Force vs. DeJoria will be worth the wait

POMONA, Calif. -- Halfway through qualifying for the season-opening O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals, it's not too late for some 2012 NHRA predictions. Here are nine things I see coming at the drag strips this year:

1. A rookie battle to remember in Funny Car -- Two drivers with famous fathers will fight it out for rookie of the year honors. And both of them are women.

Courtney Force, 23 and the youngest daughter of NHRA legend John Force, has planned for this moment since she was drawing pictures with crayons of her car racing her dad's car.

Big things are expected of Courtney, but being the best rookie in the class is no lock. Alexis DeJoria, 34, is an experienced racer who moves up from Alcohol Funny Car to the nitro class this year.

She knows people call her by another moniker -- the heiress. DeJoria is the daughter of John Paul DeJoria, owner of Paul Mitchell Hair Care products and Patron Tequila, her primary sponsor.

"I've always been a bit of a daredevil,'' DeJoria said. "But when I first told my dad I wanted to drag race, he wasn't happy about it. Now he loves it."

Some people will pre-judge both women as being lucky rich girls getting an easy road to the NHRA big time. And they'll be wrong.

Both ladies have paid their dues. DeJoria raced five years in Alcohol Funny Car, winning last year in Seattle.

Courtney raced in Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster, winning an event in Seattle two years ago. She spent all last year testing for her father's team. John insisted Courtney graduate from college (she has a communications degree from Cal-State Fullerton) before allowing her to race full-time.

He did the same thing with big sister Ashley, who now is enjoying motherhood.

Courtney has come out of the gate blazing. She's eighth after two qualifying runs with an impressive 4.199 elapsed time Friday (307.09 mph), bettering her 4.210 ET from Thursday.

"I'm having so much fun," Courtney said Friday. "I'm trying to take everything I've learned to the racetrack. I'm having the time of my life."

Obviously, Courtney has good equipment, but so does DeJoria. She's racing for old pro Connie Kalitta and she has Worsham as her tuner. DeJoria is ahead of Courtney by 1/1,000th of a second after two qualifying rounds. DeJoria ran a 4.198 ET Friday.

Both of these women are going to race well and possibly even win an event this season.

2. The Sarge will charge -- Asked what he did in the offseason, Tony Schumacher said: "Well, we didn't have to polish any of our trophies."

For the first time in 10 years, Schumacher failed to win a Top Fuel event last year. That won't happen this year. The seven-time champ is determined to prove last season was a fluke.

"We had some amazing runs and ran fast, just not fast enough," Schumacher said. "We got beat on some close races."

Schumacher, 42, made it to seven final rounds, but lost each time. Four of those losses came to his Don Schumacher Racing teammates -- three to Antron Brown and one to Spencer Massey. The other three were to 2011 champ Del Worsham.

"If it wasn't for my teammates we would have won the championship again," Schumacher said. "But that's OK. It shows we don't have any team orders. If I can't beat them, I don't deserve it."

He's ahead of his teammates after two rounds of qualifying at Pomona. Schumacher is No. 2 with a pass at 3.837 seconds at 321.42 mph.

3. Jack Beckman is the man to beat in Funny Car -- It's a little silly to pick a winner in any pro category this season because each class has more drivers capable of winning than ever before. But what the heck. This is the year for Fast Jack.

Beckman, 45, was the runner-up last season to DSR teammate Matt Hagan. Beckman won three events and was a runner-up two other times.

He has finished in the top five in the points each of the past five seasons. That's more significant than it sounds. The NHRA Countdown playoffs started five years ago, so Beckman has shown he's at his best in the playoff format.

"Since I wasn't able to win the championship last year, I'm glad one of my teammates did," Beckman said. "But, hey, it should be my turn this year."

It should be and it is. Beckman is No. 2 so far in qualifying this weekend to Bob Tasca.

4. Enclosed cockpits are coming -- Before this season is over, Schumacher will come to the starting line with a state-of-the-art canopy on his Army dragster. DSR, along with Aerodine engineers, has worked for a year perfecting the enclosure.

This is no passing fad, and it's a far more advanced piece of equipment than the old windshield canopy Don Garlits used 30 years ago.

This is a gigantic safety advancement that will revolutionize the sport. The NHRA is going through the approval process, but hopefully, within a couple of years, all the Top Fuel teams will have a hard top.

5. Put up or shut up time for Shawn Langdon -- Shawn is in the same position this year as NASCAR's Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports. Both men have moved to a big-boy car with a top team.

No excuses now. Langdon, 29, is driving one of the most coveted rides in the NHRA, replacing Larry Dixon at Al-Anabi Racing. Anything short of championship contention is not good enough while driving for master tuner Alan Johnson.

6. Nobile will challenge the Summit Racing powerhouse -- Teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line have combined to win six of the past nine Pro Stock titles, including the last two (Line last year and Anderson in 2010).

If anyone can challenge their dominance, 20-year-old Vincent Nobile might be the guy. He was a rookie sensation last season, winning three times and reaching five final rounds. He's an exceptional talent, learning the sport from his dad, former Pro Stock driver John Nobile.

7. Team Lucas will challenge the big two in Top Fuel -- Let's face facts. Only two Top Fuel teams had any realistic shot at winning the championship last year.

The two dragsters at Al-Anabi (Worsham and Dixon) and the three cars at DSR (Schumacher, Brown and Massey) were in a league of their own.

That will change in 2012. And one team that could push the two super teams is Morgan Lucas Racing.

Team owner Forrest Lucas has added veteran driver Brandon Bernstein to the team to replace Langdon. Brandon and driver Morgan Lucas are close friends.

This is a big opportunity for Bernstein, who always had driven for his legendary father, Kenny, a six-time NHRA champ. Kenny shut down his team and retired after the 2011 season.

With Morgan and Brandon, the Lucas team is ready to step up. Lucas, the winner at the Winternationals last year, is No. 1 in qualifying so far. He had an elapsed time of 3.835 seconds (320.28 mph) on Thursday.

"We've adopted a motto that if it's not perfect not right," Lucas said Friday. "I really like this car right now. As a team, we feel like we are building toward something with realistic goals. But it would be nice to compete with the big two and get some notoriety from that."

8. Beard will cruise with Cruz -- Veteran tuner Lee Beard is running the show now for former Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon. Beard will make a difference.

"I feel we hit a home run getting Lee on board," Pedregon said. "He and I go way back. I know his personality and I'm looking forward to tapping into some of his knowledge."

9. Khalid alBalooshi will surprise people -- He's the biggest unknown in the NHRA this season as the replacement for Worsham in one of the Al-Anabi dragsters. But people in the know say the 32-year-old Dubai native is the real deal.

He won the Pro Mod title last year, along with the 2011 Arabian Drag Racing League in Qatar. The guy knows how to win. He has 158 total victories in Pro Mod and sportsman class races.

This will be a pressure-filled season for the quiet alBalooshi. He's replacing the defending Top Fuel champ and alBalooshi is viewed as the teacher's pet, so to speak. He's a close friend of the team owner, His Highness Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani, a member of the royal family of Qatar.

If alBalooshi wins, he'll quickly become royalty, NHRA-wise, himself.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.