Ron Capps knew he needed a strong performance Sunday in order to leave Las Vegas with any hope of fulfilling his dream of winning his first NHRA Funny Car season championship.
He had the day of his life.
Capps, 47, worked his way through a tough bracket to defeat Don Schumacher Racing teammate and Funny Car points leader Jack Beckman in the finals to win the Big O Tires NHRA Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"This would have to be the tops," said Capps, who never has won a season championship during his long career. "I'm kind of proud of myself."
The victory brought the Carlsbad, Calif., native within four points of the lead, with next month's Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., to decide the winner. Beckman enters that event with 2,531 points.
Capps, who struggled throughout the first two days of qualifying, said he feared the worst when he was assigned to the right lane Saturday.
"That was one of our biggest rounds of the year," said Capps, who noted that his assigned lane had yielded slower times throughout the day. "We felt like we were taking a pistol into a gunfight. I don't think we were very confident that we could come back in the right lane."
But Beckman was fortunate even to reach the finals, as he smoked his tires and got sideways against Courtney Force in the semis. When Force fouled out with a red-light start, Beckman got the break he needed.
But there was no such luck in the finals, as Beckman again spun his wheels, allowing Capps to blow him off the line.
Capps said he feared Beckman's good fortune would continue in the finals.
"I felt like something was going to go wrong," he said. "Because he was on a roll."
But Capps' NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger looked strong from start to finish, crossing the line in an elapsed time of 4.070 seconds at a top speed of 315.12 mph.
Capps, a three-time series runner-up, said he climbed out of his car with renewed hope.
"I just want to represent our sport and make it more known," he said. "I want to be a champion."
In the Top Fuel category, points leader Antron Brown suffered a disappointing first-round loss to Khalid Albalooshi. That allowed Bob Vandergriff to work his way through the bracket to win the event, beating Tony Schumacher in the finals.
Brown, who entered the day with a 104-point lead, lost some ground to second-place contender Spencer Massey. Brown got some help, however, when Vandergriff knocked Massey out in Round 2.
"It's drag racing," Brown said. "But we're ready for Pomona. We'll hit Pomona and give it our best shot. It's a long way from over."
Brown left the speedway with a 65-point advantage heading into the season's final event.
The victory snapped a long winless streak for Vandergriff.
"I had a great racecar all weekend," he said. "It's been a year since our last win. They don't come easy."
The Pro Stock category appeared destined for a showdown between points leader Allen Johnson and second-place contender Jason Line, as both worked their way into the semifinals.
But Line, knowing he needed a victory to maintain any hope of winning the season title, jumped the red light in the semis, allowing Vincent Nobile to advance against Johnson.
Johnson, knowing he had secured the points championship with Line's misfortune, finished in 6.637 seconds with a top speed of 208.17 mph.
Eddie Krawiec, who dominated all weekend, won the Pro Stock Motorcycle category by beating Matt Smith in the finals. The victory helped Krawiec solidify his lead in the category. He leaves Las Vegas with 2,672 points, 111 points ahead of Andrew Hines.