Perennial bridesmaid Cory McClenathan stated his championship case with a stout 3.787sec pass in the next-to-last pair Saturday night to claim the No. 1 qualifying position in Top Fuel at the season-opening Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline.
The other No. 1 qualifiers at the 50th annual Winternationals were Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock), each of whom celebrated his first career NHRA Full Throttle Series championship just three months earlier at this track when the curtain fell on the 2009 season.
McClenathan (FRAM dragster) was followed in the final pair by defending champion Tony Schumacher (U.S. Army) and runner-up Larry Dixon (Al-Anabi) and his run held up by a thousandth-of-a-second when Dixon just missed with his time of 3.788.
"It backs up what you say," McClenathan said. "We need to go in with the attitude that we need to take it, no one's going to give it to us. Looking over my shoulder, yeah, we've got some tough competitors, but it's nice to go out and do what we did tonight."
McClenathan, who has 10 top-five finishes in his career and four second-place finishes, posted a top speed of 320.05mph on the No. 1 qualifying pass, the 34th of his career and third at the Winternationals.
"Todd (Okuhara, crew chief) came back and said it's all or nothing. It's going to go all the way, or 60 feet, and by the time we got to half track I knew we were on a good run," said McClenathan, who will meet No. 16 Steve Faria in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
Hight set the pace in the first qualifying session on Thursday with a 4.059sec pass at a track-record 312.86mph in his Auto Club Ford Mustang and that time held up on Saturday. It was the 33rd No. 1 of his career and second-straight at the Winternationals.
"I didn't think it would hold," Hight said. "But what is awesome, we got one good run in today, a (4.)10 and ours was backed off so that's what's really going to win this race (Sunday), runs like that."
Hight will meet 2008 Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon in the first round of eliminations on Sunday in a match-up of the last two NHRA Full Throttle Series champions.
"There are no easy rounds," Hight said. "I'm racing 2008 Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon in the first round and we know he is always tough."
In Pro Stock, defending Full Throttle Series champion Edwards picked up where he left off in 2009 with his 10th straight No. 1 qualifier, claiming the position with his 6.578 at 211.00 in his Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP in the early session Saturday.
"It does (feel good). My guys did an awesome job today, made some awesome calls, made a really, really good run this morning," said Edwards, who will meet No. 16 qualifier Justin Humphreys and the RaceRedi Motorsports Ford Mustang team in the first round.
The 50th annual Winternationals begins Sunday at 11 with Top Fuel, followed by Funny Car and Pro Stock.