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Pedregon's title run just doesn't drag on

Cruz wins NHRA's championship in funny cars after the first of four rounds with help from brother Tony.

November 17, 2008|Jim Peltz | Peltz is a Times staff writer.

Cruz Pedregon struggled to keep speaking as he choked back tears. So did Tim Wilkerson. So did Robert Hight.

It was only noon, after only the first of four rounds of eliminations for funny car dragsters in the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona.

But that opening round proved the last one that Pedregon needed to win a close, emotion-packed funny car championship over the heartbroken Wilkerson and Hight at Auto Club Raceway on Sunday.

It was Pedregon's second funny car title, coming 16 years after the Torrance native won his first one.

And Pedregon wasn't done. As dusk fell, he put an exclamation point on his day by winning the final over Ron Capps of Carlsbad -- with a run of 4.087 seconds and 303.30 mph -- giving Pedregon three consecutive event wins at season's end.

"I can't even say it's a dream, it's meant everything to me" to win the title again, said Pedregon, 45, whose effort was aided by his brother Tony, the 2007 funny car champion.

"I'm beyond happy, I'm beyond excited," Cruz Pedregon said. "No way did I think the championship would be clinched" in the first round.

In the sport's other premier class, top fuel, Larry Dixon won by defeating Rod Fuller with a pass of 3.833 seconds at 300.93 mph.

As Dixon crossed the finish line, his engine exploded in flames, but the driver wasn't injured.

"The way it blew up, we obviously left everything on the track," he quipped.

Tony Schumacher was eliminated early, but he already had clinched his fifth consecutive top-fuel championship, and sixth overall, two weeks ago in Las Vegas.

So the focus Sunday was on the funny car title.

The season finale of the NHRA's Powerade Series began with Pedregon holding a 12-point edge over Wilkerson and a 39-point lead over Hight.

A near capacity crowd -- perhaps sensing that the title could be decided early -- had maneuvered around shuttered freeways and other roads closed by the Southern California brush fires and arrived on time for the opening round.

It began with Pedregon advancing to the semifinals by knocking out Jerry Toliver.

Then Wilkerson lost to 14-time champion John Force -- Hight's team owner -- when Wilkerson red-lighted, or left the starting line too soon.

It was the first time in four years and 97 races that Wilkerson had red-lighted, a bitter end to a season in which the Springfield, Ill., driver had led the funny car point standings for much of the season.

"I was just amped-up, I was ready to race," said a red-eyed Wilkerson, 45. "But, hey, what are you going to do about it? It's been a great year."

That left Hight as Pedregon's last challenger for the title. But Tony Pedregon eliminated Hight, whose Yorba Linda home barely escaped the fires Saturday.

That gave the championship to Cruz Pedregon, who ultimately finished 93 points ahead of second-place Wilkerson. Jack Beckman of North Hills, Calif., was third in the standings, Hight was fourth and Tony Pedregon fifth.

Hight, 39, said that he "was choked up" after seeing his title hopes vanish after only one round. The championship battle was "all consuming," he said. "You get down to the last race and your hopes are so high. We couldn't pull it off this year, but I guarantee you we'll start next week for the Winternationals," the season opener that's also in Pomona, he said.

Although Schumacher was eliminated in the second round of top-fuel racing by Rod Fuller, Schumacher still tied Greg Anderson for most wins in a season (15) and most round victories (76).

The race with Fuller "was just decided by a few inches, you got your money's worth right there," said Schumacher, whose crew chief Alan Johnson is leaving next year to form his own team.

Although Fuller lost to Dixon in the final round, Fuller took note of the remarkable winning streak of the Schumacher-Johnson team and said, "I can say I was the last person to ever beat them."

The top fuel and funny car races were 1,000 feet long, not the traditional quarter mile, or 1,320 feet. After two fatal accidents, the National Hot Rod Assn. this summer shortened the races indefinitely to slow the cars' top speeds and provide extra slowing distance in case of accidents.

In the pro stock class, Greg Anderson won when Kurt Johnson red-lighted. Jeg Coughlin Jr. already had clinched the pro stock title.

And in pro stock motorcycles, Chris Rivas of Fresno won the race while Eddie Krawiec of Englishtown, N.J., won his first championship after Matt Smith was eliminated in the second round.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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