"Change" is the watchword for the Pro Stock category when the 54th annual Circle K Winternationals get underway Thursday to start the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
Television coverage of the four-day event from Auto Club Raceway at Pomona will feature qualifying highlights Saturday from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET on ESPN2, with eliminations slated Sunday from 8-11 p.m. ET on ESPN. Also, ESPN3 will stream live coverage of qualifying beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET Friday, with full eliminations coverage scheduled to start at 2 p.m. ET Sunday.
The NHRA says the movement between teams of drivers and crew chiefs this year is "almost unprecedented," with several teams sporting new driver or engineering lineups for the upcoming campaign.
One constant is the return of five-time (and defending) Pro Stock titlist Jeg Coughlin Jr., who will again combine forces with Allen Johnson in a pair of Dodge-bodied dragsters for Johnson & Johnson Racing. In their first year as teammates, Coughlin and Johnson finished 1-2 in the Pro Stock point standings, with Coughlin claiming his sixth overall NHRA crown at the season's final event, also at Pomona.
"We couldn't have been much happier, with myself finishing No. 1 and Allen finishing No. 2," Coughlin related. "We do look at our successes and we look at how we can capitalize on those a little bit better and strengthen those, but also look at some of the pitfalls that we felt like we struggled with throughout the years, throughout the Countdown. That's what we've worked really hard with in our testing in Bradenton over the winter."
Despite the laurels gained in 2013, there are several significant personnel changes at J&J for the new campaign. The apparent retirement of 2009 Pro Stock champion Mike Edwards -- the 56-year-old hasn't confirmed he is stepping away, but he sold his entire racing inventory to former part-time competitor Chris McGaha -- put a few people in position to seek new employers.
"We've had a couple of transitions within the team with the exit of [defending Winternationals Pro Stock champion] Vincent Nobile joining forces with the KB team and Jim Yates no longer with the program," Coughlin said. "My lead crew chief and car chief, Dave Yediny, ended up wanting to stay more back on the East Coast and racing in the Comp eliminator ranks, which is great. He was fantastic for our program, but we were able to add Adam Hornberger, who came out of Mike Edwards' program. With the personnel changes and the team changes, we were able to kind of fine-tune some things in testing and really painted one heck of a picture."
Edwards finished fourth in the Pro Stock standings in 2013, but raced through the Countdown to the Championship in considerable pain from a rotator cuff injury that he said would require surgery. The announcement of his team's liquidation in a sale to McGaha in early January took many observers by surprise.
Yates, the 1996 and '97 Pro Stock driving champion who played a major engineering role in back-to-back championship seasons for J&J (Allen Johnson in 2012, Coughlin in '13), signed on as crew chief for McGaha's Harlow Sammons Chevrolet Camaro.
"We knew that Jim had done a great job with AJ, Jeg, and the Mopar team, and in the past he had also helped Johnny and Shane Gray and had plenty of success on his own, so we're excited to add him to our race team," McGaha said.
"I'm excited and still a little nervous," he added. "There is no doubt about it: I have a championship-caliber team and a championship-caliber car. Now it's up to me."
With the arrival of Nobile, winner of eight career Pro Stock events, KB Racing has three of the top 10 drivers from the 2013 standings. Returnees Jason Line (third) and Greg Anderson (eighth) are eager to incorporate their new teammate.
KB Racing is again working in technical partnership with Elite Motorsports, where father/son tuning tandem Rick and Rickie Jones have hired Erica Enders-Stevens, the first woman to score a Pro Stock race victory, to team with Rickie Jones in a pair of Chevrolet Camaros.
"I think it's a great opportunity and a really positive step for the next chapter of my career," Enders-Stevens said. "I'm still driving a Chevy Camaro, and we're a factory team for GM this year, so I'm proud to announce that. Being able to run the entire 24-race schedule will be a positive thing, especially coming off only running 18 of the 24 last year. So I know we'll be able to do good, and I certainly predict we'll be in the run during the Countdown at the end of the year.
"There are going to be eight to 10 cars that are truly going to be capable of contending for the championship, which is quite a big number," she added. "I think it's going to be the most competitive year yet."
One of the changes fans can expect to see at the start of the season is temporary, as four-time Pro Stock champion Anderson will miss the first three months of the campaign to undergo scheduled heart surgery.
Swedish driver Jimmy Alund, an eight-time European drag racing champion, will step in as Anderson's replacement.
"It's really not a big deal," Anderson said. "I was born with a bicuspid aortic heart valve [two valve openings instead of three]. It's something we've kept track of over the years, and my doctor has decided it's time to make some repairs so I stay in good shape.
"I will miss the first few races of the season, but once the doctor says I'm good to go, I'm gonna be right back at it looking for another Pro Stock championship."
Victor Cagnazzi filled the void of Enders-Stevens' departure by merging his operation with Gray Motorsports. Johnny Gray has stepped out of a full-time driving role, leaving his son Shane Gray to team with Dave Connolly for Connolly's first full-time season of racing since 2008.
"The potential [to return to full-time driving] was always there, but it wasn't until Shane said, 'We're going to run two cars next year and you're going to be driving one of them,' that I knew it was going to happen," said Connolly, who served as Enders-Stevens' crew chief the last two years at Cagnazzi Racing.
"The teams have been jelling very well," he continued. "We've already run a testing session down in Florida, and everyone is pretty excited to see what these two cars can do."
Coughlin knows he will have his work cut out to repeat as Pro Stock champion.
"When you look at the lineup of Pro Stock cars that we're faced with this year, it's going to be an exciting year, without question," he said. "The resurgence with Dave Connolly back behind the wheel, and partnered up with Shane Gray in that program, they're going to be tough. KB with three cars ... the list just goes on and on. It's not going to be dull, to say the least."