Pomona: Winternationals final report

JOHNSON, KALITTA AND CONNOLLY OPEN NHRA SEASON WITH VICTORIES AT CARQUEST AUTO PARTS WINTERNATIONALS POMONA, Calif. -- Tommy Johnson Jr. ended a three-year winless drought by racing to the Funny Car victory Sunday at the CARQUEST Auto Parts...

JOHNSON, KALITTA AND CONNOLLY OPEN NHRA SEASON WITH VICTORIES AT CARQUEST AUTO PARTS WINTERNATIONALS

POMONA, Calif. -- Tommy Johnson Jr. ended a three-year winless drought by racing to the Funny Car victory Sunday at the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals at Pomona Raceway.

Scott Kalitta and Dave Connolly also were winners at the $2 million race, the first of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Johnson powered to a 4.741 second run at 327.59 mph in his Skoal Racing Chevy Monte Carlo to take his sixth career victory, while Phil Burkart's Checker Schuck's Kragen Monte Carlo lost traction and limped to a 7.069 at 123.34.

"We absolutely needed this win so bad for our team," said Johnson, who defeated Frank Pedregon, Bob Gilbertson and Whit Bazemore to advance to the final.

"It's no secret how bad we've struggled for the last couple of years," Johnson added. "I ran my career-best time and speed on that run so that's about as picture-perfect as it gets. Plus, Snake (Don Prudhomme, team owner) won this race 40 years ago and today we were able to win it to celebrate that anniversary for him. That's special."

Prudhomme, who now has 99 victories as a team owner and driver, was beaming with pride after the win.

"I am so proud of these guys it's hard to describe," he said. "We knew things would turn but sometimes it seems like it takes forever. This was for the guys. That's why I didn't go down to the top end. This one wasn't about me; it was about that group of guys."

Kalitta drove a consistently quick Mac Tools/Jesse James dragster to his 17th career Top Fuel win, posting a final round effort of 4.487 at 328.46 to defeat Doug Herbert, whose Snap-on Tools dragster suffered an engine misfire near mid-track and posted a 5.371 at 181.84.

It is the first time Kalitta, a two-time NHRA world champion (1994-'95), has led the point standings since Oct. 1995. It is also his first victory at the historic Southern California drag strip.

"I've never won here so this is special," said Kalitta, who defeated Scott Weis, Larry Dixon and Dave Grubnic in earlier rounds. "Dad (crew chief Connie Kalitta) won here way back in 1967 so it's been a long time since we've celebrated here. It's a great time and I'm having fun. If we weren't enjoying ourselves, we wouldn't do it. We certainly don't have to race. We want to race. And when you race, you want to win."

Pro Stock upstart Connolly claimed his fourth career win by outrunning NHRA legend Warren Johnson. Connolly clocked a 6.711 at 204.98 in his Bullet Motorsports Chevy Cavalier, while Johnson's GM Performance Parts Pontiac Grand Am slowed to a 6.802 at 203.31.

"You look at the ladder at the start of the day and you see 16 guys who could easily be standing right here (in the winner's circle)," Connolly said. "Today was just my day. The car was perfect. It went dead straight every pass. My job was easy."

It is the first time Connolly, 22, has led the points standings.

"I might have gotten a jump on the rest of the guys, but you just know it's going to be a long year the way everyone qualified here," Connolly said. "But right now we're No. 1 and we'll take it. It's a great start."

Connolly, who beat Jeg Coughlin, Allen Johnson and Ron Krisher to advance to the final, says he wasn't intimidated against the 92-time winning veteran Johnson, who is going to retire from driving at the end of the season.

"I didn't really get nervous racing Warren," Connolly said. "The guy has done a lot for the class and you have to respect his accomplishments. I don't know if I've ever even raced him before. Certainly to beat him in the finals is a huge deal for anyone."

The NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series continues with the 21st annual Checker Schuck's Kragen NHRA Nationals, Feb. 25-27 at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Doug Herbert , Frank Pedregon , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Warren Johnson , Scott Weis , Bob Gilbertson , Whit Bazemore , Ron Krisher , Scott Kalitta , Don Prudhomme , Allen Johnson , Connie Kalitta , Dave Connolly , Jesse James , Tommy Johnson Jr.