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RETURN ROAD: Best and Worst of the NHRA Winternationals

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The National Hot Rod Association kicked off another season of NHRA Mello Yello Series drag racing action at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals last weekend. If the record-setting performances at Pomona’s Auto Club Raceway were an indication of what’s to come, we’re in for another thrilling season. There was drama on and off the track. Delays of man and Mother Nature’s doing were not absent. We were introduced to new stars and the longtime stars continued to shine.

Here are our picks for the best of the best and the worst of the worst at the NHRA Winternationals.

Biggest Upset: Jack Beckman’s DNQ

There was a lot of optimism surrounding Jack Beckman and the Infinite Hero Funny Car team as the season started up. He entered the year with guaranteed full-season funding for the first time in a few years and he had former John Force Racing crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen turning the wrenches. The group hit a roadblock on Saturday though, as they lost their last chance to qualify when the fourth qualifying session was canceled due to a heavy mist surrounding the track. The last time Beckman didn’t qualify? The sixth race of the 2012 season. He was crowned the Funny Car world champion 18 races later.

Best Event Performance, Professional: Shawn Langdon

Top Fuel owner and tuner Alan Johnson, known for laying it all on the line when it matters, delivered another epic performance this weekend with driver Shawn Langdon. With event sponsorship from Food Network personality and chef Guy Fieri and his brand, Knuckle Sandwich, Johnson and Langdon laid down the quickest run in the history of NHRA drag racing on Saturday, a 3.700. A back-up run of 3.737 would have given them the new national record (and a cool 20 points), but a still-impressive 3.741 was all the track would hold in the Sunday heat. Langdon powered through a dropped cylinder in the final round to beat Antron Brown in a 3.799 to 3.804 decision.

Best Event Performance, Sportsman: Jonnie Lindberg

Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Jonnie Lindberg was already an accomplished racer in the European FIA series before he started competing stateside at this race last year. He won the 2013 FIA Top Methanol Funny Car championship and set the European record at 5.426, the second-quickest TA/FC run in the world, but Jonnie and brother Johan wanted to prove that they could run similar times in the U.S. They definitely accomplished that this weekend, qualifying number one with a 5.451 and running 5.445, 5.511, 5.486 and 5.458 in eliminations to win their first NHRA event. His final round speed (267.27) was the fifth fastest in class history.

Worst Oildown: Chad Head

NHRA photo

NHRA photo

It’s still too early to judge the effect of NHRA’s strict new oildown policy on the overall nitro show, but this weekend’s messes reminded everyone that nitromethane-powered engines are bound to leak a little oil on the racing surface no matter what restrictions are in place. In the case of Chad Head’s first round oildown, it was a lot of oil and it wasn’t a result of some fantastic explosion. Head’s TaylorMade Aero Burner Funny Car started leaking oil as he backed up from the burnout. He backed out of the groove and stopped as soon as he realized what was happening, but it was already too late. The mess required a lengthy clean-up that delayed Sunday eliminations by at least an hour.

Best Rookie Debut: Drew Skillman

We’re still a long season away from crowning the 2015 Auto Club Road to the Future Award winner, NHRA’s Rookie of the Year honor, but Pro Stock newbie Drew Skillman tossed his hat in the ring with his debut performance. Skillman started eliminations from the number four spot and was first off the line against his first three opponents, including former world champions Allen Johnson and Elite Motorsports teammate Erica Enders-Stevens. Final round opponent Jason Line was quicker at both ends of the track, but Skillman posted a very respectable .042 light and 6.556 ET in his runner-up effort.

Best Comeback: Matt Hagan

On Sunday night, defending Funny Car world champion was celebrating his 15th national event win with his Mopar Express Lane team. Less than 48 hours earlier he was escaping from a raging fire inside his Don Schumacher Racing Dodge Funny Car. The fire was caused by a severe engine explosion during Friday qualifying, leaving the new Dodge Charger body to burn as Hagan came to a stop. The Mopar team had to replace almost everything but the chassis to finish qualifying on Saturday. Hagan entered eliminations from the bottom half of the field and charged into the final round, where his Dickie Venables-tuned entry ripped off a 4.011 blast to beat teammate Ron Capps for the Winternationals Funny car title.

Most Dramatic Off-Track Moment: Brogdon vs. Gray

If you happened to catch ESPN2’s qualifying show (which started on time Saturday night) you would have seen a little kerfuffle between Pro Stock drivers Rodger Brogdon and Shane Gray. Brogdon was in talks with Gray about leasing Gray Motorsports engines over the winter but backed out when presented with a contract. The offseason dealings were brought up during the eliminations coverage and a Brodgon rep stated that Rodger prefers handshake agreements, so the contract turned him off the deal completely. Gray apparently felt that Brogdon was playing starting line games because of the events and confronted him after the turn-off, where ESPN2 cameras were filming. Brogdon was open with top-end reporter Gary Gerould about the story but Gray declined comment and seemed uneasy about it all when questioned on Sunday’s eliminations show.

Most Underrated Run of the Weekend: Don St. Arnaud’s 285 MPH

Langdon’s record run was the talk of the pits, and for good reason, but it wasn’t the only national record that was broken at Pomona. Top Alcohol Dragster driver Don St. Arnaud eclipsed the class record for speed during the first round of eliminations. Set by five-time national champion Bill Reichert in 2007, the fastest speed for a TA/D was 284.75 MPH. St. Arnaud’s nitro-injected A/Fuel dragster went a touch faster, 285.35 MPH, but it was the backstory that makes the run so impressive. The current rules package allows for 95% nitromethane, two percent less than what Reichert was using when he set the record eight years ago.

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