John Force is synonymous with funny car drag racing, with a prodigious 14 championships and an animated nature that has made him perhaps the sport's most popular figure.
Yet when Force arrived in Pomona for the 50th running of the Winternationals, the season opener for the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Full Throttle Series, he was hungry to show he could win again.
After all, Force had won only once since he was seriously injured in a racing crash in 2007 that required extensive rehabilitation, and that victory was 20 months ago.
But any doubts were erased Sunday when Force edged Ron Capps by the narrowest of margins to win the Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway, his 127th career win.
And the 60-year-old Force did so with reflexes that still appear superlative. Capps actually traversed the 1,000-foot drag strip with an elapsed time that was a tick faster -- 4.123 seconds versus Force's 4.124 seconds -- and yet Force won the race.
The reason: a faster reaction time off the starting line.
"This is really huge," Force said. "It wasn't so much the winning but coming back from the cellar, and I was in the cellar."
Winning the 50th running of the Winternationals made it even more special, he said, because "that will never come again. And the 100th? I may not be here."
In top fuel, the NHRA's other premier class, two-time champion Larry Dixon of Van Nuys beat defending race winner Doug Kalitta to capture his fourth Winternationals.
The win "is beyond words," said Dixon, whose winning pass was 3.808 seconds at 316.60 mph. "I feel blessed, feel lucky to be with this car and this team" of Al-Anabi Racing.
Capps, who drives for Don Schumacher Racing, was the defending funny car winner of the Winternationals, and he met Force after defeating Bob Tasca III in the semifinals. Force defeated Jack Beckman to win his semifinal round.
Earlier in the day, there was brief confusion when Force squared off against his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, in the second round.
Just as Force Hood rolled forward to do her burnout, one of her parachutes fell out of its protective cover at the back of her car.
As Force idled in the right lane, Force Hood's crew frantically repackaged her parachute in time for the race, which Force then won handily with a fast 4.120-second ET and 305.49 mph.
"It's the only way the old man can beat her, but I'll take it," Force joked after the parachute problem.
The third driver on John Force's team, reigning title holder Robert Hight, was knocked out early.
Hight was the fastest qualifier for the race but lost in the first round to 2008 champion Cruz Pedregon, who had reached the final eliminations in the 16th and slowest qualifying spot.
Hight, in the left lane, lost control of his car before the halfway point and swerved across the center divider -- an automatic disqualification. Pedregon then lost to Capps in the second round.
"All of a sudden I turned sideways, so I lifted" off the throttle, said Hight, who also is Force's son-in-law. "Unfortunately, it shot me across the center line and I couldn't bring it back."
The always effervescent Force was, not surprisingly, especially high-spirited after his victory.
"I really wanted to show [his wife] Laurie that I could win" again, especially on Valentine's Day, Force said. "Laurie always believed in me.
"I came out here this weekend with the right attitude to jump into the fight," he said, adding: "I ain't quitting. Got nowhere to go."
The final round in top fuel followed an unusual semifinal race between Dixon and reigning champion Tony Schumacher.
Schumacher lost to Dixon by inches after both drivers ran an identical ET, 3.836 seconds, at an identical top speed, 317.05 mph -- an extremely rare event.
Dixon also won that race by having a slightly better reaction time at the starting line than Schumacher, who edged Dixon by just two points last season to win a record sixth consecutive title and seventh overall.
In pro stock, reigning series champion Mike Edwards won his division by nipping three-time champion Greg Anderson with a run of 6.577 seconds at 210.47 mph.
The Full Throttle Series' second event of the season is this weekend at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix.