Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – POMONA, CA – With a new 18-race Pro Stock schedule for the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, starting quickly will be imperative. That’s been the focus of all the top teams heading into this weekend’s annual iconic opener, the tradition-rich 59th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
That mindset could bode well for a KB Racing team that includes world champs Greg Anderson, Jason Line and Bo Butner. The trio has won eight straight Winternationals and nine of the last 10, and Line has five wins in that span, making him no stranger to early-season success. It’s a trend the veteran hopes to continue this weekend in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro.
“There’s no pressure, but if you want to win them all, you have to win the first one,” Line said. “Every race is important, and you’d like to start off well, so it matters for sure. I’m looking forward to being better. We see the opportunities to do things differently in the shop as a positive for us. We’re going to get better as the year goes, for sure, but this first race still matters.”
Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Butner (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including finals coverage beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10. It is the first of 18 events during the new-look 2019 NHRA Pro Stock season and there won’t be a repeat champion after Tanner Gray departed after last year.
But plenty of top-quality competition remains, including 2017 world champion Butner, and Elite Motorsports teammates Erica Enders, a two-time world champ and Jeg Coughlin, who has five world titles and finished second a year ago. The veteran performed well down the stretch in 2018 and hopes that carries over to this weekend in Pomona after an extremely productive off-season.
“I feel as though we’re the best prepared we have been for the start of a season,” Coughlin said. “Testing went really well. We had a top-running car at end of last season and basically the team made some enhancements on what we were doing then and now it’s time to see where we stack up. I’m excited for season and anxious to see if we can capitalize on the huge momentum we built in last year’s Countdown (to the Championship).”
Chris McGaha built early-season momentum a year ago, winning two races in the first half of the year. He wasn’t able to replicate that success during the playoffs, but count him as another driver who enjoyed a strong winter. That has revitalized him and now McGaha has his own high expectations heading into Pomona and for the rest of the year.
“We were extremely busy this off-season,” McGaha said. “I’m very happy with the progress that we have made from our off-season efforts and we’re looking forward to showcasing them on the track. I’m optimistic that we made the right calls to turn our on-track performance around.”
The Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com is the first of 12 races before the Countdown to the Championship begins, which puts an additional onus on performing well right off the bat. With a strong lineup headed to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Anderson, who last won the event in 2016, knows the importance of starting the year on a positive note.
“I think it’s more important than ever,” Anderson said. “There isn’t a lot of room for a bad race or a mistake, and you can’t start off in the hole. You can’t win the championship in the first race, but if you get off to a bad start it can have a pretty big impact on you later.”
Doug Kalitta will try to win in Top Fuel for a second straight year to open the season, but he’ll have to get past reigning world champ Steve Torrence, who won the final six races of 2018. Others to watch include 2017 world champ Brittany Force, Antron Brown, Leah Pritchett and Clay Millican.
J.R. Todd clinched his first career Funny Car world championship last November at Pomona, and will look to start 2019 on a strong note going against a talented field that includes 2017 world champ Robert Hight, John Force, defending event winner Hagan and 2016 champ Ron Capps.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills.
Those in attendance will also have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with some of the biggest names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This includes meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities.
As always, fans can 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 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. 8, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 12:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10.