Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – POMONA, CA – The surreal feeling of winning the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock world champion always increased for Bo Butner when someone congratulated him this off-season, which tended to happen a lot. It’s a feeling that will also be apparent when Butner returns to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona to kick off the 2018 NHRA season at this weekend’s 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com.
Butner grabbed his first world championship with an impressive sweep at Pomona last November, winning the race and clinching the title in one memorable weekend. As excited as he is to start the 2018 Pro Stock season in his Jim Butner Auto Chevrolet Camaro, Butner also knows going back to the starting line at the iconic track this weekend will be an incredible moment.
“It’s going to be an emotional feeling,” Butner said. “You still ask yourself how that happened. It doesn’t hit me as much until you go out and a stranger comes up and congratulates you. It’s pretty cool. It’s just amazing the amount of people that follow the sport and what we do, and when they come up to you it’s really cool and just makes you feel good about what you accomplished.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including live finals coverage beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11. It is the first of 24 events during the 2018 NHRA season and Butner hopes to pick up where he left off during his breakout 2017 campaign.
Butner won the first races of his Pro Stock career last season, ending the year with five victories and 11 final round appearances. In fact, the ultra-consistent Butner, who also has a 2006 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series championship in Comp to his credit, only had one first-round loss, advancing to the semifinals or better in 19 of the 24 races. It was a clear recipe for success for the KB Racing standout, and one he hopes he can repeat in 2018.
“I know for a fact we were blessed beyond belief, but the whole season we were consistent,” Butner said. “We went a lot of rounds just being consistent and doing our job. That’s what is cool and what this team is all about. I’m a big believer in the small stuff, and it was those small changes and having the confidence of going up there with the best stuff in the country. You go up there and you try to do your job, and do it well.”
After a strong test session in Phoenix, Butner is anxious to see if he can replicate his Pomona success at the Winternationals. But Butner also saw standout runs at the test session from multiple drivers, leading him to believe the bar will be raised in Pro Stock in 2018. Immediate challengers include KB Racing teammates Jason Line, a five-time Winternationals winner, and Greg Anderson, who finished second a year ago, as well as the likes of Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin, Vincent Nobile, Tanner Gray, NHRA’s top rookie in 2017, Drew Skillman and Chris McGaha.
“One thing I’ve learned is you can’t be a lazy winner,” Butner said. “You won the championship, but now what do you do. Everyone here (in Pro Stock) is ultra-competitive and it’s kind of a clean slate to me. We won last year, but this year will probably be the most competitive you’ll see in the class. A lot of guys have worked hard and it won’t be a walk-away by anyone. It’s going to be tough as always and we just have to keep working.”
In Top Fuel, Brittany Force returns to the track where she clinched her first world title last fall, and is after her first Winternationals win against stars like defending event champ Pritchett, Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta and Steve Torrence, who had eight wins in 2017.
Hagan will try to get the jump on the loaded Funny Car class for a second straight Winternationals, but it won’t be easy against a talented field that includes reigning world champion Robert Hight, 2016 champ Ron Capps, Courtney Force, Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills and the Mickey Thompson Tires NHRA Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 12:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 9, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 12:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11.