The officials of the National Hot Rod Association are living the dream.
As the drag racing series heads to Pomona’s Auto Club Speedway for the final race weekend of the year, all four of the series’ major championships are up for grabs.
The grandstands should be packed and a large television audience is expected to tune in to FS1 for qualifying on Friday and Saturday and live coverage of Sunday’s final eliminations at the 53rd Auto Club Finals — the last race in the six-race 2017 Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
And two of the Central Coasts’ favorite sons — Santa Maria’s Alan Johnson and San Luis Obispo native Ron Capps — are in the middle of it all.
Capps, the defending Funny Car champion, is in second place heading to Pomona.
Johnson, with 15 NHRA championship trophies on his mantle — 11 in Top Fuel and four in Top Alcohol — is the consultant to John Force’s Top Fuel team which has pilot Brittany Force in second place.
Capps has eight race wins in the season’s first 25 races and had been leading the points race all year until his engine blew up in the opening round on final eliminations at the Toyota NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, Oct. 29.
That gave Robert Hight the opening he needed. Although Hight didn’t win the race — the Wally went to Matt Hagan — Hight’s loss in the semifinals gave him enough points to leapfrog Capps into the top spot where Hight holds a 15-point lead on Capps.
“We haven’t been in this position in the last few years,” said Hight. “At the beginning of every year, you hope you can go down to the wire and be in the hunt. It is exciting. Fifteen points isn’t much, and we’re racing a good car there with Capps. He’s won a lot of races this year, but I think we have the momentum, and I’m excited about Pomona. It’d be cool if it went down to the final round.”
"Our NAPA team with (crew chief) Rahn Tobler and all our crew have earned a lot of firsts this year, and another one would be defending our title," Capps said. "We haven't had to come from behind many times this year but we will at Pomona, but it's going to be fun. I look forward to getting with my crew guys and trying to battle."
In Top Fuel, another Johnson protégé, Steve Torrence, is leading the points race but when his engine blew in the Las Vegas quarterfinals and Brittany Force made it to the final round that cut Torrence’s lead to 20 points over Force heading into Pomona.
“The ultimate scenario is for Brittany and Steve to make it to the final round at Pomona and the winner of that race is the champion — it’s that simple,” said Johnson after the Toyota Nationals.
“The entire season comes down to one race. Anything less than perfection is going to be the deciding factor,” said Torrence. “This is all or nothing. There is zero room for error.”
Doug Kalitta is 84 points back and still alive for the championship.
It will be the first world title for any of them but there is still one more Top Fuel racer in the hunt — defending world champion Antron Brown has an outside shot, sitting 135 points off the lead.
Pro Stock is a three-way battle for the championship.
Greg Anderson, in line for his fifth season championship, defeated Bo Butner for the Wally in Las Vegas, giving him a 40-point cushion over Butner and a 76-point edge Anderson’s Summit Racing teammate and defending series champion Jason Line heading into the weekend.
Anderson, Butner and Line have combined for 10 race wins on the season, including four of the first five playoff races.
“This is a dream come true for us, but now we have to go out there and settle it amongst ourselves,” said Anderson in an email to the Times. “It's great to have that lead but this isn't over yet. As great of a weekend as we had in Las Vegas, to only come out 40 points ahead, you'll have to go to Pomona and win the race if you're going to be world champ. That's the way it should be, though. You have to earn every inch of it. I expect a complete knock-down, drag-out brawl."
The closest to a title is Eddie Krawiec.
Krawiec’s bid for a fourth Pro Stock Motorcycle championship is within his grasp. He is leading LE Tonglet by 150 points.
This is where the NHRA has made it interesting.
The organization has increased the points drivers can win in both qualifying and in the final eliminations.
Each round in final eliminations will be worth 1 ½ times the number awarded the rest of the season, going from 20 points a round to 30, so winning the championship is worth 150 points.
The “Little Points” — those earned during the four qualifying rounds — are also going up. There will be 41 points up for grabs during qualifying so Krawiec could conceivably wrap up the title by finishing ahead of Tonglet in each of the qualifying rounds, but if Tonglet outpoints Krawiec in qualifying, the division, too, could come down to a winner-take-all final round.
For the others, it will all come down to Sunday’s final eliminations.
While Capps, Brittany Force and Anderson don’t actually have to win the race to claim the world championship, they’ll have to win at least one more round than Hight, Torrence and Butner to drive off with a Mello Yello crown.
However it turns out, the NHRA got what it wanted — an all-or-nothing weekend to wrap up the 2017 race year.