POMONA, Calif. - The Auto Club Finals might've signaled the end of the 1999 NHRA season, but for Ron Capps, owner Don Prudhomme, new crew chief Ed McCulloch and the Copenhagen Racing Funny Car team, it provided a positive beginning for the 2000 campaign.

McCulloch, who joined the team just days before the race began, adapted to his new assignment in spectacular fashion. With help from assistant crew chief Todd Okuhara, McCulloch tuned Capps to not only his quickest runs of the year, but a career-best 4.853 seconds and his fourth career No.1 qualifying berth.

Capps' qualifying effort was dominating. His runs of 4.868, 4.853 and 4.883 seconds were the quickest of each session. He was No. 1 from his initial attempt en route to picking up his fourth career pole position. No other driver was able to run in the 4.80s until John Force did so in Sunday's semifinal round of eliminations.

The ability to put together successive 4.80 runs enabled McCulloch, nicknamed "Ace", to try a few different tune-up variations.

"It was such a big help and that's really what Force has done as have others who have had success," said Capps. "You get a good run in the first round, and then you can really try some things. Ace told me Friday if we go back up and run a low (4).90 or (4).90 flat, that's all we're trying to do in preparation for Sunday.

"'You learn nothing from the run when you smoke the tires. He said, 'Let's just go down the track even if it isn't a great run. We may not be No. 1, but we need to get it down the track.'"

Capps did so, putting up the 4.853 number. Jim Epler was the closest to the Cope Racing Camaro with a 4.908-second run.

During Sunday's competition, Capps led the way in the first round, beating Al Hofmann in the first round with a 4.970 at 291.89 mph, which was the quickest time of the round.

"The first run wasn't that good," noted Capps. "We thought we could run better, but the engine put a cylinder out. Ace and Todd thought we could run better. In the next round, we underestimated the track because the car shook so bad it smoked the tires. We didn't go up blow the tires off because we were too aggressive. It was quite the opposite." And the result was a loss to Dale Creasy Jr. - 5.730 at 243.85 mph to 7.103 at 136.23.

"It would've been great to win," added Capps. "Our Cope Racing crew was disappointed because they knew we should've won the race and that's encouraging going into next year. The way we ended 1999, with the car running the way it is, there's no reason why we can't win races next year."

McCulloch, meanwhile, was disappointed with the early exit, but not with the excellent performances from the car and team. "The weather was up and down like a yo-yo," he said. "In the first run, it was hotter than I anticipated. Then we come back in the second run and I thought it would stay hot but it got cooler and the track was excellent, so the car needed more clutch in it.

"Overall it was a good weekend. The guys did a heckuva job. All I can say is that I'm happy to be part of it and we are going to try to have a banner year in 2000."

Capps finished ninth overall with 891 points.

The next event, the 2000 Winternationals, unfolds Feb. 3-6 at Pomona Raceway.

Qualified: First, 4.853 seconds at 309.34 mph

First round: Capps, 4.970 at 291.89 def. Al Hofmann, 5.045 at 295.14; Quarterfinals: Dale Creasy Jr., 5.730 at 243.85 def. Capps, 7.103 at 136.23.

Race winners: Mike Dunn in Top Fuel, Jerry Toliver in Funny Car, Jeg Coughlin Jr. in Pro Stock