Doug Kalitta serves notice
Doug Kalitta was already the Top Fuel points leader in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series heading into the Amalie Oil Gatornationals. Victory in one of drag racing's most iconic events confirmed him as the man to beat in 2014.
Kalitta was the No. 1 qualifier at the first two NHRA events of the season but lost in the final at the Winternationals and was edged by Antron Brown in a close semifinal race at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Gainesville, Fla., Kalitta easily bested a tire-smoking Brown in the final with a 3.830-second/323.74 mph pass.
"We've been trying to get a win all year, and we've been right on the cusp," said Kalitta after his 34th career victory and third at the Gatornationals. "We have great support amongst all four of our teams. It's great that they can all get in there and celebrate on the starting line."
From the No. 4 qualifying slot at Gainesville, Kalitta beat Brittany Force, Kalitta Motorsports teammate David Grubnic and Steve Torrence in the elimination rounds in addition to Brown.
"It was a good day. We felt like we were right there," said Brown. "We were going for it and stepping it up because we knew we had to. We just hazed the tires there, and it bit us a little bit. We're 1-1 this year in final rounds, and we're looking forward to the next race."
John Force Racing put three of its four entries into the Funny Car round of four, with John Force defeating daughter Courtney in the semis in a battle of Ford Mustangs.
That earned Force a place in the final against teammate and son-in-law Robert Hight, but the 16-time Funny Car champion lost traction early in the run, allowing Hight to triumph with a 4.074-second/314.46 mph pass.
Force missed out on becoming just the fifth Funny Car driver to earn an event win as the No. 16 qualifier.
Hight, meanwhile, won with what was effectively Force's old crew after a late 2013 intrateam swap.
"This win was huge," said Hight. "That guy [Force] has 16 championships, and he is the best out here. To add to that, he is driving for my old team. There was some added pressure there, and it's hard to go up there and get motivated and do your best job. You just have to focus.
"Our teams were struggling this weekend, and for both of us to get to the final round and do it on performance was awesome."
Hight, the 2009 NHRA Funny Car champion, claimed the 30th win of his career.
"Guys like Kenny Bernstein, John Force and Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme were my heroes," Hight said. "I can't even believe my name is associated with guys like that."
Allen Johnson wrote the latest chapter of Mopar's history in drag racing by taking the Gatornationals Pro Stock win in the debut of the Dodge Dart body.
Johnson claimed his second straight Pro Stock event win and second consecutive Gatornationals crown. This one was achieved with a 0.017 reaction-time holeshot that allowed him to cross the line after a 6.566-second pass just ahead of Erica Enders-Stevens' Chevrolet Camaro.
"What a great job the Mopar engineers, everybody at Chrysler Group, Dodge and SRT did," Johnson said. "For the last two weeks since the Phoenix win, it's been nonstop. My guys haven't had a day off. It says a tremendous amount about our crew and the engineering efforts behind the car. To be able to do that is a huge accomplishment."
Steve Johnson opened the Pro Stock Motorcycle season with a Gatornationals victory aboard his Suzuki, scoring his second career PSM win from the No. 7 qualifier slot.
It was Johnson's sixth career win and second at the Gatornationals (2005). He defeated Scotty Pollacheck in the final with a 6.912-second pass.
"The fact that this is the first Suzuki win since 2011 shows that we've had a Buell epidemic -- actually a V-Twin epidemic," Johnson said. "We've been close a few times, but we finally broke through."
Round 4 of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, March 28-30 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.