Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon entered the final race of the season separated by a single point and in the first round of qualifying the gap was just a thousandth of a second.
Lined up side by side for the final pass of the first day of qualifying at the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals Thursday, Schumacher, the points leader, ran a 3.832 at 316.52 to Dixon's 3.833 at 314.31.
"Two great teams, two great drivers, two great crew chiefs. It's just a great battle. The fans are going to get their money's worth," Schumacher said.
The other provisional No. 1 qualifiers at the 24th and final race in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season were Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Karen Stoffer (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.
Dixon and the Al-Anabi team have nine No. 1s – including all five in the Countdown to 1 – to just one for Schumacher and the U.S. Army team, but for a day at least Schumacher has the pace-setting run that would allow him to maintain his lead heading into Sunday's final eliminations.
"This is the Super Bowl. This is it," Schumacher said. Hight and the Auto Club Ford Mustang team all but secured their first career NHRA Full Throttle Series world championship with a pace-setting 4.093 at 309.34. He entered the weekend with a 105-point lead over Ashley Force Hood and if he maintains at least a 101-point lead through qualifying he will clinch the title.
"That was huge; I'm pretty sure that 4.09 will stay in the show, and that's the first step," Hight said. "This last week and a half has gone by so slow since Vegas. We want to get out there and get going. We're focused – (crew chief) Jimmy Prock and my whole team – and we're not going to let our guard down and act like we have this all sewn up because that's when you make mistakes."
In Pro Stock, Edwards and the A.R.T./Young Life team effectively locked up their first career NHRA Full Throttle Series championship with the pace-setting 6.637 at 209.46 mph. He will be crowned once points are awarded after the fourth and final round of qualifying Saturday.
"The pressure's off a little," Edwards said. "I had a week to think about the disappointment I had in (not wrapping up the championship) in Vegas and get my stuff together and do a better job and hopefully win our first championship. It's not officially done, but I've never been this close in my dreams and it's pretty special."
If Edwards maintains the No. 1 position, it would be his 16th and that would match the all-time single-season high in NHRA history, previously set by Greg Anderson in 2004.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Stoffer earned the provisional No. 1 aboard her GEICO Powersports Suzuki with a 6.982-second pass at 191.70mph.
"That's just one hit, and the first time out and a lot of people were spinning the tire, so I don't think this really shows anything about the potential," Stoffer said. "But the next three qualifying runs will show us more. Our Suzuki inline fours can do better in these conditions than we do in the hot, sticky stuff, so there's going to be more parity."
Qualifying continues Friday and Saturday with Rounds 2-4 before the 16-car fields are set for Sunday's final eliminations.