Antron Brown's defense of the top-fuel championship begins at the… (Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire )
Antron Brown was in constant motion before qualifying Friday, what with fans wanting his autograph, crew members wanting his ear and no less than drag-racing legend John Force wanting a bit of his guidance.
But Brown wasn't complaining because it comes with having won the top-fuel championship in the National Hot Rod Assn. last year, when Brown became the first African American driver to win a major U.S. motor-racing title.
Now Brown is starting his quest to win back-to-back championships at this weekend's season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona.
"We're ready for battle," said Brown, 36. "We didn't stop working in the off-season, and in fact we went to work even harder ... to hold on to that championship."
Brown, who drives for Don Schumacher Racing, then made a pass of 3.768 seconds at 328.14 mph in the second round of qualifying Friday.
That was third fastest among the top-fuel drivers with one more day of qualifying set for Saturday. Finals eliminations are Sunday.
Brown's teammate Tony Schumacher, the record seven-time champion, led the top-fuel class with a pass of 3.758 seconds at 328.14 mph on the 1,000-foot Auto Club Raceway dragstrip.
Brown's title last year was decided on the final day of the season-ending NHRA Finals, also in Pomona, when Schumacher nearly snatched it away.
Brown had entered the race with a 67-point lead in the title standings. But Brown lost in the first round of eliminations, then had to wait several hours to see whether Schumacher would win the event and the championship.
But Schumacher lost in the final round to Brandon Bernstein, and Brown had his title by a margin of only seven points.
"I was trying to take it," Schumacher said of the title. "But let's remember one thing: He [Brown] is not the champ because I lost. He's a champ because they dominated all year."
Indeed, Brown had a series-high six wins last year, the same number of victories he earned in 2011. But Brown said the competition has intensified, noting that 10 drivers scored top-fuel victories last year.
"The competition went to an all-time [high] level," he said. "Just to win one race would have been special. Now we have to refocus for this year."
Brittany Force was 12th fastest after making her top-fuel debut run at 3.845 seconds and 293.22 mph. She effectively fouled out before she could qualify the previous day when she was unable to stop her dragster from inching ahead of the starting line.
Reigning funny-car champion Jack Beckman of Norco led qualifiers in that class with a pass of 4.045 seconds at 316.67 mph.
Tony Pedregon, a two-time funny car champion, had a scary moment when his engine exploded, launching the car's lightweight body several stories into the air. Pedregon slowed the rest of the car to a stop and was not hurt.