By safely qualifying into tomorrow's 45th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals, Funny Car's Robert Hight and Pro Stock's Mike Edwards clinched their first respective NHRA Full Throttle Series world championships on Saturday.
Meanwhile, in the dramatic Top Fuel race, after Larry Dixon took the points lead with the quickest pass in the third qualifying session, Tony Schumacher stole it back in the fourth session with the second-quickest pass in Top Fuel history, a 3.772-second run at 320.58mph, to take a two-point lead into Sunday's final eliminations, which start at 11 a.m. (PT).
"That was exactly what we needed. I couldn't ask for anything more. That's Army strong," said Schumacher, who will meet Mike Strasburg in the first round Sunday.
Dixon spun the tires on his final qualifying pass, but said the Al-Anabi Racing team gathered valuable data from that pass and that their strategy for Sunday was unaffected by the aborted final pass.
"Up two or down two, we'd still have to beat him tomorrow to ensure that we win the championship...and that's still the case," Dixon said.
Schumacher and Dixon – who will meet Del Cox in the first round – qualified 1-2 so they're on opposite sides of the draw and couldn't meet until the final round. Each controls his own destiny: Win the race and win the championship.
"It's playing out exactly how you would have scripted it. You can't tell me you're not enjoying it," Schumacher said.
Joining Schumacher as No. 1 qualifiers at the 24th and final race in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season were Ashley Force Hood (Funny Car), Edwards (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
The Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona is the sixth and final race in NHRA's six-race playoff, the Countdown to 1. The race will be televised on ESPN2 HD at 7 p.m. (ET).
Hight, the son-in-law of 14-time champ John Force, entered the six-race NHRA playoffs in 10th place – he was the 10th and final driver to get in – and he proceeded to win three of five playoff races to complete the improbable run to his first championship.
"Almost not making the Countdown – and some of the championships we've come close to winning of the years – is what makes this so special," said Hight, the 2005 Auto Club Road to the Future winner who has twice finished in second place in the final point standings (2006, 2007)
"This is all I've wanted to do," said Hight, who drives the Auto Club Ford Mustang and was awarded the $500,000 Funny Car champion's check. "Once I saw these cars – I saw two Funny Cars run in a match race in Sacramento, it was John Force and Jim Dunn – and, from that moment on, I knew this was all I wanted to do [but] I never thought I'd get [to the point of winning a championship]."
In Pro Stock, Edwards put the exclamation point on the first career championship with the quickest pass of the weekend, a 6.562 at 210.64mph in his A.R.T./Young Life Pontiac. It was Edwards' 16th No. 1 this season, matching the all-time single-season high in NHRA history (Greg Anderson in 2004).
"It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm surrounded by a great bunch of guys. I feel like there's times I've let them down and they've never given up on me," said Edwards, who made his pro debut in 1982. "It's been a long time coming, we've all just been pulling from the same end of the rope...it's been worth the wait.
"We gave everything we had to make this happen this year and it's paid off, it really has," said Edwards, who was awarded the $250,000 Pro Stock champion's purse.
Force Hood's top-qualifying pass of 4.059 seconds in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang was matched by her father, 14-time NHRA champion John Force, but she was awarded the No. 1 by virtue of her faster speed (310.20 to John's 309.20). It was her sixth No. 1 of 2009.
"I'll never hear the end of it from (John Force co-crew chief) Bernie Fedderly: 'Ahhh, had to get us by a mile-per-hour'," said Force Hood, who qualified No. 1 for the first time since Reading. "It might have been too late for the (2009) championship, but at least we've got our car back." Force was seeking his first No. 1 since the 2006 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, points leader Hector Arana delivered a 6.918 at 193.46 aboard his Lucas Oil Buell to secure his eighth No. 1 of the season and ninth of his career.
Arana will bring a 62-point lead into Sunday's eliminations and unless there is a national record set he will only need to defeat first-round opponent Bailey Whitaker to clinch his first career NHRA Full Throttle Series championship.
"To have a chance to win the championship, that's what my dream, my focus point is," said Arana. "It's been a hell of a year, I know I've said it before. I'm just thankful for this opportunity to run for the Full Throttle championship, and I'm thankful to Full Throttle for sponsoring the NHRA and allowing us to do what we love. This is what we live for, what we breathe."