John Force untouchable at Pomona

POMONA, Calif. -- If the cloudy conditions weren't ideal for sunbathing, they were certainly ideal for speed at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, where John Force threw a victory parade for himself over the weekend at the 54th annual Circle K Winternationals.

The legendary drag racer spends much of his time in Brownsburg, Ind., these days, but his home and his heart are still in nearby Yorba Linda.

The subzero temperatures and snow in the Hoosier heartland made Pomona's mild, 65-degree weather seem like paradise. It certainly was for Force, as the 16-time Funny Car champion qualified No. 1 and bulldozed through four rounds of eliminations at his longtime home track.

Force prevailed on Sunday after an excellent day of racing in every professional category. After narrowly edging Tommy Johnson Jr. of the rival Don Schumacher Racing team by a thousandth of a second in an epic quarterfinal matchup, Force reset the national record in the final, clocking 3.965 seconds while opponent Matt Hagan smoked the tires. The 324.12-mph trap speed from his Friday qualifying pass established a new speed record.

It's the first time since November 2006 that Force has held the Funny Car record time and speed, but more importantly, Sunday marked his 139th event win in NHRA competition.

"When you're my age -- 64 years old -- you put a fire suit on and you're 24 again. You feel like Superman," said Force, who jokingly flexed his muscles during a colorful ESPN television interview immediately after the final race.

"Bottom line: I ain't flexing my muscles," he added. "[Crew chief] Jimmy Prock is flexing his muscles. My old hot rod, she's fast and I'm proud of it. I love it and I just want to keep my job. I'm going to do whatever it takes."

Force said that he fell victim to some staging line gamesmanship by Hagan in the final, which was reflected in a .087-second reaction time. Hagan's challenge went up in smoke within 100 feet, while Force fought his bucking Mustang over the full 1,000-foot pass to a record ET.

"That car ran 93 or 94 [3.93 or 3.94], I guarantee it when they look at the data," Force said. "Hagan went deep into the starting box and I parked it. My timing was off, but I still had a fair light and went on to win.

"I owe it all to Jimmy Prock," he added. "That's how I beat these young guys. I've got a good race car. We're back in the game and we're excited. Everything is going right, and I don't get it. I ain't that good of a guy. But there's a lot going on with our sponsors, so what a good time to flex your muscles."

Alexis DeJoria and Robert Hight joined the three-second club at Pomona over the weekend with career-best sub-four-second runs. DeJoria, who clocked a 3.997-second run in Saturday qualifying, is the first female Funny Car driver to accomplish the feat.

"I always knew we had it in us; it was just a matter of time," said DeJoria, who was eliminated by Gary Densham in Sunday's first round. "This definitely sets the tone for what is sure to be an awesome season."

Meanwhile, Ron Capps endured a challenging weekend, with video of his DSR Dodge Avenger blowing up on Friday evening getting widespread airplay. Capps brushed the wall during his quarterfinal contest against Bob Tasca.

As a whole, the quarterfinal round of eight was drag racing at its finest, with nine of the 12 races in the three Pro categories decided by .075 seconds or less. The highlight in Top Fuel was a superb run between Al-Anabi Racing teammates Khalid alBalooshi and defending category champion Shawn Langdon, with alBalooshi prevailing with a 3.739 pass to Langdon's 3.768.

"We have nothing to hang our heads about," said Langdon, who won the previous two races at Pomona as well as the 2013 Top Fuel championship. "Balooshi made a great run and we just weren't as quick as we needed to be. It's a long season and we're still leaving here fifth in the points."

AlBalooshi's excellent run against his champion teammate wasn't a fluke. He advanced through an incredibly close semifinal round in which the two races were decided by a combined 0.004 seconds to take on No. 1 qualifier Doug Kalitta in the final. Kalitta set Pomona track records of 3.713 seconds and 330.15 mph during the weekend, but smoked the tires in the final, allowing alBalooshi to win with a subdued 3.974-second pass.

It was alBalooshi's third career win in NHRA Top Fuel competition, and the eighth Winternationals win (with six different drivers) for Al-Anabi Racing team manager Alan Johnson, who was reminded that he and his brother Blaine DNQ'd on their Winternationals debut in 1994.

"We had a strong day today," alBalooshi said. "Any day is great when you can take down Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon and Steve Torrance, and Doug's car all weekend was one of the best cars in the show. To take all of them down in one day is a great thing for us.

"Last year our car got better and better, but at the start of this season I thought our car was way better in testing in Florida," he continued. "Our car got better and better and better each round, and this is a great way to start our season."

Jason Line claimed his third Winternationals victory in Pro Stock, running 6.526/212.06 in his Chevrolet Camaro to V. Gaines' 6.533/212.56.

"It's a huge deal to start the season off like this and I didn't want to lose to an ugly Dodge in the finals," Line remarked. "We've struggled the last few years, but we worked hard in the offseason. This means a lot to us. The sport is crazy competitive right now and it's hard to separate yourself from everyone."