crew chief, Michael Knudsen and he and the Mopar/Rocky Boots team delivered an unbelievable weekend to the recuperating Venables that ended on a good note winning the race and in the process denying 2013 and 16-time Funny Car champion, John Force from the win in the championship round.

Although Hagan finished second in the Funny Car standings, it was a major turnaround season under Venables’ guidance with assistance from Knudsen.  In 2012, the year after Hagan won the NHRA world championship, he didn’t win an event title, a No. 1 qualifying position and didn’t qualify for the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoff.

This season ends with Hagan and his team winning a series-best five titles in nine championship rounds with five No. 1 qualifying performances.

“We wanted to finish strong for our guys,” said Hagan, who claimed his 10th career win. “If we couldn’t pull down that No. 1 spot (in the championship race), we wanted to pull down No. 2.  I’m on cloud nine that our assistant crew chief stepped up and was able to fill some big shoes.

“Dickie has done such a good job training these boys. He’s a good leader. Dickie’s probably at home wishing he could be here, but he can put a feather in his cap knowing he trained these boys to do what they did today.  My guys have worked so hard and I’m so proud of them.  My season this year has been phenomenal.  How can you be upset about five race wins?”

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE

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Under the watchful eye of Willie G. Davidson, Eddie Kraweic brought home the NHRA Wally trophy at the Auto Club NHRA Finals for the Harley-Davidson faithful defeating Scotty Pallacheck in the money round of eliminations.

He rode his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson to a performance of 6.918 at 192.41 to deny Scotty Pollacheck his first win.  Pollacheck trailed with a 6.963 at 193.57 on his Quality Tire Buell.

“It was an awesome day,” Krawiec said. “I’m fortunate that this race track has been my house. That’s the way I look at it.  I do the best I can to not let anyone else win here. The odd stat is that I’ve won here every year that I’ve lost the championship, and won this race in years when I’ve lost the championship.  I guess that it’s a good way to cap the season either way.”

Matt Smith won the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in Las Vegas and switched bikes with Viper Racing teammate, Scotty Pollacheck for Pomona.  Smith won his first round only to be found five pounds light at the NHRA official scales giving the round win to his other teammate, John Hall.

GRAY GONE

Johnny Gray is hanging up his drag racing helmet stepping out of the cockpit.

His Pitch Energy team won four times in 2013: first in Gainesville, then back-to-back in Atlanta and Topeka, and finally in Norwalk. Gray was the No. 2 qualifier at the event in Phoenix, and he qualified in the top half of the field 13 times. The Pitch Energy Dodge was the hottest car on the property at many points throughout the early part of the year, and Gray held the points lead twice.

When the Countdown to the Championship began, the 60-year-old driver from Artesia, N.M., found himself in a precarious position, however.  He entered the Countdown as the No. 3 seed but soon fell into a pattern of first-round losses that dashed all hope of ending his career with a championship.

“To sum up my feelings about quitting this deal – if I was going to miss anything about it, it would be the adrenaline rush, the team that works so hard, and the guys who provide me with a car.  But really, you know you’re going to miss the people and the race fans, especially the kids.  I have a special place in my heart for those kids who come out here with their eyes so big and they’re just so excited.  They don’t have a clue what’s going on, and they just want to absorb it all and look at everything. It’s like Christmas to them, you know?  I’ll miss visiting with the little kids, signing autographs for them, having them help me pack the parachutes, and getting those hugs.  That’s what I’ll miss.”

Gray plans to leave the Southern California venue in favor of Florida, and he fully intends to get on his boat and get right to fishing, just as he has said all season long.

“I’m ready,” said Gray. “I’ve come to terms with it, and I’m excited because I have some great things going, including a few things I’m doing with a road race car. I’m not going to disappear, but I’m sure ready for what’s next.”

LUCAS LEAVING DRAG RACING?

Like Gray, Morgan Lucas is walking away from the driver’s seat and allowing newcomer, Richie Crampton the opportunity of a lifetime in his family owned GEICO/Lucas Oil Top Fueler.

Lucas ends the season with a career-best fourth-place finish in the Top Fuel standings. He and Spencer Massey both ended the season with 2,422 points, but Lucas held a 1-0 advantage over Massey head-to-head in the Countdown (the finals in Charlotte), which was the tie-breaker.

“I love this sport, I’m just going to be taking a different angle on it in the future,” Lucas said. “I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my life and career.”

Lucas ends the season with a career-best fourth-place finish in the Top Fuel standings. He and Spencer Massey both ended the season with 2,422 points, but Lucas held a 1-0 advantage over Massey head-to-head in the Countdown (the finals in Charlotte), which was the tie-breaker.

Lucas collected wins at Seattle and Charlotte, made the finals in Sonoma and qualified No. 1 three times on the year (Chicago, Charlotte 2 and Reading).

Despite yielding the driver’s seat to crew member Richie Crampton next season, Lucas said he’s already getting excited for what’s in store for the 2014 season.

“The GEICO team is going along pretty well,” Lucas said. “Our crew chief Aaron Brooks is doing a good job of leading this group. I hope these guys will be able to deal with me because I’m going to have a lot of energy and it’s probably going to be a pain in their (neck).

“I’m a little somber at the moment, too. But the future of this team is so bright; it’s so exciting. One door is closing but another is opening and the possibilities are endless.”