The 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series is down to its final destination: the NHRA Auto Club World Finals on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona drag strip, taking place this weekend, November 11-14. There will be three opportunities for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle combatants to qualify (one on Friday, two for Saturday) and eliminations will start at 10AM PT on Sunday. Points-and-a-half are on order, making it unlikely a new champion will be crowned until Sunday’s activities.
Before the season began in March at Gainesville, there was little reason to doubt that three-time, reigning Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence and “them CAPCO boys” would be in the thick of the action. After all, the 2020 season replicated the two before it and found the Texan standing tall next to his third championship Wally trophy. Of course, in 2020 he didn’t have Brittany Force nipping at his heels as he has this year; rather, it was Doug Kalitta attempting to steal Torrence’s title.
This year has a look similar to 2017, where Torrence and Force battled fiercely for the title, which she won by earning the race win, while Torrence was out after the quarterfinals. Force has been picking up most of the “little” points for qualifying this season with 12 No. 1 qualifiers, and has a single victory to Torrence’s 10 Wally trophies; at Las Vegas he earned his 50th NHRA Top Fuel national event win. But she’s still in the hunt for another title, albeit 105 points behind Torrence. “We still have a shot at getting to the top, but that team needs to be defeated in the first round and we need to win the event. One race, one weekend and we’re giving it everything we’ve got,” she said.
There are 17 Top Fuel cars in the pits this weekend, so one of them will go home. Those in the top 10 and the Countdown to the Championship include Mike Salinas (172), sophomore Justin Ashley (-188), Billy Torrence (-283), Leah Pruett (-351), Clay Millican (-392), Antron Brown (-409), Shawn Langdon (-434) and Kalitta, who is 483 points behind Torrence as the weekend gets underway. Challengers include Rookie of the Year candidate Josh Hart, who has won two races this year, former Pro Stock racer Alex Laughlin, Tripp Tatum III, Buddy Hull, Steven Chrisman, Brandon Welch and Cameron Ferre.
This race marks the final one for both Antron Brown and Leah Pruett under the Don Schumacher Racing tents, as Brown will compete with his own team in 2022 and Pruett joins Tony Stewart Racing as that team’s Top Fuel entry; TSR fields Matt Hagan in a Funny Car in 2022.
The action in the Funny Car pits will be even more tense, with 20 cars on-hand to qualify and a championship hunt that is definitely tighter. Reigning titleholder Matt Hagan will have to get past his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Ron Capps, the 2016 champion, with both drivers steering Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat entries. There’s a third Charger SRT Hellcat in this mix, belonging to two-time titleholder Cruz Pedregon, who won two weeks ago at Las Vegas. It’s pretty safe to say everyone else is out of the mix for the Flopper championship, as Hagan lags Capps by 58 points and Pedregon is 83 points behind. J.R. Todd, in fourth place driving Kalitta Motorsports’ Toyota Camry, has a 138-point deficit and is pretty much out of this title fight.
Both Todd and 16-time champion John Force (Chevrolet Camaro SS), the latter now lagging Capps by 155 points, were in the championship chase until the Las Vegas race, when both were eliminated in the first round, putting them out of contention this year. Capps’ consistency, with two victories, three runners-up and four No. 1 qualifiers this year, could play in his favor in a year where there have been 10 different event winners. “It’s been so fun getting to know this new team,” led by Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen, he said. “We were teamed up over the off-season and it’s been such a great year. We came together quickly like a duck to water at the beginning of the season, and it just felt like a natural fit.
“Our last race in Vegas was a perfect example of how well we all work together, because, as much pressure as there was on race day, especially with all of the other top Countdown cars going out early, they really knew how to loosen me up and keep me in the right frame of mind. They’ve certainly helped me and my driving throughout the year; the big key for us this weekend is just to continue what we’ve been doing,” Capps noted. To beat Capps, Hagan would have to go two rounds beyond his teammate, as there are a maximum of 187 points on the table.
Early points leader Bob Tasca II (-168 in his Ford Mustang), Robert Hight (-173 driving John Force Racing’s second Chevy Camaro), Toyota Camry racer Alexis DeJoria (-205), Mustang drivers Tim Wilkerson (-303) and Blake Alexander (-401), complete the top 10, with Jim Campbell (Charger) also in the Countdown, lagging Capps by 425 points. Those looking to change these standings include Paul Lee (Charger), Terry Haddock and Chad Green (Mustang), Jeff Diehl’s Camry, Jason Rupert, Chris Morel in a Charger, Gary Densham, Bobby Bode III and Tony Jurado with their Mustangs, as well as Alex Miladinovich’s Camry.
No one has been more successful as a Pro Stock racer than Greg Anderson, who not only has a record 98 victories, together with four championships, in this class but also the lead in PS standings since the start of the year. He does, however, have Erica Enders nipping at his heels, with the reigning titleholder hoping to take her fifth championship, and standing only 32 points behind Anderson. Rookie of the Year combatant Dallas Glenn is also in the hunt for this title, 109 points behind his KB Racing teammate and the owner of three Wally winner’s trophies, most recently in Las Vegas. The entire Top 10 in Pro Stock race the Chevrolet Camaro, but there are differences between all of them that are only apparent if you’re able to look inside engines, chassis and suspensions.
