- John Schwarb
- 0 Shares
POMONA, Calif. -- The fans here have seen their share of final-round, title-deciding suspense at the Auto Club Finals. There was Tony Schumacher two years ago, needing a national-record run to win a Top Fuel championship and getting it. Then there was Schumacher again last year, winning the final round to steal the title from Rod Fuller, and Matt Smith doing the same thing in Pro Stock Motorcycle to beat Andrew Hines.
Great stuff. But forget final rounds, Sunday's 44th Auto Club Finals offered pretty good drama in the first round, the only round necessary to sort out a three-man Funny Car POWERade title chase.
Cruz Pedregon came into eliminations with a 13-point lead over Tim Wilkerson and a 39-point cushion over Robert Hight, and when the three qualified on the same side of the ladder it appeared they would have the chance to settle their Countdown to 1 fight head-to-head.
Didn't work out that way.
Pedregon did his job in the Rahn Tobler-tuned Toyota, beating Jerry Toliver in the first pair down the 1,000-foot track. But in the very next matchup, Wilkerson red-lighted to hand a round win to 14-time champion John Force. Later in the round, as Cruz Pedregon nervously paced at the far end, younger brother Tony Pedregon delivered the elder his second title by taking out Hight.
"I'm beyond happy, beyond excited," said champion Cruz, who by the way won the event on a holeshot, 4.087 seconds at 303.30 mph to Ron Capps' 4.078/304.53. "No way, no way did I think the championship was going to be clinched [after the first round]. I couldn't believe it, I saw [Tony's] win light, I wanted to make sure. I did not want that letdown."
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the other class that needed eliminations at Pomona to settle its championship, Eddie Krawiec won the title though Chris Rivas beat him in the race final, 6.929/191.95 to 7.009/190.46. Greg Anderson won in Pro Stock, 6.615/209.20 to Kurt Johnson's foul, with that class' championship clinched in qualifying Saturday by Jeg Coughlin Jr. In Top Fuel, Larry Dixon won 3.833/300.93 to "Hot Rod" Fuller's 3.839/310.48. Fuller took down perennial champion Schumacher in the second round.
But the buzz coming into Sunday was all about the first round of Funny Car, and the capacity crowds were well-served to be in their seats early to see two surprising efforts. The first was Wilkerson's, coming on the heels of his first-round flameout at Las Vegas two weeks ago.
Not since the first two races of the season had the independent driver gone home early in back-to-back races, and it cost him a championship.
"We just didn't do a good job in the playoffs," said Wilkerson, who had two wins in the six Countdown races but also three first-round losses. "We played a little defense early and then I've been trying to play offense ever since. That cost me a little bit at Vegas, I got a little aggressive and spun the tires there, here I tried a couple things to get my car ready for today and I just got it [staged] too deep. When the light turned on I was amped up and ready to go."
Wilkerson said he let off the brake too quickly in his Chevy Impala and it rolled farther than his norm into the starting box, and that deep stage led to triggering a red light by .026 seconds. Force false-started too, at .024 seconds early, but that was the lesser of the two evils and he was therefore the winner. Wilkerson had the better trip down the track, 4.161/304.19 to Force's 4.226/258.27, and thought it got the job done.
"I didn't know I lost until I didn't see my win light," said Wilkerson, whose last red was at Dallas in 2004. "I called my guys and they said I red-lit. It was bad. I was really mad at myself down there. But hey, what are you going to do about it? It's all over now."
It was all over for Hight in the race and the Countdown later in the first round when he fell to Tony Pedregon, 4.252/272.61 to 4.443/251.34. It was an errant end to an otherwise solid, but once again close-but-not-quite season.
"We were probably just a little loose out there, a little greasy. It slipped leaving the line, I felt that. The rear end came around, right there you had to really start driving it. When it's like that, you're really upsetting it with input, with the steering wheel, but there's no way around it," said Hight, who won three races on the season and had won six consecutive first rounds. "It was just a little too fast from the get-go and it took the tires out. I must have smoked them first because I didn't see him, I left on him and gave it a quick pedal and it just kept spinning, so I drove it to the finish line spinning."
