Antron Brown (LEFT) raced to the qualifying lead Thursday in Top Fuel at the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Auto Parts Winternationals presented by Valvoline as NHRA opened its 60th anniversary season at the birthplace of hot rodding – Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Johnny Gray and Erica Enders also were qualifying leaders in their respective categories at the first of 22 events in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
Brown powered his Matco Tools dragster to a leading run of 3.804 at 319.98, just in front of teammates Spencer Massey and Tony Schumacher, who posted identical 3.804sec runs in their Prestone/FRAM and U.S. Army dragsters. Brown claimed the top spot by virtue of his faster speed.
"All of our crew chiefs really work well together, and that's really showing right now, and that's what you really need if you want to beat that Al-Anabi team for that championship," Brown said. "You've got so many good teams out here. Look at how many people ran the same E.T. Our field is definitely stacked this year. I mean, you've got the Al-Anabi guys and all three of our DSR teams, including Tony [Schumacher], Spencer [Massey], and myself, and the Kalittas, Morgan [Lucas], Shawn [Langdon], Brandon [Bernstein] – there's just so many cars.
"It's going to be a heck of a battle this year. We just want to start the year off right. We struggled a little bit at the beginning of last year, and then we came on strong the last four races of last year. We're still just riding off what we did at the end of last year, and we're just coming here and take it one round at a time and race as strong as we can because we want to be there at the end for that championship."
Gray moved to the top of the Funny Car order with a 4.079 at 306.33 in his Service Central Dodge Charger. If the run stands through Saturday's final two qualifying sessions, it will be Gray's first No. 1 qualifying position in his 14-year career.
"There was nothing wrong with that deal," Gray said. "You know, Don [Schumacher] put together a great team over there. I've got some great guys. [Crew chief] Lee Beard, Rob Wendland, what can you say? All I have to do is get in there and pull the trigger and hang on. Lee and Don and Rob have provided me with a hot rod here. We're going to ruin some peoples' days."
Gray spent the last three seasons competing in Pro Stock, where he advanced to three final rounds and posted two top 10 points finishes. He advanced to three finals during five seasons of Funny Car competition in the early 2000s.
"I don't have many laps since I came back," Gray said. "So I was probably a little ways behind the car and probably didn't drive it the best, but, hey, we got it down there."
Two-time champ Cruz Pedregon was second in his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry with a 4.088 at 307.86 and defending world champ John Force was third in his Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang with a 4.093 at 305.84.
Enders led the Pro Stock order with a performance of 6.553 at a track record speed of 211.69 in her Za Za Energy Chevy Cobalt.
"That run was awesome," Enders said. "My crew chief came on the radio and let me know what we had run. I had never official run a 6.5 before – we had run it in testing – and I had never been 210, either, and he came on the radio, and he's like, 'Well, you skipped right over 210 and went 211.69.' It's just awesome."
Enders is the most successful female competitor in the history of NHRA Pro Stock, as she has two career runner-up finishes and a No. 1 qualifying position (2006 Topeka) on her resume. This season she has reunited with former team Cagnazzi Racing after spending last season driving part-time for Cunningham Motorsports.
"To be back with Victor Cagnazzi, I'm so excited," Enders said. "I haven't stopped smiling [since rejoining Cagnazzi Racing]. To be back where I started with a team of that caliber and the type of people they are is awesome. I'm excited about the opportunity, and I think we have a lot to be optimistic about."
Ron Krisher was second with a 6.562 at 211.26 in his Valvoline Cobalt, while Greg Stanfield was third in his Safety Sentry Pontiac GXP with a 6.562 at 210.77.