Gary Densham takes the qualifying lead during a drag race at the NHRA Winternationals… (Marc Gewertz / NHRA )
Del Worsham and Larry Dixon, two former drag-racing champions and Southern California natives, are back on track in 2013 — literally.
After winning the 2011 title in drag racing's fastest class, top fuel, Worsham took last year off to be crew chief for Alexis DeJoria, who was a rookie last year in funny car, the other elite class in the National Hot Rod Assn.
Now Worsham, 43, is again driving a funny car himself, which he had done for most of his career, as the NHRA opens its season this weekend with the Winternationals in Pomona.
Dixon, meanwhile, is a three-time top-fuel champion who spent most of last season on the sidelines after leaving the Al-Anabi Racing team after the 2011 season for reasons both sides kept to themselves.
Dixon, 46, is back driving a top-fuel dragster with the Australian team Rapisarda Autosport. But they joined forces only last month, so they see the Winternationals more as a test session than a race they expect to win.
"We didn't get any testing in this winter," Dixon said. "But I'm cautiously optimistic."
But Worsham hopes to be competitive quickly. "It could take a little while for the rust to burn off," Worsham said, but "21 years of driving with one year off, hopefully it's not a big deal."
It wasn't Thursday, when Worsham opened the first round of funny car qualifying with a pass of 4.104 seconds down the 1,000-foot Auto Club Raceway dragstrip at a speed of 306.26 mph.
He eventually finished sixth among funny car drivers, with Gary Densham first at 4.053 seconds and 307.09 mph.
Qualifying continues Friday and Saturday, with final eliminations Sunday to determine the winners.
Worsham is driving the DHL-sponsored funny car once driven by team owner Connie Kalitta's son, Scott Kalitta, until the younger Kalitta was killed in a racing crash in 2008.
"Scott and I were good friends," Worsham said, "and I'm humbled to be taking over the controls of his race car. The DHL funny car will always be Scott's car."
Dixon has 62 career top-fuel wins, second only to Tony Schumacher's 69. On Thursday, Dixon was 10th in top-fuel qualifying with a pass of 3.968 seconds at 244.74 mph.
Brandon Bernstein, the top-fuel winner in NHRA Finals at Pomona at the end of last season, was first at 3.761 seconds and 325.22 mph.
Brittany Force's much-anticipated debut in a top-fuel dragster ended before it began.
Moments before she prepared to hit the throttle, Force, daughter of 15-time funny car champion John Force, rolled her dragster just past the starting line and effectively fouled out before she could take off.
Brittany Force said the 8,000-horsepower car wouldn't stop where she wished despite her braking, and her team later began probing the car's braking system looking for any malfunction.