Dixon, Force, Tonglet Crowned Champs at NHRA Finale
In the final race of the six-race Countdown to the Championship, the titles in three of the series’ top divisions came down to the finals on Sunday, with a wily veteran and a Cinderella-story rookie looking to make history with their last runs of the season.
Antron Brown, Force, Shane Gray and Eddie Krawiec scored victories in their respective classes, but all eyes were on the championship battles, with three make-or-break runs to start things off in the opening rounds.
The Funny Car title came down to the wire as both points leader Matt Hagan and second-place John Force kept pace with each other through qualifying.
Facing Bob Tasca III in the opening round, Hagan matched Tasca at the light and pulled ahead slightly at the 660-foot mark, only to see Tasca surge ahead to take the victory give Force a shot at the title.
Force then went on to easily defeat Gary Densham to set up a championship-clinching matchup against Bob Bode, with Force leading Bode all the way to clinch an incredible 15th-career NHRA Funny Car title.
“You got to give it to a great bunch of guys led by Mike Neff teamed up with Bernie (Fedderly) and (
“We went all year with the lead and then we stumbled at Reading when the clutch pedal fell off and couldn’t get it in reverse. We sat with the guys week after week in meetings, two or three times a week, saying ‘We can’t make mistakes.’ We opened the door for Hagan, and he took advantage of it. He came over and congratulated me. Hagan is a class act. He’s got a lot of championships ahead of him; it’s going to happen. But we got it here.
“The shot around the world was by Bobby Tasca in that Ford Mustang when he took him out first round because we couldn’t count on this kid Hagan to stumble. We knew if we got him in the final it was too late. There was no national record, so somebody had to get him, and Bobby got him, and that opened the door for us.”
Force’s championship comes just three years after losing teammate Eric Medlen in a crash during testing in Gainesville and Force’s own near-fatal wreck at Dallas that many thought would end the 61-year-old’s racing career.
“After the loss of Eric Medlen, and then my crash, the Ford engineers, everybody worked to build a racecar that would be fast, light and would also protect the driver and win a championship. And then there was me, a mess, not even winning a race last year. And the sponsors, Castrol, stood by me and said ‘you tell us you can do it, we’re with you’. They could have walked away when I couldn’t perform, and 25 years they’ve stood by me. In this economy, they could have quit instead in investing in a guy with broken arms and legs.
“But when I cried and said I didn’t have it anymore, my wife and kids said ‘that isn’t the John Force we know, and I just sucked it up, and turned me into a tiger.”
Force’s day was not done, as he went onto eliminate Melanie Troxel to advance to his 213th final round, facing Jeff Arend for the first time in the finals.
At the light, Arena had a brief lead before Force stormed back to post a 4.085 and cap off his championship run with his 132nd-career victory.
It was a fairy-tale ending to a championship run that almost didn’t happen.
Coming into the opening race in the Countdown at the US Nationals in Indianapolis with a borrowed engine, Tonglet’s family-owned team squeaked out an improbably victory, which led to a full-time ride with Kenny Koretsky’s NitroFish stable.
With solid financial backing finally in place, Tonglet and his team went on a tear, winning four out of the six races – including three against Hines – to move to within 34 points.
After qualifying side-by-side on the ladder, Tonglet would have face Hines in the second round in a winner-take-all matchup, but Hines red-light against Johnson put Tonglet back in the running, and with his victory over Johnson clinched the title by just four points over Hines.
Tonglet would later red-light to eventual winner Eddie Krawiec in the semi-final, but it would be the only letdown in an otherwise stellar season.
“It feels awesome,” said Tonglet. “The way the year started, we didn’t think this was possible, we just wanted to qualify and each race my dad got the bug a little bit more, it’s just been unbelievable since Indy.
“I can’t think Kenny Koretsky and NitroFish for stepping up, they got us a spare motor - which at Vegas if we wouldn’t have had that we would have been done. Thankfully that spare motor ran really good and we left it in for this race and it was just flawless until I red-lit, but thankfully we got the championship.”
Krawiec would face defending series champion Hector Arana in the final, with Arana red-lighting to give Krawiec just his second win of the season and seventh of his career.
The Top Fuel final proved to more anti-climatic, as Larry Dixon ended Tony Schumacher’s six-year stranglehold on the title.
Schumacher face a tough road to repeat as champion, needing to have Dixon put down in the opening round, then win the event a top his own National Record - a daunting task, but one he had done before.
But any chance Schumacher might have had to stage a miracle comeback disappeared after
“I’ve never had so much excitement for a first-round win in my life,” said
With the Pro Stock title already decided in the second round of qualifying, Sunday’s finals were all about gaining momentum for next season.
Newly crowned champion Greg Anderson fell out early in the opening round to Jeg Coughlin, who then moved on to defeat Rodger Brogdon and top-qualifier Allen Johnson to face rookie Shane Gray in Gray’s third final-round appearance.
In the final, Gray had a 0.010 light to lead off the line and stayed there to post a 6.566 over Coughlin’s 6.568 to score his first career NHRA Pro Stock victory.
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