How the Auto Club NHRA Finals Played Out

There were five winners during the 2021 NHRA Auto Club Finals on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona drag strip. Three of them earned Camping World Drag Racing Series world championships and Wally winner’s trophies, while one took the title in Funny Car while another earned the national event win.

It was an exciting, tension-filled weekend for that won and lost, and those that came simply to compete for the opportunity to race. NHRA crowned two five-time champions, one four-in-a-row champion and one twice-earned titleholder. How they got to their championships and how they earned them was the icing on this racing cake. Not only were the temperatures hot, but the action on the track was as well.

Qualifying honors went to Mike Salinas in Top Fuel after his quick run on Friday night, but the central California racer would be out in the second round after a bucking bronco ride just beyond the Christmas tree that saw him attempting to control the car, not go over the centerline and keep his machine on the ground. At one point he was on a single wheel/tire combination, but Salinas was able to bring it all back together. Salinas had been to the final round in three of the previous four races; that streak ended at Pomona.

For Torrence it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but once he won against Brandon Welch in the first round, and Brittany Force’s John Force Racing dragster was defeated by Steve’s father Billy, that fourth championship was in the bag for the Texan. From there he disposed of last year’s runner-up, Doug Kalitta (Kalitta Motorsports) in a traction less run for both drivers, took on and defeated Cameron Ferre in the semifinals and met good friend and last year’s Finals winner Antron Brown, whom he defeated in a chase to the lights.

“Over the last four years,” Torrence said, “I’ve been able to be in a lot of high-pressure situations and it prepares you (like the one he faced against Ferre when he won his first, 2018 title). It trains you and conditions you to be a machine in these situations. In the finals, I went up and did my job and the outcome fell our way. We’ve got a target on our back and each year it gets bigger, so we’ve got to continue to up our game.” Torrence has also matured since his first championship, perhaps the effect of now being a husband and father?

Robert Hight’s John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS earned the top spot in Funny Car with three good passes in time trials. He earned his 71st No. 1 but it would all go south for him in the first round against Jim Dunn’s Dodge Charger, driven by Jim Campbell when Jimmy Prock’s tune-up had him smoking the Goodyear tires at the hit.

Championship combatants and (soon-to-be-former) Don Schumacher Racing teammates Ron Capps and reigning, three-time titleholder Matt Hagan met in the second round after Cruz Pedregon failed to complete round 1, all driving Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat floppers. Hagan got the Round 2 win light, leaving Capps to hope Alexis DeJoria would take the victory in the semifinals. That she did, giving Capps his second championship five years after his first. It was the first title for crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli in that role and the second for co-crew chief John Medlen (he tuned Tony Pedregon to his first championship).

“What a crazy day and crazy season,” Capps said. “The fact that the Countdown came down to the Pomona Finals and was a real fight between the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcats of Cruz Pedregon, Matt Hagan and I was really neat. We came out with a new chassis and new body, and this year this body has made me a whole new driver,” he admitted. “It’s ben fun to have more vision and to be able to see better – and when you’re going 330mph, that’s what you need!”

Greg Anderson appeared to be primed for his fifth Pro Stock championship when NHRA visited The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks before the Auto Club Finals, but Elite Motorsports had a payback in mind for the four-time champ. In 2019, Anderson’s then-teammate Jason Line had a poor Pomona qualifying and met up with Anderson’s title foe Erica Enders in the first round, hoping to stop her from taking the championship and, thereby, help Anderson. Enders won by a whisker and then went on to take her third championship in the Pro Stock class. This year, it was Troy Coughlin Jr. who turned the tables on Anderson by mimicking the 2019 battle; he put Anderson’s KB Racing Camaro on the trailer in round 1 after taking the final qualifying slot.

That chess match took the title fight to Pomona. And the battle was on again for Anderson and Enders as they marched through the ladder’s first two challenges. The championship combatants would meet in the semifinals and it would be Anderson’s with championship after winning on a superlative 60-foot time, as Enders drove through tire shake. And he followed up by earning both the title and race win, something three of four 2021 champions achieved in the last race of the year.

With his victory, Anderson provided icing on Chevrolet’s cake, as it took the NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series Manufacturers Cup for the fifth consecutive year and seventh time in the last decade. Chevrolet has earned this Cup for a 26th time, a record in the straight-line sport. Anderson, now the most successful Pro Stock racer of all time (in NHRA’s 70th anniversary season), has accumulated 99 victories since his first, claimed in April 2001 at Bristol. At that time, “I was just thankful to be won the racetrack and have the chance to drive a Pro Stock car. I never even realized I could win an event. It was the beginning of a lot of great days to come,” he said. Only Anderson, Jeg Coughlin Jr. (5), Warren Johnson (6 titles) and the dominant Bob Glidden, who won 10 Pro Stock championships, have more than four titles to their names.

Finally, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s battle between four-time, reigning champ Matt Smith on his Buell, three-time champ Angelle Sampey, riding Vance & Hines’ new Suzuki challenger and Steve Johnson, who had never won an NHRA national title in his long career. Johnson was the outlier in this trio, a guy who has always gone his own way and whose career has had more peaks and valleys than a New England landscape. But it wasn’t his weekend, as the Southern California-born, Alabama-dwelling Suzuki four-valve rider qualified fourth in a dismal 12-bike field.

All it took was two rounds of play for Smith to become a five-time champion as he prevailed in a tight race against Sampey in the quarterfinals, while Johnson was beaten by Eddie Krawiec’s V&H Buell in that same, second round. Smith would go on to take Krawiec and, finally, Karen Stoffer’s Suzuki in the final round, becoming one of three champions to be on both the race- and championship-winning podiums in Pomona.

The all-time leader in 200mph quarter-mile motorcycle runs, Smith’s goal on Sunday was “to at least get three round wins today. When we beat Angelle and See lost right in front of us, I knew we were champs. Everything worked out for the best. I knew we were going to have a tough (final round) race with Karen, but I hit the Tree as hard as I could (.011 to Stoffer’s .101) and had the best light of the weekend for me. We just ate it work and performed well on the starting line.”

After celebrating into the night – and into the week – these four champions have a bit of time to recuperate, plan for the 2022 season and enjoy their holidays. For those left behind the battle to beat the best begins now.

About Anne Proffit 1264 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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