POMONA >> How important is it to win the NHRA Winternationals, the traditional season-opener at Auto Club Raceway on the L.A. County Fairgrounds?

While drivers and crew of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series want to open the 24-national event series on a strong note, there is a solid history of class winners at the opener advancing to the championship room. In fact, 16 Winternationals winners of either Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Car or Pro Stock have finished the season with a title.

Ron Capps is the latest to achieve that feat. The Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car driver won the Winternationals in 2016 and charged to his first title in 21 years on the strip. In fact, Capps is one of nine drivers who have recorded the feat in the last 20 years.

Larry Dixon and John Force have each won their classes at the opener and the title three times. Dixon achieved his Top Fuel feat in 2002, 2003 and 2010 while 16-time champion Force completed the double in 1997, 2002 and 2010. Tony Schumacher and Gary Scelzi also achieved the double in Top Fuel; 2004 and 2008 for Schumacher and 1997 and 2000 for Scelzi, now retired from the sport.

“I don’t know if we have had a target on our backs in the past. There is no better compliment to get from a competitor in NHRA than for them to tell you that when they race you it brings out the absolute best in them,” said Capps, a three-time Winternationals winner and runner-up on four occasions. “That is the ultimate compliment to get from another racer and we get that a lot.”

Greg Anderson won in Pro Stock in 2016 and narrowly missed the title, losing to Summit Racing teammate Jason Line by three points at the end of the season.

In qualifying for today’s final eliminations, set to start at 11 a.m. at Fairplex, only Line secured a pole. He edged Anderson, 6.525 seconds to 6.530, for the pole on the fourth and final pass on Saturday.

The other top qualifiers for the opener include Leah Pritchett of Redlands in Top Fuel and two-time former champion Matt Hagan in Funny Car, both competing for Don Schumacher Racing.

It was the second career pole for Pritchett, who 21 years ago competed at Pomona as an 8-year-old in Jr. Dragsters. Pritchett, who set an unofficial elapsed time record in testing last week in Phoenix, zoomed to the top of the 15-car field with a run of 3.672 seconds at 327.90 mph. Her effort knocked Doug Kalitta’s 3.686 off the top spot.

Defending class champion Antron Brown (3.695) climbed to third, followed by Brittany Force (3.706) and Tony Schumacher (3.716). Rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. (3.730) was sixth.

Hagan continued his impressive weekend performance with a pass of 3.822 at 335.57, both track records. John Force was second in the class with a run of 3.849 at 335.15, just ahead of daughter Courtney, who posted a pass at 3.849 at 330.49. Capps finished fourth (3.850) while Robert Hight made it three John Force Racing entries in the top five with a 3.853 pass in a specially-designed California Highway Patrol paint scheme.

In addition to Line and Anderson, Vincent Nobile (6.547) was third in Pro Stock, followed by Shane Gray (6.547) and the third KB Racing Chevrolet of Bo Butner (6.550).

It was the second top qualifying position in the last five NHRA national events for Prichett, the first at Maple Grove Raceway in Englishtown, New Jersey, last June. She improved from third on the fourth and final qualifying pass.

“I was giving it everything I could,” said Pritchett, competing in front of her mother Linda in from the East Coast. “I am relishing this moment, to get out of a rocket like that. Lots of things go through your mind after a run like that.”

Pritchett said she envision such a moment so long ago when first running down the Fairplex track.

“I was in the VIP section without a ticket,” she said of her first visit to the world-famous facility, “hoping, praying that I got back here.

“Winning at Phoenix ranks as No. 1 for me, but if I win here, that would be above the others. Right now, winning at Pomona would be bigger than winning the U.S. Nationals. I want (the Winternationals) bad.”

Before he made his last qualifying pass, Hagan was strapped into his Charger for more than an hour, delayed by a series of incidents on the track. He admitted his foot fell asleep and his helmet visor kept fogging up, forcing him to wipe it clean constantly.

“It was mentally exhausting to stay in there,” said the Christiansburg, Virginia, farmer. “I could see my breath. But I was amped up, pumped up.”

In addition to the record run, the highlight of the run was missing the wall at the end of the run.

“I was relieved,” said the two-time class champion, “that I wouldn’t get chewed out later. It was great so see our plan come together.

“The fans got to see a cool run.”

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