POMONA — The field is set for the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) first championship weekend of the 2018 season.
Saturday was a perfect day for drag racing; cloudy and cool conditions meant speeds would go up from Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying.
And that led to changes at the top of each division during Saturday’s final two qualifying rounds at the season-opening 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals at Pomona’s Auto Club Raceway.
Clay Millican lost and then regained the top seed in the Top Fuel division.
Matt Hagan claimed the No. 1 spot in Funny Car, lost it and got it back.
Vincent Nobile knocked Drew Skillman from the top position on Pro Stock.
And both Millican and Hagan had record setting runs to close out qualifying in their respective divisions.
There were no major mishaps, although there were a number of racers who suffered through serious mechanical difficulties.
John Force was back in action after his Funny Car’s engine blew up during Friday’s second round of qualifying.
Force spent some time getting checked out at a local hospital but was given a clean bill of health later Friday night. He went right back to the Raceway to supervise his crew’s efforts to build a brand new race car.
In Top Fuel action, defending Mello Yello Series champion Brittany Force grabbed the top spot after a 3.67-second/322.04 mile per hour pass early in the third round of qualifying.
In the next pair, Leah Pritchett hit a 3.687/330.23 pass to move into second place, dropping Millican back to third.
But on the final run of qualifying, Millican set a track and national record with a 3.628-second pass to reclaim the top spot.
“That was only the second full run on that car. In the third round today, the car was shaking at 40 feet. That means I wasn’t giving it enough power – it wants more. So I gave it more power in the fourth round,” said Millican. “It’s obviously a good car but Sunday is when it really counts. When I saw that 62 on the clock I said ‘wow, what an incredible run by this team.’ The track was phenomenal today, so was the weather. The weather is supposed to be even better Sunday and it wouldn’t surprise me to see someone set a new record again.”
Shortly before Millican’s record run, Steve Torrence grabbed the No. 3 position on Sunday’s elimination ladder with a 3.676-second pass.
“It seems like the offseason wasn’t nearly long enough — it just flew by,” said Torrence. “It’s fun to get back in the car. The car ran well in testing (in Phoenix) and it’s run well this weekend. It’s a new year but we’re coming with the same attitude and even more intensity. We’re ready.”
Hagan had a Saturday that was similar to Millican’s.
“We went into first place during the third session then got knocked back by Robert,” said Hagan. “The car is running good — my guys are just killing it. It’s a dream start to the season so far but it all comes down to Sunday. Racing Sunday is different than qualifying. We’ll take it one lap at a time. I’ll have to do my best job of driving to win.”
Racing against Friday’s Funny Car leader Fast Jack Beckman in the final pairing of the third round of qualifying, Hagan moved into the top spot with a 3.859/331/20 run.
Late in the fourth round, defending series champion Robert Hight took over the top spot with a 3.850/334.24 run.
In the final pairing of qualifying, Hagan — again matched up with Beckman — nailed a perfect 3.822-second pass at 336.32 miles an hour to reclaim the No. 1 seed, setting an Auto Club Raceway track speed record along the way.
San Luis Obispo native Ron Capps began Saturday as Funny Car’s No. 3 seed. Hagan and Hight’s runs dropped Capps back to the No. 5 position for Sunday’s first final eliminations of the year.
“It’s nice to be back at the track,” said Capps. “We went 3.88 in both our runs Friday. It’s a good start to the season but it all comes down to Sunday.”
After Friday’s first two rounds of Pro Stock qualifying, Drew Skillman and Vincent Nobile were the top two qualifiers.
Nobile came out Saturday with a 6.529-second, 210.41 mph pass that dropped Skillman back to second. Nobile’s time held up through the fourth round giving him the top seed for Sunday’s race.
“I’m definitely on top of the world. We do this for fun and we qualified on the pole — what’s more fun than that? I’m super happy with the way the car has been running,” said Nobile. “From Friday to Saturday, the air was definitely better but Sunday is a whole new day. You come here, try for No. 1 but we want to win the trophy at the end of the weekend. That’s what we’re here for.”