The points chase goes to 11 drivers, with Kyle Koretsky fourth and 186 points behind Anderson, and Troy Coughlin Jr. holding fifth place points, 220 back. The big story from Las Vegas was Coughlin’s ”poor” qualifying effort that had him up against No. 1 qualifier Anderson in the first round. Coughlin won, which allowed his teammate Enders to creep closer to her fifth title, even as she was defeated by Glenn in the Las Vegas finals. Aaron Stanfield, who recently earned his second straight Factory Stock Showdown title, is sixth (-230), followed by Chris McGaha (-253), Mason McGaha (-268), Matt Hartford (-296), Deric Kramer (-334) and Kenny Delco, 366 points behind Anderson.
With 17 Pro Stock cars on the grounds, someone will go home Saturday night. Las Vegas’ surprises included Cristian Cuadra winning his first round in a Mustang over Koretsky, who fouled at the line, and the Mexican driver will be back for more. He’s joined by the two Dodge Dart racers and teammates, Alan Prusiensky and rookie Mike Callahan, and by Bo Butner III, Marty Robertson and Steve Graham, all in Camaro race cars. Anderson knows what he needs to do to take another title: “We just have to keep doing what we’re doing and execute,” in order to add to his four wins, four runners-up and 11 No. 1 qualifiers. “It doesn’t make much sense for us to change our gameplay because, the bottom line is we have the best package when we execute.”
Enders, who has four victories and a pair of runner-up results this year noted, “Sometimes you have to remove yourself from the situation to really grasp how cool it is and almost surreal. As a kid driving junior dragsters, I could have only imagined competing for one world championship, let alone our attempt at a fifth. This is a dream come true for me.”
Finally, there’s a three-way title chase for the Pro Stock Motorcycle crown, between reigning, four-time titleholder Matt Smith (Buell), three-time champ Angelle Sampey and veteran Steve Johnson, still working toward his first championship as one of the foremost 4-valve Suzuki riders in this class. Johnson’s small team is battling a three-Buell entry from Matt Smith Racing and Sampey’s Buell-riding Vance & Hines teammates (she’s on the four-valve V&H Suzuki) Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Johnson does have a couple of advantages, though, as this is his home race (he was raised in the San Fernando Valley) and he’s got three-time Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon in his corner to assist.
There are only 14 motorcycles on this weekend’s entry list – there were 15 but Reed Motorsports is sitting out the season closer, pulling Joey Gladstone’s V&H Suzuki 4-valve Hayabusa out of the race. The standings for the top three riders are tight: Smith, after watching Johnson win the penultimate race at Las Vegas, owns a 20-point lead for an event where each round win will be worth 30 points. Sampey is 30 points behind the current titleholder, but no one else in this field has much of a chance, not even Krawiec, in fourth and 142 points behind. Karen Stoffer, riding a 2-valve Suzuki is fifth after fouling in the Vegas finals (-189), followed by Matt Smith Racing’s Scotty Pollacheck (-212) and Angie Smith (-259). The latter rider is still recovering from a finger injury that’s made it extremely difficult for her to maneuver her Buell.
Gladstone (-269), Hines (-327), Ryan Oehler’s Buell (-355) and Reed (-411) after his massive Charlotte accident, complete the Countdown crew. This weekend Jerry Savoie, Kelly Clontz and Chris Bostick (Suzuki 4-valve), along with Fred Camarena (Suzuki 2-valve) and Michael Phillips on a Buell will be looking to shake up the top-10 order, as will those already in the Countdown. This is one of the tighter races for a title and one fans should want to watch carefully.
The NHRA Auto Club Finals were most recently held in 2019, so there are drivers who haven’t been to the Pomona track for this end-of-season pageantry and competition. They include last year’s rookie of the year, Top Fuel driver Justin Ashley, as well as Troy Coughlin Jr. in Pro Stock. The most recent victors were Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel, Jack Beckman’s Funny Car, Jeg Coughlin Jr. in Pro Stock and a surprised Jianna Salinas in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Next year Salinas, along with Jimmy Underdahl will move their Suzuki programs to Matt Smith Racing, which will have four motorcycles for this duo and for Smith and wife Angie, leaving Scotty Pollacheck to find a new partner.
In addition to three intense qualifying sessions for the Camping World crowd, the Auto Club Finals feature Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series competition. On Friday and Saturday evenings, once on-track action is complete, fans will be enthralled by a cacklefest celebration on the return road. Wheelstander exhibitions from the “Little Red Fire Truck” and “Walking Tall” PT Cruiser are also planned. The weather for this weekend will mirror this year’s Winternationals (held in July 2021) with hot conditions during the day and comfortable evenings, with exceptionally low humidity to challenge the crew chiefs. Unfortunately for California but fortunate for the racers, no rain is forecast.