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Clutch Performances Give Doug Kalitta His Crowning Achievement: A NHRA Top Fuel World Title

At long last, Doug Kalitta is a NHRA Top Fuel world champion, a moment that instantly entered the history books on Sunday at In-N-Out Pomona Dragstrip as one of the most memorable in NHRA history.

A championship runner-up six times in an otherwise remarkable 26-year career, Kalitta and his team, led by crew chiefs Alan Johnson and Brian Husen, came through with a clutch run that will be replayed forever, defeating Leah Pruett in a winner-take-all final round at the 58th annual In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals.

Kalitta went 3.673-seconds at 334.98 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Mac Tools/Toyota dragster, handing him the event win and a world title, erasing a career of championship heartbreak and giving the fan-favorite veteran a label that can never be removed: NHRA Top Fuel world champion.

“It definitely has a nice ring to it. It’s going to take a while for that to settle in, but I’m definitely going to be grinning here for quite a while,” Kalitta said. “What a blessing to have Alan (Johnson) on our team. To be one of the guys that has won a championship with him as a crew chief is what I’ve dreamed of, and winning it with Connie (Kalitta, team owner) here was extra special as well.

“It’s incredible to see all the fan support. This is one of the coolest places to run and this is just the pinnacle for me. At the end of the run, I was just so relieved. I’ve been trying to win this thing for so many years and it’s just really hard to believe. It will sink in eventually, but we’ve definitely had a great run.”

Kalitta and his Kalitta Motorsports team battled through adversity and got hot at the ideal time, winning three races in the Countdown to the Championship, including the playoff opener in Reading to pick up his milestone 50th career victory.

After starting the six-race playoffs in sixth, he jumped to third after Reading and then went into the points lead after winning the fall race in Charlotte. Pruett bumped Kalitta out of first with her Dallas win and then Steve Torrence moved ahead of everyone in Las Vegas, setting up a marquee three-car showdown in Pomona to close out the year.

All three advanced to the semifinals, and as the drama and intensity built, Kalitta and his team simply got better. He went 3.706, 3.733 and 3.723 during the first three rounds, defeating Justin Ashley in the semifinals. After Pruett slipped past Torrence in the semifinals, it set up the ultimate Pomona showdown where the race winner would also pick up their first world championship.

In what was the final pass of the 2023 NHRA season, Kalitta let wire-to-wire, setting off an epic celebration on both the starting line and the top end, and creating a legacy-making moment in the process.

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“It’s incredible the way the points worked out for it to come down to that last run,” Kalitta said. “I just tried to stay focused and it played out perfectly. Everybody was down there on top end and it was something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life. It was a hell of a drag race and it was just nice to get the win.”

It was a moment that had long eluded Kalitta, long regarded as one of the best drivers ever to sit in a Top Fuel dragster. He was second to Torrence in both 2019 and 2020 – falling in 2019 by a mere three points – also recording runner-up finishes 2016, 2006, 2004 and 2003. The loss to Tony Schumacher in 2006, where Schumacher pulled off a record-breaking run with Johnson as his crew chief in the final round to claim the title, was agonizing, but Kalitta now has his own historic final-round moment in Pomona.

Johnson came in at the start of the 2022 campaign and after struggling last year, Kalitta and his team found their footing at the perfect time. It was never easy, but it all proved to be worth it, as Johnson helped guide Kalitta to Top Fuel immortality and a championship that came down to the final pass of an incredible 2023 season.

“Throughout the year, I just kept thinking I’ve got to get a win,” Kalitta said. “We definitely picked up momentum and I’m really proud of all my guys. We were digging really hard and we had to work for it. The guys really pulled it together and we started making good runs and getting win lights, so hats off to them for sure. It’s a big team effort, but I never really doubted my ability to work with these guys. I knew they had my back.”

The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series begins March 7-10 with the 55th annual NHRA Gatornationals at historic Gainesville Raceway. For more information about NHRA, including the 2024 schedule, please visit www.NHRA.com.

This story was originally published on November 17, 2023. Drag Illustrated

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