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THURSDAY


Auto Club NHRA FINALS - Thursday Top Alcohol Qualifying highlights

After three days of angst, anger, and frustration, we're finally back online with the first - of many - postings from the final event on the Camping World Drag Racing Series calendar, the 57th annual running of the Auto Club NHRA Finals from fabled Auto Club Raceway Pomona. On hand to capture all the action with his clutch of Nikon cameras in hand is our hard working photograher, "BIG" Bob Snyder. Here's his first installment from the Top Alcohol Funny Car and Dragster qualifying session late yesterday afternoon.

At the end of a decidedly less than scintillating qualifying session, which saw one lane departure (Don Hudson crossed the centerline), a big engine explosion on the burnout (Mike Doushgounian), a big "bang" near the finish line (Chris Marshall) and a "large plume of smoke" crossing the finish line (Brian Hough), the fans finally got to see two cars make great side-by-side passes to the 1320' mark. Three cars had made very good passes earlier, with Shane Westerfield leading the way at 5.498 - 267.80, followed closely by Terry Ruckman at 5.514 - 267.80 and Brian Hough a little further back with a 5.543 - 259.16 clocking.

Sean Bellemeur - 'Hussey Performance' - TA/FC --- Doug Gordon - 'BETA Motorcycles' - TA/FC

Scoreboards

However, as so often happens, the best was saved for last, as newly crowned national champion Sean Bellemeur (LEFT photo) got to the stripe first with low e.t. and top speed of the session, 5.474 - 269.89, to edge out the outgoing champion, Doug Gordon, (RIGHT photo), who trailed by less than a car length with an excellent 5.493 - 267.48 pass for the second spot on the ladder.

Julie Nataas - 'OTG' - A/FD

With 17 cars entered in the dragster field, qualifying wasn't guaranteed to be a "knock down - drag out" affair, but the first baker's dozen of cars down the track laid down some good runs, with Canada's Dan Mercier leading the way with one of his best passes of the season, a 5.260 - 272.17. Just a few thousandths behind at 5.268 - 273.88 was the blown car of James Stevens. As the final two pairs prepared to run, the #3 car on the ladder was the rookie Eric Chesleigh, making his first national event start and clocking a very respectable 5.406 - 254.81 in his maiden voyage.

In an all-female pairing, running opposite Jasmine Salinas was the #4 driver in the national points standings, Julie Nataas (above), and she topped everyone with low e.t. of the round at 5.232 - 274.72 in her first appearance at Pomona in the Meyer Racing A/Fuel car.

Jackie Fricke - 'Finke Equipment' - A/FD --- Shawn Cowie - 'Mundie's Towing' - B/AD

The final pair had good conditions in which to attempt to wrest the top qualifying spot from Nataas, but Jackie Fricke (LEFT) fell just short with a second best effort of 5.245 - 277.94 (top speed of the round), to outrun Canada's Shawn Cowie (RIGHT) to the finish line as he stopped the clocks with a fourth best of the session 5.261 - 277.89 to close out qualifying on the first day of the Auto Club NHRA Finals. Check out the scoreboard shot below to see the numbers.

Scoreboards

NOTE:   While filling in the details on this post, I realized that I've been writing Greg Bellemeur, instead of his correct name Sean. I don't know how long or how many times I've made that mistake, but it showed up at least half a dozen times over the past two weeks, and possibly more often and further back than that. Frankly, I don't how our proofreader missed those errors, but they are corrected now. At least the ones I've found so far. Any further corrections are invited. PS: Greg Bellemeur is Sean's father, and has a very long and illustrious career in drag racing, driving an assortment of nitro burning hot rods in Southern California and beyond.


FRIDAY


3:00 PM UPDATE:

They've just finished running the second qualifying session for the Top Alcohol Funny Cars and Dragsters at Pomona. There were some definite improvements in both classes, but it's still been a tough track for some of the teams to overcome. However, the first three pairs of funny cars carded side-by-side 5-second runs to improve the look of the 12-car field to show that it was possible to make very good runs. Although the atmospheric conditions were worse than Thursday, with air temp up from 83 to 89 (F) and an extra 200 feet of corrected altitude, only Brian Hough failed to improve on his day first day clocking. The only downside in the group was another engine explosion and oildown from Mike Doushgounian, which held things up for 15 minutes of cleanup.

