For drag racing aficionados, Pomona is a magical word.
Sure, the modern corporate world is reflected in the fact that Pomona Raceway is now known as Auto Club Raceway. But Pomona is all about history; Southern California has always been the epicenter of drag racing, and Pomona is one of the most famous strips in the world. The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series opens and closes its season there, with the season finale Auto Club Finals taking place this weekend. Eliminations will be live on ESPN3 Sunday at 2 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET.
For John Force and Matt Smith, the Pomona weekend could almost be thought of as a Southern California vacation. Both men clinched NHRA titles two weeks ago in Las Vegas -- Force in Funny Car, Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
But for a handful of competitors still chasing championships in Top Fuel and Pro Stock, Pomona promises to be anything but a carefree getaway.
With a maximum of 150 points available, Shawn Langdon has a relatively comfortable 102-point lead in Top Fuel. But he'll have to hold off a charging Antron Brown, who stumbled with a DNQ in the opening round of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship but has rebounded with two wins in the past four races to be in position to defend his 2012 Top Fuel crown.
Doug Kalitta (138 points back) and Spencer Massey (142 back) are still mathematically in title contention.
Langdon, who was raised in nearby Mira Loma, set a Pomona track record ET of 3.721 seconds on the way to winning the 2013 season opener. The 31-year-old is seeking his first professional class drag racing championship.
"It would mean everything to me to be able to end the year at Pomona with a championship just for the fact that's where I grew up, racing junior dragsters, being a big fan of the sport, and watching my idols race there," Langdon said.
"Pomona to me is a special place," he continued. "It's Indy [U.S. Nationals], it's the biggest race of the year, and I have a lot of friends and family out there."
To clinch the title, Langdon needs to qualify his Al-Anabi Racing dragster in the top 16 and win his first-round elimination matchup. Brown, meanwhile, basically needs to win the event and set a national record to gain enough points to surpass his rival.
Langdon would be the fifth driver to win a Top Fuel championship for renowned crew chief Alan Johnson.
"When you grow up as a kid, wanting to be a professional drag racer, you envision putting yourself in championship scenarios in the biggest pressure moments," Langdon said. "What really makes or breaks a driver is being able to perform under the biggest pressure moments. I think we're in it right now.
"I really enjoy the Countdown to leave it up to the last six races of the year," he added. "No mistakes -- you have to be at your ultimate best. I think it's just great for the sport and the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series."
Brown won two of the first seven events of the 2013 season in his Don Schumacher Racing rail car and two of the past three. But a midseason lull that bottomed out with the disastrous DNQ at Charlotte left the defending champion in a hole that might be too big to dig out of.
"All the hard work is finally paying off," Brown said. "We just never quit, even with all the struggles we went through in midseason and starting the Countdown. The results have been showing that.
"We know Langdon has a good points lead, and he really has to mess up out there," Brown added. "We'll give it our all and see where everything lands. It's hard to go out there and predict what another team will do, but we'd like to go out there and be the spoiler."
The Pro Stock championship battle is somewhat closer, with four drivers separated by less than 100 points.
Jeg Coughlin Jr. has come on strong of late to seize a 71-point advantage heading into the finale. But a trio of former Pro Stock champions are hot on his heels. Jason Line is second in the standings, trailed by Mike Edwards (80 behind) and Alan Johnson (93 behind). Shane Gray is also in the mix, with an 84-point deficit.
Coughlin is a four-time Pro Stock champion, and two of his titles have come during the Countdown era. He believes that experience will work to his advantage this weekend.
"I think you definitely take a peek at the points," he said. "It's hard not to, with the media and the technology we have today. We keep pretty close tabs on where we need to be, where others are at, let me just put it that way.
"We love the pressure," he added. "That's what makes us strive to dig down and compete at the highest level. I know I've been working on a few things in the mindset, getting ready for the race itself. I've had some great, great runs at Pomona and hope for this year to be no different."
Line's championship hopes were adversely affected by a crash in private testing on Oct. 10. His KB Racing Camaro flipped and rolled several times at Rockingham Dragway in North Carolina.
Running his first race in a spare car, Line was ousted in the second round at Las Vegas to drop from 50 to 71 points behind Coughlin.
"Obviously it was not great timing," Line said. "We had our Summit Chevy Camaro running good, and we struggled a bit this year, so it felt really good to finally have the car running good, and certainly as fast as anybody's. Then we had to start over.
"It's just one of those things," he added. "Right now you have to somehow find enough strength to remain focused and be focused better than your opponents. That's what's going to make you the champ or not."