No NHRA lead safe in Pomona

Ron Capps learned long ago never to try to plan out a drag racing weekend, particularly at his home Fairplex track in Pomona.

“There are so many variables,” the Carlsbad driver said earlier this week as he prepares to seek his second Funny Car season championship in the Auto Club Finals.

“Weather, track surface, your car, your opponent, even who is going to be your opponent. And it’s even tougher at Pomona at the end of the season because teams eliminated from the championship race are already testing stuff for the next season.

“You never know when you might come up on someone with something new that really works.”

Capps goes into the season finale holding a 58-point lead on defending Funny Car champion and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan. Normally that is almost a three-round lead, an edge that would clinch Capps the title were he to be among the fastest qualifiers and win one round.

But the National Hot Rod Association plays with the points in the season finale. Each round is worth points and a half — meaning Capps’ actual lead is less than two (of a possible four) rounds with Cruz Pedregon also having a remote chance of winning the title.

“The final-round format is exciting for the fans,” said Capps. “I’m not sure it’s great for the fans in my position.”

While the race-day variables are many, Capps isn’t changing anything else to his annual approach to the season finale.

“I’m trying to keep the week as normal as possible,” said the 56-year-old Capps, who is completing his 27th professional season in the NHRA.

“I don’t want to change anything. I spent Monday packing the motorhome and arranging tickets. I’ve even scheduled a couple more sponsor appearances than usual. I want everything to stay the same. What my public relations person thinks is a distraction, is normal to me.

“I spent some time with a new neighbor who is going to his first drag race. It’s important not to change everything because there’s a lot on the line this week. The little things are important.

“Having things to do during a week like this is my white noise.”

That all changes once Capps, crew chief Dean Antonelli and the NAPA team are reunited at Pomona.

Pomona has always been a special place for Capps. He attended meets there with his dad as a child while growing up in San Luis Obispo.

Capps claimed his only previous championship in the season finale at Pomona in 2016. He has finished second five times — 1998, 2000, 2005, 2012 and 2017. He has 69 career event wins — the third-highest total in NHRA history in the premier Top Fuel/Funny Car divisions.

Capps goes into Sunday’s championship showdown with momentum. He won the season’s first race at Pomona then won at Dallas two events ago to move into the points lead. He then finished second to Pedregon two weeks ago in the season’s penultimate event in Las Vegas — where Capps actually stretched his points lead over Capps.

Although Capps has been with Schumacher for 17 years, this is his first season with Antonelli as crew chief, although the pair have been friends since 1995.

“I took over this car and team when Jack Beckman retired before the start of the season,” said Capps. “Outside of Dean, I didn’t even know the names of the rest of the crew when we combined. Dean and I had never raced together, although 25 years ago he gave me tips on how to drive the 18-wheeler when I was getting started.

“Dean has always done very well at Pomona. And we’re 1-for-1 together at Pomona. Racing on the ‘home track’ is great when you do well and win. The most stressful part is getting everything lined up.”

Center is a freelance writer.