If the point of the NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship is to take the season title down to the wire, the Countdown served it's purpose today during the Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. No champion was locked in before Sunday's eliminations and Jeg Coughlin, Tony Pedregon, Tony Schumacher and Matt Smith were able to survive all the drama and the intense new format to win 2007 POWERade Championships. Robert Hight won a Wally for the event.
Coughlin, crowned after the second round of Pro Stock eliminations, was the first to earn a POWERade championship. He controlled his own destiny after both of the other championship contenders, Greg Anderson and Dave Connolly, lost in the first round. If "Jegs" won, he'd win his third Pro Stock championship. If he lost, Anderson wins. Lining up next to Richie Stevens, Coughlin took off and never looked back. Coughlin went on to win the event, beating Justin Humphrey in a great side-by-side battle with a 6.638 second run, the Low ET of the weekend.
"It was spectacular," he shared. "I woke up this morning and knew I was two rounds behind. We knew we needed to have an outstanding day personally, and a little bit of luck form the other two teams [in the running]. As soon as I cracked up the engine on my Chevy, I felt outstanding."
Coughlin summed things up, "We had a mean hot rod from Pomona to Pomona. We were on when we needed to be. The car was phenomenal. To seal our third Pro Stock championship feels absolutely phenomenal. The days concluded and we're proud."
Tony Pedregon was forced to delay his Funny Car championship celebration after losing in the first round to Jeff Arend. Pedregon was pretty much a lock to win his second championship, but his loss gave Robert Hight a glimmer of hope. If Hight could win the event and set a new national record, he could steal the championship from Pedregon. But Hight's third round winning pass wasn't fast enough for the record so the championship was Pedregon's.
"It wasn't a good feeling losing in the first round," Pedregon shared. "The Countdown may have its pros and cons, it was very stressful, but I saw a lot more media and a lot more excitement."
Walking up to the podium to receive his trophy, Pedregon was greeted on the way by former boss John Force. Pedregon won his first championship while driving for Force. "I've tried to dislike John, I've tried to hate him but I can't. He always makes me smile. He's a great guy. My career has been about being around good people and good teachers."
On winning his first championship while also a team owner Pedregon shared, "When I won my first race as a team owner, that was significant. I believed there was a way to do it. I wanted to do it my own way. Anything in this sport is achievable."
An emotional Pedregon also shared some personal significance, "There are a lot of Hispanic and Latinos that come to this race. They tell me they're cheering for me. When I see them I see a person like myself. A person like me can come from that and can compete. It's not just about driving a race car. I can be an inspiration."
Two John Force Racing cars faced off in the Funny Car final, Robert Hight versus Phil Burkhart, who's filling in for the injured John Force. With Force at the line to watch, Hight pulled away from his teammate and grabbed the victory after a 4.731 second run.
"This is one of the biggest wins you can have. It's good momentum to go into the winter," Hight said. "With all the pressure of The Countdown, all the stuff, the final round was the most fun. John told us to go out there and have some fun. That's usually when you do your best."
Hight continued, "Winning this race didn't make this a good year. We lost our teammate Eric [Medlen] this year. This winter is going to be tough. Eric and I worked a lot together over the winter. But I'm going to take some of his advice tonight. I'm going to go home and have a little ice cream," Hight said with a smile.
Andrew Hines was prime to win his fourth Pro Stock Motorcycle championship, until he lost in the second round on a foul. He opened the door for Chip Ellis and Matt Smith to battle it out in the final round; whoever won that match up would win the race and the POWERade Championship. Smith had a faster reaction at the light and went on to win his first ever POWERade Championship.
"This was a wild day," Smith said. "We came into this race just wanting to win the race. I thought we could get second [in points]. When I saw Andrew lose in the second round I thought 'Wow'. I knew we had a great bike and I'm just happy we could capitalize on it."
A family affair for Smith, his dad Rickie is a 5 time IHRA champion. "This is pretty special, especially with my dad here helping us. This is my mom's first time to see me win a race." Smith continued, "We had the best bike. I think we won the old point system too. We came in today to win the race. That was our focus coming into today. God looked after us today and all weekend. All in all, it was an awesome weekend."
Not wanting to be left out of the drama, The Top Fuel championship was drawn out after points leader Rod Fuller smoked the tires and lost in the first round. After a strong season that included three wins, had Fuller won his first round match up, he would've locked in the championship. Instead, he was left to watch the championship play out from the sidelines. Brandon Bernstein had an opportunity to grab the championship in the semi finals, but failed to beat Tony Schumacher to the line.
Schumacher became the man in control: win the final round over Bob Vandergriff, win his fourth straight championship. Schumacher did just that, blasting down the quarter mile in 4.486 seconds reaching a top speed of 328.30 mph.
"I'm much happier being in the car having to win than to be on the side hoping someone else would lose," Schumacher said. "After the second round I thought this is dejà vu," he shared referring to his miracle run for the championship one year ago. [In 2006 Schumacher needed to win the race in Pomona, set a national record and have Doug Kalitta lose in the first round.] My guys are so good under crunch time. We spent a lot of time preparing for that run period."
Schumacher shared his biggest satisfaction on the day, "It's my dad's birthday, which is the biggest. I drive for my dad so when it's his birthday, man you want to win." He continued, "I did not think we were going to pull this off. We've won six races now in a season. We're the best at crunch time. The eight guys that build [my car] give it to me flawless. It's a gift to even be here. I'm proud of how the team and how they acted all day."
Schumacher wrapped things up appropriately, "It was a stunning day."