Defending national champion John Force is in fifth place in the qualifying… (Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire )
The National Hot Rod Assn. Winternationals lived up to the name Saturday — it was wintry cold. But more important, it was sunny and dry.
So the stage is set for the elimination rounds Sunday at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, beginning at 11 a.m. Those rounds will determine the champions of the first event of 22 on the Full Throttle Series that concludes with the NHRA Finals back at Pomona in November.
The scariest race Saturday came in the day's second qualifying round of the funny car competition when defending national champion John Force nearly collided with Bob Bode just after crossing the finish line.
"That's why you get your insurance from Auto Club," said Force, who never misses a chance to plug a sponsor. He said he pulled down the head sock under his helmet and it covered his eyes just as the Christmas tree starting light went off. So he made a blind run and missed blindsiding Bode by what appeared to be inches as his car veered into Bode's lane as his parachutes released onto the front of Bode's car.
Force is in fifth place in the qualifying standings. The top spot belongs to Cruz Pedregon, a Torrance native who in Saturday's second round of qualifying covered 1,000 feet in 4.015 seconds, the third-fastest funny car run ever.
On a partially cloudy day, Pedregon stole some thunder from Johnny Gray, 53, of Artesia, N.M., who had been the surprise entry in the funny car class. Gray had the top time in qualifying Thursday with a run of 4.079 seconds and then came back with a time of 4.049 in the first of Saturday's two qualifying runs to grab the No. 2 spot.
Gray raced in pro stock the past three years after managing to find only one funny car ride from 2004 to 2006.
Cruz Pedregon will square off against brother Tony in the first round of eliminations Sunday. Matt Hagan, runner-up to Force in the national standings last year, moved up to the No. 7 spot with a run of 4.099 seconds and 302.01 mph.
Qualifying on Friday was scrapped because of rain, reducing the number of rounds from four to three heading into Sunday's eliminations.
Larry Dixon, who wrapped up his third top-fuel national title at the NHRA Finals this past November, is off to another good start. He slipped past Antron Brown and moved into the top qualifying spot with two great runs Saturday — 3.783 seconds with a top speed of 322.42 mph, followed by a national-record 3.770 seconds and 324.98 mph, tied for third-fastest ever in top fuel.
This was the ninth time in the last 20 NHRA events that Dixon has finished first in qualifying.
Brown, No. 1 after Thursday's qualifying, dropped to No. 2. Six-time national champion Tony Schumacher is No. 3.
Erica Enders held onto the top spot in pro stock with her personal-best quarter-mile run on Thursday of 6.553 seconds and 211.69 mph. Four-time defending champion Greg Anderson moved up to No. 2 with a run of 6.556 and 210.77 during Saturday's opening qualifying round. The second round was canceled after temperatures dipped late in the day and the track was deemed too cold.