Mar 19, 2014, 12:48 PM EDT
Sure, we’re only three races into the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, but a lot has happened already.
And if that’s an indication of even more to come, 2014 could go down as one of the bigger seasons in recent memory.
Following this past Sunday’s Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., let’s take a look at who’s strong, who’s struggled and anything in-between among the four primary pro classes:
Three-time Gainesville winner Doug Kalitta, including this past Sunday, is off to one of the best starts ever in his career.
Racking up his first win of the season and 34th overall this past Sunday, the Michigan native now has a win and a runner-up in the first three events.
Ditto for Antron Brown, who lost in Sunday’s finals to Gainesville after winning two weeks before at Phoenix.
Not surprisingly, Kalitta leads the Top Fuel standings, with Brown second, Steve Torrence third and season-opening race winner at Pomona, Khalid alBalooshi.
On the flip side, what’s happened to seven-time champ Tony Schumacher? “The Sarge” has not won a dragster championship since 2009 and is off to an uncharacteristically slow start in 2014.
Schumacher is eighth after the first three events, an already distant 163 points behind the front-running Kalitta.
The ageless wonder, John Force – who turns 65 in May – is intent on winning a record 17th Funny Car championship in 2014 for several reasons.
First, longtime sponsors Castrol Oil and Ford will be leaving at the end of the season.
Second, although Force is diligently looking for new sponsorship for 2015, he hasn’t made any significant announcements yet.
Third, although we find the likelihood of it happening very unlikely, the rumor mill has Force potentially retiring at season’s end if he doesn’t find enough funds to replace what he’ll lose from Castrol and Ford.
And then there’s the other predominant rumor we keep hearing: Force may be forced – no pun intended – to switch to Top Fuel in 2015 if his hopefully new potential sponsors want it.
Force has veteran TF tuner Jimmy Prock – who has the colorful nickname of “Go For the Jugular” – as crew chief for son-in-law and fellow FC driver Robert Hight this season.
But if Force were to move up to Top Fuel next season, don’t be surprised if he takes Prock with him.
Thus far in 2014, Force is off to a great start. He won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., setting new national event records for speed and elapsed time.
Then at the Gatornationals, Force qualified poorly (last of the 16-car field), but rallied to finish runner-up to Hight – who is also off to a great start himself with a win and runner-up (at Phoenix).
Other drivers that have enjoyed a great start thus far include Alexis DeJoria, who became the first female Funny Car driver to break the four-second barrier in the Pomona season opener, and then followed that up with her first national event win at Phoenix.
After a year’s layoff, Tommy Johnson Jr. is solid in sixth, as well.
But very conspicuous by their absences in the top 10 are brothers Cruz and Tony Pedregon, who have a combined four FC championships between them (two each).
In Pro Stock, it was out with the old and in with the new at Gainesville for Allen Johnson, and he didn’t miss a beat.
The 2012 PS champ jettisoned his trustworthy Dodge Avenger and brought a brand new 2014 Dodge Dart with him to the Gatornationals (as did fellow competitor Jeg Coughlin).
The change made no difference whatsoever, as Johnson roared to his second win in the first three races.
Vieri Gaines (more commonly known as just V. Gaines) is off to one of the best season starts of his career, ranked second behind Johnson in the points standings after Gainesville.
Pomona winner Jason Line is a close fourth, as well.
Coughlin has struggled somewhat in the first three races, ranked eighth, but the five-time and 2013 defending Pro Stock champ is still well within striking distance to get on a hot streak and make a big jump in the rankings in the next several races.
If there’s one driver in the PS ranks you can never count out, it’s Coughlin, indeed.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:
Okay, there’s really not much you can gauge in the bikes, as Sunday’s race at Gainesville was only the first on the 16-race PSM calendar in 2014.
Still, veteran rider Steve Johnson deserves special recognition. Johnson earned his first win on the circuit since 2008.
The 53-year-old Birmingham, Ala. native became the first Suzuki rider to win an NHRA national event since 2011.
And to top it all off, Johnson finds himself leading the PSM points for only the second time in his lengthy career, and the first time since 2005.
Others that looked good in the season opener included Scotty Pollacheck (second in points) and third-ranked Hector Arana Jr.
In an interesting twist, three members of the Arana family are in the top nine in the standings: Hector Jr., family patriarch Hector Arana Sr. and other son Adam Arana (the latter two are part of a four-way tie for ninth-place with Shawn Gann and Katie Sullivan).
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