By MATT CALKINS
POMONA - Before Sunday, he wouldn't talk about it.
No way was Cruz Pedregon going to discuss the Funny Car title he won 16 years ago when so little had gone right since, not with any pride at least.
Then Sunday came around, and for a few seconds -- he couldn't talk about it. Just too tall a task considering the emotion flowing through the newly crowned champion's body.
Pedregon, 45, entered this week's NHRA Auto Club Finals, the last event of the season, with a 12-point lead over Tim Wilkerson and a 39-point edge on Robert Hight in the Funny Car standings, meaning if Wilkerson advanced one round further in the 16-driver bracket, or Hight was two rounds better, Pedregon's title hopes were kaput.
But after winning his first-round race at Auto Club Raceway, then watching Wilkerson and Hight lose theirs, Pedregon was once again a champion.
And while the drag racer admitted to spending the weekend worrying about a choke, once the title was his, he was simply choked up.
"I didn't have that good feeling today, I was kind of preparing myself for a letdown," said Pedregon, who received a $500,000 check for winning the title. "But there could not have been a better day. I'm beyond happy. I'm beyond excited."
The exclamation point? Pedregon went on to win his third straight event, knocking off Ron Capps in the final.
The poignant side story? Pedregon's brother, 2007 Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon, was the one who eliminated Hight to secure the title for Cruz.
But where there are highs, there are also lows, and no one exemplified that more than Wilkerson, whose eyes watered for different reasons Sunday.
Under the old points system, which encompassed every race of the season, the 47-year-old would have wrapped up the title weeks ago. But with the implementation of the Countdown to the Championship -- a six-race playoff reserved for the top 10 drivers where the points essentially start over -- Wilkerson couldn't come through when it mattered most.
For the first time since 2004, he red-lighted -- by two hundredths of a second -- losing to John Force in the first round and falling out of title contention.
"That's the most expensive run I ever made," said Wilkerson, referring to the $400,000 difference in prize money between first and second in the standings. "I was really mad at myself. But it was a terrific year for my team."
Hight was in title contention on the final day for the third straight year. However, after striking his tires in the loss to Tony Pedregon, it marked the third consecutive time he came up short.
Tony Schumacher wrapped up the Top Fuel title weeks ago, but Larry Dixon was the class winner on Sunday, knocking off Rod Fuller in the final round with an elapsed time of 3.833 seconds.
Dixon's car caught fire after the win, but he was hot all day, vaulting from fifth to second in the points.
"The way it blew up, you could see we left it all on the track," Dixon said.
Schumacher came into the race with 15 event wins, tying Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson for the single-season record. After a first-round win, he'd also tied Anderson's record for most round wins in a year (76), but fell to Fuller in the quarterfinals.
Anderson won the Pro Stock race, though Jeg Coughlin clinched the championship earlier in the day.
Eddie Kraiwec took the Pro Stock Motorcycle season championship, benefiting from a red light by then-points leader Matt Smith. Krawiec lost to Chris Rivas in the final.
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008