In contrast, only two cars out of the final three pairs made it to the finish line under power, with Ulf Leanders running just .001 slower than his Thursday effort, and Sean Bellemeur putting out some serious engine smoke on the top end as he shut off early to a 5.566 - 243.85 to close out the session.

On the dragster side, the 17-car field necessitated a bye run to start the round, and that saw Trevor Larkin get on the board after his failed attempt on Thursday, with a decent, but labouring 5.611 - 247.75 pass. Yesterday's bump spot holder, Johnny Ahten, knocked six seconds off his Thursday e.t. but the scoreboard showed only an 8.327 which left him #14 on the ladder. Starting from the #17 spot going into the final qualifying session tomorrow will be Taylor Vetter as she had another troubled pass, smoking the tires hard and early for a near duplication of her first run of the weekend.

The first big shot fired in the session came from the Jerry Darien-tuned car of Casey Grisel, as he jumped all the way from the bump spot to the #6 position with a very good 5.307 - 274.66, running alongside Eric Chesleigh, who backed up his earlier 5.406 with a consistent 5.429 pass. In the next pair, Kim Parker got off the new bump spot with a decent 5.462 - 255.05, despite a dropped cylinder on the top end. Then things started getting quicker and faster, as Madison Payne vaulted all the way from #15 to the second spot in the field with an excellent 5.237 - 278.12 that also notched a new top speed for the class.

The final two pairs saw, as expected, the best runs of the round, starting with Jackie Fricke going a little quicker (5.218 following her 5.245 on Thursday), but that was only second best in that pairing, as Rich McPhillips Jr. broke into the 5-teens, with a new #1 pass of 5.184 - 266.69 to move from #12 to the top spot. In the final pair, yesterday's low qualifier, Julie Nataas, tried to take back the #1 position, but fell just short with a 5.195 - 273.05 that moved her past Fricke into the #2 position. In the other lane, Shawn Cowie, in the quickest blown car in the field, improved by a fraction, with a 5.252 - 277.49 that moved him up one spot to the #5 rung on the ladder heading into Saturday's final qualifying session.


6:00 PM UPDATE:

The first qualifying session for the PRO classes is now in the books at Pomona. The first class out of the lanes, the Pro Stock Motorcycles, saw only 12 bikes, of the 14 pre-entered, come out for their session. And of those 12 bikes, only eight riders made it into the 6's, with just two in the 6.70's, led by defending world champion Matt Smith at 6.779 - 210.19, while Karen Stoffer was close behind at 6.785 - 197.97. The two closest pursuers to Smith in the Countdown, Steve Johnson, in the #2 spot, and Angelle Sampey (#3), laid down competitive runs, with Johnson holding the third spot in the field, courtesy of a 6.811 - 197.39, while Sampey sat one position lower with a 6.819 - 196.76.

Pro Stock (cars) saw all 17 entries make an attempt in their qualifying session, with one car, that of Mike Callahan, not getting a timeslip due to a SB3A (start before three ambers - or, in other words, leaving before the tree was activated). Despite some good early results, it was fully halfway through before the first 6.50's started popping up on the scoreboards, with Deric Kramer and Matt Hartford clocking side-by-side 6.594's, both at 208 mph, to take the early lead in the field. Their lead didn't last long, as the next car down the track, Mason McGaha ran a little quicker at 6.589 to take the top spot.

Greg Anderson - 'Hendrick Cars


That held for one pair, until Kyle Koretsky and Dallas Glenn one-upped them by one hundredth of a second at 6.584, both at 208 mph to take over the top spots on the ladder. Koretsky took the #1 position by .12 of a mph over Glenn's #2, pushing Hartford back to #3 and Kramer down to #4. But - and (don't) stop me if you've read this before - the best was saved for last as the top two in the Countdown standings met in the final pair. Greg Anderson covered everyone with a very strong 6.566 - 210.21 for the top spot, while Erica Enders could "only" manage a 6.589 - 209.04 for the #4 position after the first session.

