Pomona: Winternationals preview

PUSH FOR 2006 POWERade WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS BEGINS FOR DRAG RACING'S MOST TALENTED DRIVERS POMONA, Calif. -- Gary Scelzi had two months to relax. Now it's time for the 2005 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Funny Car world champion to defend his...

PUSH FOR 2006 POWERade WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS BEGINS FOR DRAG RACING'S MOST TALENTED DRIVERS

POMONA, Calif. -- Gary Scelzi had two months to relax. Now it's time for the 2005 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Funny Car world champion to defend his title against one of the most talented fields in drag racing history.

The Series' hottest drivers return to the track for the 2006 Series season-opener, the 46th annual CARQUEST Auto Parts Winternationals at the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Feb. 9-12. The event, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD is the first of 23 in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Series.

The 2005 NHRA POWERade Series Funny Car title chase came down to one round. Eventually, in the closest Funny Car points chase in NHRA history, Gary Scelzi joined legend Kenny Bernstein as the only two drivers to win world championship titles in both Funny Car and Top Fuel.

"I expect a bigger war than we had in 2005, with a lot more cars being involved in the POWERade chase," said Scelzi, who believes defending his title comes down to consistency and, simply, having "more points than the other guys."

Scelzi, Capps and Force are only the headliners in a Funny Car battle that also includes 2005 rookie of the year Robert Hight and Scott Kalitta, who returns to the category after a successful turn in Top Fuel.

While Kalitta already has significant Funny Car seat time behind him, his teammate Hillary Will makes her debut in the sport's most powerful machine, a Top Fuel dragster. Will, a former collegiate diver and gymnast, makes her move from Top Alcohol dragster to Top Fuel under the umbrella of drag racing legend Connie Kalitta and with the support of team owner Ken Black, whose impressive team includes three-time and defending Pro Stock world champion Greg Anderson and his teammate, Jason Line. Line worked as head dyno operator for NASCAR's Joe Gibbs Racing for five years before the outstanding season behind the wheel that earned him 2004 rookie of the year honors on the NHRA quarter-mile.

Will has already gotten plenty of advice from her mentor, three-time Top Fuel world champion Shirley Muldowney. She might also get some pointers from Melanie Troxel, who became the quickest and fastest female driver in NHRA history in her Skull Gear/Torco Race Fuels dragster after returning to the driver's seat as the ninth entry owned by Don Schumacher Racing. Her teammate, Tony Schumacher, earned his third Top Fuel title in his U.S. Army dragster.

Schumacher is not afraid to be No. 1 on the Top Fuel target list. In fact, he's looking forward to the challenges he and his crew chief Alan Johnson will face this season.

"I am absolutely, 100-percent looking forward to getting started," Schumacher said. "I think (the other drivers) are the exact reason we try to go out and win races -- to make an extra effort. When people say that our team is one of the best they've ever seen, it's because of (the opposition). It's real easy to slack if you don't have opponents that are worthy. They're excellent, so we try harder."

Troxel and husband Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Don Prudhomme-owned Skoal Funny Car, will continue their quest for POWERade titles and bragging rights that come with being the fastest half of the couple. During their holiday break, the two visited New Zealand as marquee guests at the christening of the Lakeside International Dragway. Johnson visited American troops in Germany with Cory McClenathan (Top Fuel), Warren Johnson (Pro Stock) and Jim Yates (Pro Stock).

Troxel is confident she will benefit in 2006 from the confidence gained with her runner-up finish at the Finals, the best performance since her return mid-season.

"I certainly think we are very capable of going out and winning several races," Troxel said. "I don't want to come off as cocky, but I think the goal out there for us is to be a legitimate contender for the championship when we get three quarters of the way through the season."

Also in Top Fuel, 22-year-old Morgan Lucas is still on the hunt for his first win. Lucas proved himself in the Top Alcohol ranks before replacing his hero, the late Darrell Russell, in the pilot's seat of the Lucas Oil dragster in the summer of 2004. In 2005 he earned three runner-up finishes, but has yet to win. Late last year Lucas launched his new enterprise, Morgan Lucas Racing, for which he now serves as general manager.

The Pro Stock field has spent the last three years chasing Anderson, but although he defended his title in 2005, his early campaign showed that even Anderson can falter. Look for a strong challenge by Line, young talent Dave Connolly and the veteran father-son duo of Warren and Kurt Johnson. Also in the running includes 22-year-old Erica Enders, who last fall in Chicago became the first woman to advance to a final round in Pro Stock.

* SCHEDULE: Professional qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2 p.m. on Feb. 9, 2 p.m. on Feb. 10, and 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Feb. 11. Pre-race ceremonies will begin at 10 a.m. on Feb. 12, followed by the first session of professional eliminations at 11 a.m.

* TICKETS: For tickets, call the NHRA, at (800) 884-NHRA (6472). Tickets are also available at Ticketmaster, ticketmaster.com, and nhra.com

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying at 10 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 11. ESPN2 will broadcast NHRA 2Day, a 30-minute weekly news magazine show, at 11:30 a.m. (ET) and televise three hours of eliminations at 7:30 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 12.

-nhra

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , Kenny Bernstein , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Greg Anderson , Cory McClenathan , Don Prudhomme , Melanie Troxel , Morgan Lucas , Connie Kalitta , Don Schumacher , Robert Hight , Hillary Will , Dave Connolly , Ken Black , Tommy Johnson Jr.