Hight's big pass puts him in show

POMONA, Calif. -- In only four seconds, Robert Hight went from outside the show to the No. 1 Funny Car qualifier Saturday at the O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals.

Hight said it reminded him of something he always heard from an NHRA legend.

"Don Garlits would say you're only as good as your last run," Hight said. "It's true. It's amazing how things can change so fast.''

Morgan Lucas, the 2011 Winternationals winner, was the top qualifier in Top Fuel, and 2011 NHRA champion Jason Line was No. 1 in Pro Stock.

Hight, the 2009 Funny Car champion, didn't make an attempt in the first round after breaking the drive shaft on the blower. The team missed the setup in Round 2 on Friday, and Hight smoked the tires.

So he went to the line in Round 3 on Saturday morning needing to get down the track cleanly and earn a spot in the top 16.

Surprisingly, easing into the show wasn't the plan. Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock were going for broke.

"It's Jimmy's personality,'' Hight said. "Sometimes it gets us in a little trouble, to be honest. We put it on the ragged edge. Sometimes we get away with it, sometimes not."

Hight blazed down the left lane in his Ford Mustang flopper with an elapsed time of 4.060 seconds and 316.52 mph, moving to the top spot on the qualifying sheet.

It was an all-or-nothing run, but in this case, Hight didn't think they had a choice.

"It's what we had to do," Hight said. "We had to make a big decision because of the temperature drop. We knew we needed to really get after it. But it's such a fine line between being on top here and not being in."

Hight said team boss John Force thought they might be taking too big a risk.

"I told John we were going to go for a 4.05," Hight said. "He looked at me like I was crazy, but we almost did it."

Hight, a three-time winner in the Winternationals, admits he was furious after the failures in the first two qualifying rounds.

"People were telling me I should be glad the blower problem didn't happen in the last round Sunday," Hight said. "Well, first, it should never happen. I won the most races last year and didn't win the championship. We want to redeem ourselves.

"And we were the quickest car in testing [last month] at West Palm Beach, so this was pretty darn frustrating. This is a very important race for us because of my sponsor [Auto Club of Southern California]. We couldn't afford to lay an egg here."

Hight's stellar run Saturday was his first bit of good news for the day. The second was rain. The final qualifying round was rained out, so Hight didn't have to battle to keep his No. 1 position.

"But Jimmy thought the car could have run better," Hight said, confident he could have kept the top spot.

Nevertheless, one good run and a little bad weather made for a great day for Hight and everyone else at John Force Racing.

All four JFR cars qualified for Sunday's eliminations, including rookie Courtney Force. She's the No. 12 qualifier with a pass at 4.199 seconds (307.09 mph) from Friday. But she had another good run Saturday with a 4.208 ET.

"It was great to show that consistency," Courtney said. "But I know Sunday will be a completely new experience."

She faces Bob Tasca in the first round.

The rain was bad news for two former NHRA champions -- Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon and Pro Stock veteran Warren Johnson. Both drivers were outside the top 16 after Round 3 and didn't get another chance.

Lucas was the top qualifier in Top Fuel after the first two rounds but had to better that time to stay on top in Round 3. He posted a 3.783 ET at 325.06 mph.

"That was a career best on both ends," Lucas said. "It was such an exciting day for our whole team."

It was an exciting day for Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mike Austin, but not in a good way.

Austin experienced a terrifying crash when his dragster crashed on its side before climbing over the retaining wall and going airborne. It twirled around before slamming down to the support-road pavement and sliding all the way to the scoring tower.

Fortunately, Austin walked away unhurt.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.