By Lee Elder
POMONA, Calif. (Feb. 10, 2018) – Clay Millican set a national Top Fuel record Saturday and qualified first in the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Speedway at Pomona. The event was drag racing’s season opener.
Matt Hagan qualified best in Funny Car and Vincent Nobile qualified best in Pro Stock. Millican’s record-setting run came during the fourth qualifications session and the Hagan did the same. Nobile’s best lap came during the third session, the first of Saturday’s sessions.
Sunday’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series eliminations begin at 11 a.m., local time.
Millican’s record run lasted just 3.628 seconds. His speed was a non-record 322.04 mph. He set the previous record at St. Louis in 2017. It was his 11th quick time and his first at Pomona.
“I knew at about 330 feet that it wasn’t going to run what (crew chief David Grubnic) told me it was going to run,” Millican said. “I got a brief glimpse of the scoreboard and the .62 and I went, ‘Wow!’”
David Grubnic, who tunes Millican’s dragster, downplayed the record and said, “It went A to B. We need to see it more than once.”
The ambient air temperature was in the low 60s and the track temperature at the start of the session was in the low 90s but the conditions cooled during the final session. Most Top Fuel teams struggled to get down the track during the fourth qualifying session. Several drivers had to abort their run due to mechanical issues. But Millican, who was first after two sessions Friday and lost his top spot to Brittany Force in round three, was straight, fast and true in the fourth session.
“I think the weather is going to be the same tomorrow and I would not be a bit surprised to see the record set again,” Millican said.
Hagan grabbed the top spot in Funny Car away from Robert Hight in dramatic fashion, making the final pass of the day. Hagan’s time was 3.822 seconds and 336.32 mph. Hagan tied the track record for elapsed time at Pomona, which he held, and established a new track record for speed.
Dickie Venables, the tuner for Hagan, said, “We just happened to hit it right.”
But Hagan’s performance was an important technical indicator for Funny Car teams. The Winternationals event is the first since the institution of the new rule directing the angle header pipes can be set at. And Height’s time, just .028 of a second behind Hagan’s track record, seemed to confirm that the teams have found ways to increase production in spite of the new rule.
Hight will be second on the Funny Car ladder at 3.850/334.24. Hight’s ran came earlier in the session but he doubted his time would remain atop the time sheets.
In Pro Stock, Vincent Nobile steadily got better through the first three rounds of qualifying. He struggled to get down the track during the fourth, but his third pass was good enough. Nobile went 6.539-seconds and 210.41 mph. Nobile’s time was .018 of a second better than Drew Skillman, who qualified second (6.547, 210.54). Greg Anderson qualified third (6.563, 211.30).
The pole was Nobile’s first since 2016, but he had his eyes set on something bigger. He said, “You try your best to qualify number one at every race. At the end of the day it’s about holding up the trophy at the end of the weekend.”
The entire 16-car Pro Stock field was separated by just .204 of a second. The engine power for the top three qualifiers in Pro Stock came from three different teams, an indicator of the balance of strength in the Pro Stock category.
John Force drove a back up car into the Funny Car field Saturday after a dramatic engine explosion in the timing lights during Friday’s second round of Funny Car qualifying left the 16-time champ 16th on the timing sheets and in danger of getting bumped out of the field Saturday. The car Force drove Friday was too badly damaged to use again this weekend.
Force’s Q3 run (3.937, 314.75) put him safely in the starting field for Sunday’s eliminations, but it was also problematic. Force’s car was smoking when he stopped before the turnoff at the end of the track. He jumped out of the racer and summoned the NHRA’s safety crew.
“If you look at the history of John Force Racing,” he said later, “we used to be on fire and then go out and win the race.”
Sunday’s eliminations will air on Fox Sports 1, starting at 5 p.m. Eastern.