John Force still reigns in NHRA

The past, present, and future of drag racing were on display Monday night at the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series awards ceremony at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in West Los Angeles.

And much of it was sitting at the John Force Racing table.

Team owner Force has generated plenty of history during his long and storied career, and by adding a record 16th Funny Car championship this year, he proved that even at age 64 he's not ready to be thought of in the past tense.

But even if Force could be near the end of his driving days, his family is very much a part of the sport's present and future. Courtney Force, 25, is already a three-time Funny Car event winner; Brittany Force, though two years older, just completed her rookie season of Top Fuel competition and earned the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, which recognizes the top NHRA rookie of the year.

John Force clinched the 2013 Funny Car crown two weeks ago in Las Vegas, but he still pushed hard enough to qualify No. 1 and race into the final round of eliminations at the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., where he lost to yearlong nemesis Matt Hagan of Don Schumacher Racing.

Despite running without crew chief Dickie Venables, who remained home in Indianapolis recuperating from a medical procedure, Hagan won the final event of the season in his DSR Dodge Charger to somewhat make up for the disappointment of losing out to Force in the championship after leading the Funny Car points for most of the year.

"I'm on cloud nine that our assistant crew chief stepped up and was able to fill some big shoes," Hagan said. "Mike Knudsen has never tuned a race car and had to jump in here, and this guy has done a phenomenal job. It just shows you when something happens someone else can step up and take the reins and run with it.

"My guys have been working so hard and I'm so proud of them," added Hagan, the 2011 NHRA Funny Car champion. "I wish we could have won the championship, but that goes to John this year. I'm young in this sport, and I'll just come in and fight for it next year."

The two category titles that were not decided prior to Pomona ended without a surplus of drama. Shawn Langdon, who came in with a 102-point lead over defending Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, more than took care of business by claiming the event win at Auto Club Raceway to cap his first championship in style.

Langdon capped his breakout seven-win season with a 3.784 second/323.58 mph pass in his Alan Johnson-tuned Al-Anabi Racing rail car to defeat Doug Kalitta, who ran 3.808/322.04.

Langdon bookended his 2013 campaign with wins at Pomona, making him only the sixth driver in Top Fuel history to sweep both the season-opening Winternationals and the finale. Tony Schumacher (2004), Gary Scelzi (2000), Mike Dunn (1999), Darrell Gwynn (1989) and Gary Ormsby (1986) also accomplished the feat.

"This is the top of the cake this weekend," said Langdon, who secured his first Top Fuel crown when Brown failed to land the No. 1 qualifying position he needed to take the championship fight into eliminations. "It's an absolutely special weekend for everybody involved with Al-Anabi Racing. This is what I envisioned as a kid, wanting to be a professional drag racer. When you're living a dream and being part of something special, it almost puts you at a loss for words. I'm very fortunate to be a part of a great team. I still have to keep pinching myself.

"The team has been in this position before, but it's all new to me as a driver," Langdon added. "I was a nervous wreck coming in, but I built up some confidence as the weekend went on. My lights started getting better and better, and the car was getting better as well."

Jeg Coughlin Jr. rebounded from a disappointing, winless 2012 season to take four race wins on the way to the Pro Stock title. It was Coughlin's fifth PS crown but his first since 2008.

Coughlin dropped out in the second round of eliminations at Pomona, but so did his closest championship challenger, Jason Line, putting the title drama to an early end.

"In this day and age, it's so tough to win out here," Coughlin said. "We've seen a lot of races won and lost by just a few thousandths of a second, and I think this is one of the tightest and most intense championships I've ever won."

Rickie Jones claimed his first Pro Stock race win, defeating 2012 category champion Allen Johnson with a holeshot in the final in what was the day's most competitive race. Jones clocked 6.584/210.28 to Johnson's slightly quicker 6.581/211.03.

"Man, it was so emotional," said Jones, 26. "It seemed like it took forever for the win light to come on, and when it did, there were so many tears in my eyes that I almost couldn't see the turnoff road. To get my first win at the Finals at Pomona, which is one of the biggest races of the year, is really awesome. This is what I've always wanted since I was racing junior dragsters when I was 10."

With the Pro Stock Motorcycle title already decided in Matt Smith's favor at Las Vegas, Eddie Krawiec took the final PSM race of the year at Pomona. Krawiec presented the Wally Parks trophy he received for his win to Harley-Davidson icon Willie G. Davidson, who was on hand to celebrate Krawiec's victory.

"The odd stat is that I've won here every year that I've lost the championship, and won this race in years when I've lost the championship," said Krawiec, who finished third in this year's PSM standings. "I guess that it's a good way to cap the season either way."

The 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series kicks off at Pomona with the 54th Annual Winternationals, set for Feb. 6-9.