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Dixon runs record time in Top Fuel
Reigning NHRA Full Throttle and Winternationals champ Larry Dixon set the new national record in Top Fuel and along with Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) will lead the qualified fields into final eliminations Sunday at the season-opening Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals

Dixon, a four-time Winternationals champ whose father also won the race in Top Fuel in 1970 in a front-engined dragster, set the new national record at 3.770, edging out the previous mark of 3.771 held by decade long rival Tony Schumacher.

Weather forecasters all week had been calling for a total washout Saturday, but hardy fans who ventured out to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona were well rewarded with lots of ground pounding, nitro-burning action after a day of watching it rain Friday. Teams who struggled in Thursday's lone session got a chance to make amends as the final 16-car fields were set for the opening eliminations of the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series and the kickoff to NHRA's 60th Anniversary celebration.

Larry Dixon

Dixon, who had qualified just fifth in Thursday's session with a 3.81, wasted no time putting the Jason McCulloch-tuned Al-Anabi dragster back at the top of the heap with a sterling 3.783 in the day's opening session then used that number as a record backup for the 3.770, the second quickest pass in class history. His speed, 324.98, is the third fastest ever; both marks are track records. Dixon has now qualified No. 1 49 times in his career and will be looking for his 600th career round-win in round one Sunday.

“That run today was just spectacular from my standpoint,” said Dixon. “It shook really hard, kind of just like Del’s car did, and it was almost to the point where you give up, it’s shaking that bad. It cleaned up, and then went the rest of the way down the track. With us only racing 1,000 feet, you can see the scoreboards now, so you click it off, and you see a .77 come up, and it’s like, ‘Wow, was that right?’ We’ve never gone down the racetrack in that cold a track temperature, so it was a great job by the team.

“That’s obviously the quickest and fastest I’ve ever gone, and I really think having Del in the same category is already paying dividends. Hopefully, throughout the season and even tomorrow we’ll be able to just go up there and duke it out. Having the second dragster is certainly paying off, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see his car run a .77 tomorrow.”

Antron Brown, whose Matco Top Fueler won the 2010 season finale, continued his Pomona love affair with 3.788 for the No. 2 spot, just a thousandth of a second ahead of teammate Schumacher's U.S. Army dragster, which clocked a 3.789. The third Schumacher Racing entry, the Prestone charger of former rookie of the year Spencer Massey, is qualified No. 4 with a 3.801 in his official debut in the car.

Del Worsham, making his first start in Top Fuel in years after a long and successful Funny Car career, joined teammate Dixon in the top eight with a 3.814 for the No. 5 spot. Shawn Langdon has the Lucas Oil dragster in the sixth position with a 3.847, while 2009 Winternationals champ Doug Kalitta is seventh with a 3.850 and Brandon Bernstein finished No. 8 with a 3.856.

Terry McMillen, whose weekend started out with broken parts Thursday, squeezed his Amalie/UNOH dragster into the field on his final pass, a 3.931 to hold down the bump spot. He'll face Dixon in round one.

Cruz Pedregon

After watching Johnny Gray dominate the first two Funny Car sessions, Pedregon stunned the Pomona crowd with a 4.015, the third quickest pass in class history, to take the No. 1 spot with his Snap-on Tools Toyota. It's Pedregon's 40th career pole. The bubble ended up at 4.191, held by former world champ Tony Pedregon's American Racing Wheels Impala, meaning he'll take on his older brother in round one.

“That felt incredible,” said Pedregon. “It’s a credit to the team. I’m happy and humbled at the same time. Our main objective was to let these guys know we’re here and carry that momentum that we earned at the end of the year. We tested well. We come here with completely different conditions, and we were second-quickest in the first session and then first in this third session. We’ve got to be smart tomorrow and not beat ourselves and see if we can go some rounds tomorrow.

“We went out there in the second session there and smoked the tires for no reason, and so we addressed that. We came back, and man the car just worked. What I love about it is it ran good at the start and at the finish line, and it went 313. That speed, if it’s not top speed, it’s near the top. You can’t give these guys speed like we were early in the season last year, and you can’t do that.”

Gray, making his return to Funny Car after a seven-year absence from the class, the last three of which were spent in Pro Stock, improved on his Thursday leading 4.079 with a 4.049 on his first pass Saturday in the Service Central Dodge and had a shot at resetting the 4.011 national record, but rattled the tires on his final attempt and settled into the No. 2 spot.

Mike Neff, who wrenched John Force to victory at the 2010 season finale, tuned that same Castrol Mustang to the No. 3 spot with a 4.060, also recorded on his first Saturday pass. Neff's John Force Racing teammate, former world champ Robert Hight, is in the No. 4 spot with the Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang with a 4.071.

Team boss Force gave the fans a start when his Castrol Ford darted into Bob Bode's lane near the finish line on his final attempt, but Bob Bode skillfully avoided the world champ's errant entry. Force's run of 4.115 was disqualified, but he holds the No. 5 spot with his earlier 4.093. Jim Head zipped to a 4.06 for the No. 6 spot, and he's followed in the top half of the field by Don Schumacher Racing teammates Matt Hagan (4.099) and Ron Capps (4.106).

Rookie of the year contender Brian Thiel, Melanie Troxel, Jeff Diehl, James Day, and Grant Downing all missed the 16-car Funny Car cut.

Erica Enders

Enders led Pro Stock through the first two qualifying sessions with a career-best 6.553 from the ZaZa Energy Cobalt, then secured her second career No. 1 qualifying spot when NHRA officials decided that the cool afternoon conditions precluded a final qualifying pass for the Pro Stockers. Enders made history at the 2006 Topeka event when she became the first woman to qualify No. 1 in the class.

“After we ran on Thursday and finished the session and stayed No. 1, I did feel confident that it would hold,” said Enders. “I don’t know if I’d say I’m surprised to be No. 1 just based on the championship-caliber team I’m with and the horsepower that we have over there, but I will tell you that it is a surreal feeling. I find myself pinching myself to see if it’s real. I’ve had a tough last couple of years, and it’s just awesome to be back with a team like this and to be back on top. I’m very excited.

“Being No. 1, we know that doesn’t mean a whole lot on Sunday, so we’ve got to go out there and treat it like a new day and just be consistent and hopefully go four rounds tomorrow. We have a good car, and that does weigh on you as a driver, knowing that you have the equipment and the horsepower and the team behind you. It’s on my shoulders. I have to go out tomorrow and cut good lights and hit my shift points and make sure the car gets from point A to point B.”

World champ Greg Anderson jumped up from the fifth spot to No. 2 with the Summit Racing Pontiac with a 6.556, while Allen Johnson's Dodge Avenger made it three different makes atop the Pro Stock pack with a 6.561 for third. Ron Krisher finished fourth with a 6.562.

Championship runner-up Greg Stanfield also ran 6.562 in his Safety Sentry Pontiac but his 209.95-mph speed was slower than Krisher's 211.26 and ceded the higher spot to Krisher's Valvoline Pontiac. V. Gaines (6.564), Kurt Johnson (6.571), and Warren Johnson (6.572) round out the top eight.

The bump spot ended up at 6.640, held by Richard Freeman, but it was former world champ Mike Edwards left without a chair when the music suddenly stopped as he was unable to get down the track on either of his previous runs, ending his 72-race qualifying streak.

“We had two chances, just like everybody else," said Edwards. "I have no excuses. I would have liked to have had a third shot at making the field, but there were no guarantees that we would have made it in, especially with  the track temperatures in the low 60s.  All I know is that I’ll  have lane choice for Highway I-40 when we head back home.”

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