A long explanation to a disappointing finish for what Hight was sure would be a triumphant day in his John Force Racing Ford. He won the past two races at Auto Club Raceway and three of the past four, and his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers were represented both on his car with baseball decals and on-site with former manager Tommy Lasorda serving as the race's grand marshal and one-man pep squad for JFR.
Hight watched from his seat as the rest of the JFR stable -- No. 1 qualifier Mike Neff, John Force and Ashley Force -- advanced out of the first round. He couldn't, and ended the day and season fourth in points after two years of seconds.
"I was so confident I was going to win the championship, I was looking at it that we'd take a little time off for the winter, spend time with my family and enjoy a championship," Hight said. "Now, all of a sudden, I want to get back out here and race again. I want to start a new season and win this deal, because I know we can do it. We're too good not to win it."
Wilkerson was too good to not win it almost all season, enjoying a magical ride that included six wins and an outstanding 42-17 round record coming into Pomona. For a driver who was also his own tuner and had just five full-time employees, his domination over the multi-car giants of the sport was the story of the year in NHRA, this side of 15-race winner Schumacher.
Without the two-year-old Countdown, it would have been a championship story before the Finals. He would have had the title clinched.
"Wilkerson, he knows I love him, and at the end of the day, he won the championship in the middle of the season," John Force said. "I don't know what to tell you with this points structure, but it is what it is."
Wilkerson, for his part, didn't express remorse over the system but choked up at the support he earned throughout the Funny Car pits.
"I think the only detriment to the Countdown system is that the multi-car teams have some ability to help each other from time to time more than they normally would," Wilkerson said. "That's part of it; maybe my alliance with [Bob] Tasca [next season] will avail me to have a partner when it comes down to that.
"I think I had a lot of partners today anyway," he added as his eyes welled, "I just wasn't lucky enough to race one of them in the first round."
Had Wilkerson won the first round he would have faced Cruz Pedregon in the second round, and that's one car that certainly wasn't going to lie down. Pedregon now won't give the title back either, after playing the system to perfection.
The format rewards the hottest shoe from mid-September through November, and that was "The Cruzer," winning the last three races of the season and going to the finals in four of the six Countdown events. That's how you win a title after starting the playoffs in fourth place.
"Part of me feels bad, but the playoffs are the playoffs. I'm sure the Giants didn't feel for the Patriots when they were going undefeated," Pedregon said. "But I'm really going to give a lot of credit to Tim Wilkerson, he exceeded my expectations. I had no clue, the races he won he won in the heat of the summer.
"Robert Hight and his car, that car strikes fear in me. Robert's a good driver and he kind of keeps things in perspective, and that's a good car."
Fortunately, so was his brother's, and it was a unique piece of synergy for Tony's first-round win over Hight to seal Cruz's championship. The brothers have now won the past two Funny Car titles as independent owners sharing an operation, and dating to 1990 either John Force or a Pedregon brother has won every Funny Car championship save the one Gary Scelzi won in 2005. Cruz won in 1992, driving for Larry Minor, and Tony won in 2003 while driving for Force.
"As soon as I crossed that finish line I thought 'hey, I got him for you.' Kind of a neat feeling. It really is," Tony Pedregon said. "Winning, however you do it is good, but that was pretty dramatic. For us to take out the guy that was shooting for him, that was icing on the cake.
"I know what he's been through, it's absolutely the most rewarding thing that you can experience. These are chances that we've taken with our careers and our lives, and this is the end result. And hey, there's nothing better. Nothing better than to do it on your own."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cruz Pedregon played the NHRA's playoffs game to perfection, winning his second career Funny Car title Sunday at the Auto Club Finals, writes John Schwarb.