Craig Murto: NHRA season is off the line

The quarter-mile strip of pavement in Pomona, Calif., on which the NHRA holds the annual Winternationals, is sacred ground.

Since 1961 the track has been the start of the new racing season, and its winners go down in history. The race is one of NHRA’s crown jewels.

Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), defending champion Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) scored opening round victories in the first of 24 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events in 2015.

Langdon scored the Top Fuel victory — his second Winternationals win and 10th win of his career — by edging Antron Brown’s Matco Tools dragster at the finish line. The 2013 champ entered the race without a full-time sponsor after Al-Anabi Racing from the country of Qatar pulled funding a few weeks ago. But Langdon received support from Food Network star Guy Fieri during the weekend, and powered his Knuckle Sandwich/AJPE dragster to a time of 3.799 at 309.91 mph.

“There are things that happen in life and then there are moments when things just fall into place,” said Langdon, the event’s No. 1 qualifier, who posted the quickest time in category history with a 3.700-second run on Saturday.

In Funny Car, after a spectacular engine explosion on Friday, Hagan — a Virginia cattle rancher — powered his Rocky Boots/Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T to four round wins on Sunday, including a winning final-round performance of 4.011 seconds at 320.89 mph to hold off his teammate Ron Capps at the finish line for his second-straight win at Pomona, fourth at the track and first in the Winternationals.

Line claimed his fourth Winternationals Pro Stock victory by outrunning rookie Drew Skillman in the final round. Line’s Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro powered to a winning performance of 6.545 at 211.83 mph. It was his 36th career victory.

A recent report indicated that the NHRA pays $11 million for the privilege of appearing on ESPN. I don’t know how true that is, but it seems to me that the NHRA would be better served to save the $11 million. ESPN is quickly becoming the worst network for motorsports, especially with loudmouths such as Keith Olbermann on the network bashing racing as often as he can. I think the NHRA would be better served to give the broadcast rights away to NBC, Fox or CBS, save the $11 million and get the respect it deserves.

NASCAR gets into high gear this weekend as Daytona hosts the Sprint Unlimited race for last year’s pole winners. The race will be on Saturday night, so I’m sure many of us will be watching a recording of the race on Sunday since we have Valentines to wine and dine. Don’t forget to also record the ARCA race, which runs on Saturday before the Sprint Cup cars.

Qualifying for the pole is Sunday, and don’t forget next Thursday are the twin qualifying races for the Cup cars; set your DVR before you head to work.

It’ll be interesting watching Jeff Gordon in his final season. Ranked third on the all-time win list with 92, he may be the best driver of the recent era. He may only have four championships, but if Ray Evernham had stuck around his garage many believe he’d have twice as many titles. And the sheer number of wins given the high level of competition is incredible.

Driver changes to pay attention to are Carl Edwards at Joe Gibbs, and Sam Hornish at Richard Petty Motorsports. Hornish will be in the No. 9 car, replacing Marcos Ambrose, who went back home to race in Australia.

The 2015 Cup schedule has some interesting changes. First is the “Western swing” after Atlanta, during which competitors tackle Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, Calif., in succession before heading back East to run Martinsville.

It’s nice that the July Daytona race — the first to be broadcast by NBC as a new broadcasting partner — is on Sunday night, July 5. Finally NASCAR’s making a scheduling decision that will benefit local short track racing by not stepping on the local Saturday night shows on a holiday weekend.

The other change that grabs attention is the Southern 500 at Darlington, moved back to its traditional Labor Day date. It’s about time. The date never should have changed, and it’s refreshing that NASCAR recognized tradition. Darlington is sacred ground, and the Southern 500 is one of the crown jewels.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.