- Robert Hight is heartbroken as Rob Capps steals his third championship by three points.
- Matt Hagan abandons the first lap chase, upset at his opponent’s racing “for fun”.
- Title is Capps’ first as team owner.
Ron Capps doesn’t say he’s psychic.
But in the week leading up to Friday’s NHRA Finals opening in Pomona, Calif., NAPA Auto Care’s Toyota Supra Funny Car driver said of points leader Robert Hight, “The whole team . . . raised the bar. Think eight wins. You have a chance of nine wins. It’s crazy to think that in the competitive era we’re in Funny Car right now, a team is going to get eight wins and possibly not win a championship. You do not know.”
And that’s exactly what happened on Sunday at the Auto Club Raceway.
Capps toppled longtime dominator Hight and denied him a fourth series championship by just three points.
It was the first time in exactly 20 years that a Funny Car driver had won back-to-back championships. John Force did this in 2001-2002 as part of his 10 year series of championships.
Cruz Pedregon defeated Capps for the event trophy in the final round, which ended up being more tense than expected.
With third-placed NHRA Funny Car contender Matt Hagan eliminated from the mix in a first-lap upset on Sunday at Auto Club Raceway, the title shot went to Hight and Capps.
Then Hight, the long-time championship leader, became a spectator in the second round and smoked the hoops in his match-up against Bob Tasca III. But Capps had one more hoop to jump before he could celebrate his third championship and first as a Funny Car team owner.
Capps, irritated that he had to wait another hour or so to bask in his achievement of winning a championship in his first year as an independent team owner, also had to make sure he completed his final run of the year without a penalty. If he crossed the halfway line, for example, he would have been assessed a 10-point penalty that would still have given Hight the championship after all.
And he had the option of cutting the engine early on his final lap run or not even showing up to the start line to ensure he didn’t face a costly penalty. He was told to turn off the engine early in the run, but he drove the car the length of the 1,000-foot circuit and even did an extra-long, entertaining burnout for fans.
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“Everyone thought I was going to turn it off, and I planned on doing it when I wasn’t going to see Cruz,” Capps said. “I hope everyone appreciates that I ran to the finish line because it was a tough decision. It was a terrible rule to get around. So I hugged the wall. But what a great drag race.”
Both Capps and co-crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli expressed empathy for Hight.
“I feel sorry for Robert,” Antonelli said. “He really ran away with it. The reset [of points at the start of the Countdown] toggles everything. It’s sixth of the last six [races]. We are lucky.”
Capps said: “I’m sorry Robert. Winning eight races and not winning the championship is crazy. It’s crazy for me to win five races.”
In his high-profile speech right after winning the championship, Capps said his message was, “Anyone in America, anything you put your mind to, you can do with great people around you.
“I can’t even put into words how it feels,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve all seen me grow pretty old in the last year or so.”
Starter No. 3 Hagan’s bid for a fourth championship ended in an upset on the opening round by No. 14 qualifier and part-time racer Steven Densham.
Drag racing pioneer Gary Densham, who tunes his son’s family-owned and operated entry, said he “almost hated” defeating Hagan: “You’re racing for a championship. We race for fun. But they smoked the tires. We do not have that.”
Hagan, a key player in Tony Stewart’s inaugural season as a drag racing team owner, said: “It’s really, really hard to lose the first lap and know the season is over when you see him cross the finish line. We have a lot of work ahead of us this off-season, hopefully a lot of innovation. It just wasn’t our race weekend. As much as I wanted and [was] I wish it were, it was just one of those things. I won four races this year but it could always be better.”
Faring better for Pedregon, who won his first full-season win after not making a single semifinal since the opening race of the year, also here in Pomona.
“Moments like this are what we live for,” he said, clutching his trophy. “What we wanted was a respectable end of the season because we didn’t get the job done.”
The two-time Funny Car Champion alluded to his future in the driver’s seat and expressed hope that one day a driver with perhaps Mexican roots like himself could follow him in the seat of the snap-on tool Dodge Charger.
Although he has not indicated at all that he is ready to give up driving, Pedregon said: “For all the young Mexicans, someone has to replace me. I need a little hispanic guy with some money in his pocket who wants to drive one in a few years.”