POMONA, Calif. — Defending Funny Car world champion Ron Capps stayed in the title conversation with a clutch run on Saturday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, tying the quickest run in his career to qualify No. 1 at the 57th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals.
Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Troy Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also qualified No. 1 at the 22nd and final event in the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season and the sixth race in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Capps went 3.837-seconds at a track-record speed of 337.33 mph in his 11,000-horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra, handing the veteran his sixth No. 1 qualifier of the season and 35th in his career. He enters race day 57 points — or less than two rounds — behind leader Robert Hight, looking to become the first Funny Car driver to win back-to-back championships in 20 years.
Capps will take on Jeff Arend in the opening round, with a possible must-see matchup looming in the semifinals against Hight, who qualified fourth with a 3.849 at 334.48.
“This is what I talk about when you get into a race car like this and you wish you could make those big runs at the big moments,” Capps said. “I know we can go out and throw down with the best. It’s a great feeling, so what a way to end qualifying. I got on the radio, and I was screaming and yelling. It was like going down the road to Disneyland and getting on Space Mountain for the first time as a kid.
“It’s a different day tomorrow. (But) I’m going to wake up my motorhome here at trackside and I’m going to have a chance of possibly winning a world championship once again.”
Cruz Pedregon qualified second with a career-best run of 3.840 at 322.58. In fact, Pedregon made the four quickest runs in his career, all in the 3.84 range. Matt Hagan took third with a 3.844 at 323.58 and will head into race day 62 points behind Hight.
Top Fuel points leader Force made a pair of strong runs on Saturday, but it was her run of 3.641 at 338.94 from Friday in her 11,000-horsepower Monster Energy dragster that held up for the No. 1 spot. It gave her the top qualifier for an incredible 10th time this season and 42nd time in her career, as well as plenty of confidence going into a huge, championship-deciding day on Sunday.
She’ll open eliminations against Steve Chrisman, holding a 26-point lead over Justin Ashley, who will start race day on the opposite side of the ladder against contender Antron Brown. That means the standouts could meet in the final round, where it would be winner-take-all as Force is seeking her second world title.
“I feel very good. Going into race day tomorrow, we had four consistent runs,” Force said. “Over the past couple of months, we struggled with those three runs, but we made four solid runs. We got that No. 1 spot, and we picked up some bonus points, so we’re going in tomorrow feeling good.
“When we won the championship in 2017, we came into the race in second place and now we have the lead, so it’s a whole different mindset. I’ve been here before, that gives me a little bit of confidence. We handled it before, it’s familiar territory, and we came out on top. So really, it’s just pulling from past experience. This team is incredible what we’ve done all season long, what we’ve done this weekend, we just need to keep on hitting our numbers.”
Four-time defending world champ Steve Torrence made the best run during the final qualifying session, taking the second spot with a 3.647 at 332.10. He trails Force by 93 points going into eliminations. Mike Salinas, who enters race day 75 points back, was third with a 3.666 at 331.46.
Brown qualified seventh and is 92 points out of first.
Troy Coughlin Jr. made a big move on Saturday, driving to the No. 1 spot for the first time this season with a run of 6.508 at 210.80 in his JEGS.com Chevrolet Camaro. It’s the second career top qualifier for Coughlin, who has enjoyed a breakout season in 2022 with a pair of victories and five appearances in the finals.
He’ll open eliminations against Shane Tucker after making the quickest run in each session on Saturday, also looking to end the year on a strong note and possibly finish second in the points standings to his teammate, five-time world champ Erica Enders.
“I made two clean runs today and that’s what counts,” Coughlin said. “It’s special to be racing here in Pomona. There is nothing like pulling through the breezeway in front of the tower and looking down. My hat is off to the guys at Elite Performance. They work hard and with a lot of passion and it shows. This means a ton. I’ve been coming to the races since I could walk and being the low qualifier here is right near the top of the list for my professional career. (But) this class is stacked so you’ve got to execute on race day but I’m ready. I wish I could go out there and make a few more runs right now.”
Greg Anderson will start race day from the second spot thanks to his run of 6.509 at 211.00 on Friday, while Dallas Glenn is third after going 6.514 at 210.77. Enders, who clinched the world championship in Vegas on the strength of her 10th win this season, will begin eliminations from ninth on Sunday.
Sampey secured her sixth No. 1 of the season in Pro Stock Motorcycle thanks to her track-record run of 6.703 at 201.61 from Friday on her Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki. It gives Sampey her 59th career No. 1 qualifier and the opportunity to finish off her year with a victory. She’s aiming for her second victory of the season, opening eliminations against Katie Justice. Sampey can end the season in the top five with a big performance on Sunday, which would give the three-time world champ plenty of off-season momentum.
“We’re looking forward to tomorrow and we’re feeling confident heading into race day,” Sampey said. “Everyone out here would like to win the final race of the season, so that’s going to be our focus. Tomorrow, our mission is going out here to win the race and end the season on a great note.”
Points leader Matt Smith stayed second with his 6.719 at 202.70, putting him in a great position to clinch his sixth world championship. Smith can earn his second straight world title with a first-round win over Michael Phillips on Sunday. Joey Gladstone took the third spot after a 6.720. Multi-time world champ Eddie Krawiec failed to qualify for the first time in 15 years after struggling during the four sessions.
Eliminations for the Auto Club NHRA Finals being at 11 a.m. (PT) on Sunday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.