As the sun set over the Pomona hills, the really fast cars started coming out of the lanes, with Funny Car leading off. Of the 20 cars in the pits, 19 made it to the starting line, with the Jason Rupert team still thrashing to get their replacement bodied entry into racing shape, under the direction of Rahn Tobler and Johnny West. The first pair down the track turned into a single as Gary Densham - in what may or may not be his 500th NHRA national event - didn't move when the lights came down and he shut off at the line. The first actual pair saw very good side-by-side runs by hard core privateers, with Jeff Diehl making his best pass of the season at 4.031 - 314.24 to take the #2 spot, behind Tony Jurado, who kept his 3-second barrage continuing, with an opening 3.988 - 316.08, good for the top spot. That was just .002 off his career best, rung up at the previous event on the tour in Las Vegas.

Robert Hight - 'Auto Club' - FC


That early 3-second run by Jurado held onto the #1 spot through the next three pairs, until the first side-by-side 3-second times rang up on the scoreboards, with Robert Hight (pictured above) dropping into the 3.80's with an excellent 3.894 - 330.55 to leave Alexis DeJoria nearly a tenth back at 3.954 - 318.92 in the second spot. The next pair challenged Hight but didn't displace him as Bob Tasca III (3.975) and John Force (3.939) muscled into the top four, in the #2 and #3 spots. The final four cars were the only ones with a real chance for the championship and they had varying results. Cruz Pedregon made his mark with a solid 3.939 - 321.96, which ended up in the #4 spot, while the final pair matched up the top two cars in the standings. Second place Matt Hagan shook the tires before the 330' mark and shut off to a 4.483, while Ron Capps ran strong into the #2 spot on the ladder at 3.908 - 329.83 as he increased his lead over Hagan to 61 points after the first session.

Finishing off the day were the Top Fuel cars as the track was now in almost full darkness with header flames rising high into the night as the session began. It began with two single passes, as Steve Chrisman (driving the Worsham family car) remained in the pits, saving parts and money. In the second bye run, Cameron Ferre put the Paton family car (from Canada) into the 3.80's with a career best 3.880, despite an early shutoff at 299.66 mph. The first pairing saw two 3.75 runs, with Tripp Tatum laying down a 3.752 - 306.67, while Alex Laughlin (in the Scott Palmer car) turned career bests of 3.759 - 324.83 to put a temporary hold on the #2 spot on the charts.

Those numbers held up for just one more pair until Kalitta teammates Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta put on a impressive display with a great side-by-side race. Langdon came out on top, and temporarily led the field with a 3.747 - 324.05, while Kalitta was just a little slower at 3.759 - 321.65 for the #4 position. That fourth spot very quickly became #6 for Kalitta, as the next pairing saw Clay Millican ease into #4 with a 3.756 - 321.12, while in the other lane, Antron Brown jumped into the top spot with a super strong 3.719 - 329.26 timeslip. But that top qualifying run was erased in the very next pair, as Billy Torrence nipped Brown with a 3.713 - 330.47 to put a hold on low e.t. and top speed.

Mike Salinas - 'Scrappers Racing' - TF


As the session wound down to a conclusion, the three championship contenders, and one "pretender" (no offense, but Justin Ashley's only got a super-slim chance to win the crown, came out to try for the top qualifying spots and the all-important bonus points that go with the top four spots. Mike Salinas (pictured above), who's been on a bit of a tear recently and fought his way into contention with final appearances, including one win in the last two races, blasted out a booming 3.694 - 328.78 to stake his claim for the #1 qualifier. Then it was down to the top two in the standings, in what has become an almost certain top qualifying battle, between leader Steve Torrence and challenger Brittany Force. It didn't quite go to plan as Force lost traction before the 600' mark, while Torrence had his own problems, with the engine going sour on the top end, limiting him to a close, but not close enough, 3.698 - 317.05 for the second spot on the ladder.


SATURDAY