POMONA, Calif. -- Darrell Russell became the third professional driver in NHRA history to win his first start, taking Sunday's 41st annual AutoZone Winternationals at Pomona Raceway, NHRA's 50th Anniversary season-opener. Bruce Sarver, Kurt Johnson and Randy Daniels also were winners of the $1.9 million race, the first of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
With the victory, Russell joins Gary Scelzi (Top Fuel, 1997) and K.C. Spurlock (Funny Car, 1990) as the only NHRA pro drivers to win in their first professional attempt.
"This is a pretty incredible accomplishment," said Russell, a former Federal-Mogul Dragster standout. "For this to happen to me, It's a dream come true."
Russell, new driver for retired five-time champ Joe Amato, sped down the track in 4.665 seconds at 309.77 mph in his Amato Racing dragster to defeat Mike Dunn, whose machine lost traction and slowed to a 5.560 at 231.44.
"Compared to my alcohol dragster, this car is pretty amazing," said Russell, who defeated Andrew Cowin, Doug Kalitta and Bobby Baldwin to advance to the final round. "It's like the car launches all over again at half-track." Amato retired following the end of the 2000 season as the sport's winningest Top Fuel driver with five championships and 52 victories. He was extremely pleased with the efforts of his new driver.
"This is almost as much fun as driving," said Amato. "Anytime you can debut a new driver and new crew chief and get the points lead that's pretty good stuff. This is a great start for this team. It's way beyond my expectations."
With the victory, Russell leads Dunn by 15 in the Winston points standings. Sarver claimed his second career Funny Car victory, outrunning Tony Pedregon in the final. Sarver powered his Pontiac Firebird to a 4.887 at 308.35 to hold off Pedregon's Ford Mustang, which ran 4.957 at 284.34. "This new car is a rocket," said Sarver, who leads Pedregon by 20 in the Winston points chase. "I think this win is a lot better than the first one because I was just so stunned at the time. Now, I get to be a hero for at least two weeks."
Johnson earned his 22nd career Pro Stock victory with his run of 6.912 at 200.44 in his new Chevy Cavalier to edge Darrell Alderman's Dodge R/T, which clocked a slower 6.936 at 200.41.
"It has been quite a run over the last six months," said Johnson of his seventh victory in the last 12 races. "Consistency has always bit us in the past. We've got the horsepower now and a chassis that's consistent every time I let out the clutch."
Johnson leads Alderman by 20 in the Winston points standings. Daniels won his eighth Pro Stock Truck title, holding off fellow Chevy S-10 driver Greg Stanfield for the victory. Daniels covered the distance in 7.527 at 179.97, edging Stanfield, who posted a run of 7.552 at 179.49. "The truck was awesome from the time we took it off the trailer on Thursday," Daniels said. "This is a nice start, but we still have a lot of work to do if we're going to beat that yellow truck (defending Winston champ Bob Panella)."
Daniels leads Stanfield by 25 in the Winston points standings. The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event is the 17th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals presented by Pennzoil, Feb. 15-18 at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix.