Langdon may be one to beat again

Less than three months after he celebrated his greatest day as a drag racer, Shawn Langdon is back home in Southern California and behind the wheel of his Al-Anabi Racing Top Fuel dragster.

Langdon grew up in Mira Loma, Calif., about half an hour from Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the historic drag racing venue that traditionally hosts the opening and closing rounds of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

The 2014 championship revs up this weekend with the 54th annual Circle K Winternationals, an event in which Langdon is the defending champion. He bookended his seven-win 2013 campaign with another Pomona victory in the NHRA Finals to claim his first Top Fuel title by 164 points over Antron Brown.

"We're going to approach 2014 the same way that we have the last two years," said Langdon, who again will have Khalid al Balooshi as his teammate. "We're just very excited to get back out there and get running again.

"We feel very confident; the whole Al-Anabi team has done a lot of homework in the offseason. We went testing last month and had a successful test session. I don't think there are going to be too many things that we want to change. We just kind of want to stay in the same attack mode as we have in the last two years."

Langdon and Brown picked up right where they left off in 2013 in recent testing at Palm Beach International Raceway, running 1-2. Langdon's best run was clocked at 3.726 seconds/325.37 mph, while Brown was right behind at 3.735 seconds with an identical trap speed.

Langdon became the fifth driver to win a Top Fuel title with crew chief Alan Johnson, joining Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon and Del Worsham.

"To win that Mello Yello Top Fuel Championship was a dream of mine since I was a kid," Langdon said. "I'll definitely wear that No. 1 proudly on the side of our car, but I don't think it's going to be too different. We knew we had a great car last year and we still feel that way. So we're just going to basically keep doing what we're doing. We can't sit around and pat ourselves on the back too much or these guys are going to pass us up."

Brown, the 2012 Top Fuel champion for Don Schumacher Racing, had his hopes of repeating as champion compromised by a shocking DNQ at the opening round of the NHRA's six-race Countdown to the Championship. Although he rebounded to finish second in the standings, he was hoping for more.

"Our Matco Tools team feels great," Brown said. "We had a great test session and we got a lot accomplished. We're running the six-disc clutch for the first time and it looks really promising. We tested it last year but we didn't run it in competition. Now we made the decision to use it in Pomona. It's a good combination and it's really smooth. The car seems really stable and that's a big deal for us."

At last year's Winternationals, Brown qualified fourth but crashed during the second round of eliminations after a mechanical failure. He was uninjured, partly in thanks to the enclosed canopy on his rail dragster that was developed by DSR and run first by teammate Tony Schumacher.

Schumacher, the seven-time Top Fuel champion, is seeking his first title since reeling off six consecutive championships between 2004 and '09. Spencer Massey, who finished fourth in the 2013 standings, returns in DSR's third Top Fuel entry.

Schumacher's 2013 season highlight was a record ninth title at the U.S. Nationals, breaking a tie with drag racing legend Don Garlits. Schumacher and Garlits each boast six wins at Pomona.

"Just being tied with Garlits for anything is a career highlight," said Schumacher, who is the Top Fuel career record holder for event wins (72) and wins in one season (15 in 2008).

Schumacher started last season with two wins in the first four events, but suffered engine problems that relegated him to seventh in the standings by season's end.

"We knew we had a winning car that probably could have won the championship," Schumacher said. "But [crew chief Mike Green and assistant Neal Strausbaugh] didn't feel the car was doing what it was supposed to do. It was going out and going fast but it was detonating the engine, blowing itself up.

"Mike and Neal made a responsible call to make the right changes that got the Army dragster running safe and without blowing up engines and putting oil on the track," he added. "We're not used to that, but we are specialists in adversity. We've always been that way and this year will be a great example of proving that."

Morgan Lucas finished fifth in the 2013 standings, but after becoming a father for the first time in the offseason, he plans to cut back to a part-time schedule to handle increasing business commitments. Australian Richie Crampton takes over Lucas' full-time seat, while last year's second driver, Brandon Bernstein, is seeking a ride as the new season unfolds.

Crampton, who has raced Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster, has worked in a variety of roles for Morgan Lucas Racing since 2007. He earned his Top Fuel license in the offseason and recently completed 24 runs during the Palm Beach test.

"It's a dream come true," Crampton said. "I think one of the biggest things I have up my sleeve, which isn't necessarily a driving-related thing, is the fact that I've just worked with this team for so long. The team chemistry is there right away. I've seen the way this team operates and how I paid close attention to how Morgan goes about handling things during the race weekend as a driver. Beyond that, I definitely am a rookie."

Brittany Force, last year's Top Fuel rookie of the year, is hoping for a breakout season in John Force Racing's Castrol Edge-sponsored rail car.

John Force prides himself on the role he has taken in promoting safety in drag racing, and JFR is the latest team to incorporate an enclosed canopy on a Top Fuel car. Todd Smith, formerly with Don Schumacher Racing, has joined JFR as Brittany Force's crew chief.

"We finished my rookie season on a high note with a semifinal finish at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona and then winning rookie of the year," Force said. "I'm looking forward to racing with Todd as my crew chief. Guido [Dean Antonelli] is still working on my car and I think they will work really well together. We made some good laps during testing and I am ready to get the season started."

ESPN2 will broadcast highlights from qualifications from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET Saturday, with eliminations set to be televised on ESPN from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET on Sunday.