As the big billboards on the freeways around town aptly put it, the nitro met the neon at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. The official LVMS weather report for the DENSO Spark Plug NHRA Nationals said it would be sunny and fast.
It was all of that.
During Friday qualifying, Jack Beckman and Courtney Force had set track records for E.T. (3.916 seconds) and speed (326.08 mph), respectively, in the Funny Car division. But with the hot sun beating down on the track, it was thought the blistering times and speeds would be harder to come by on race day.
The winners were Antron Brown in Top Fuel, Alexis DeJoria in Funny Car and Jason Line in Pro Stock. By the end of the day, the E.T.s and speeds still were frighteningly fast.
Brown and DeJoria continued the trend of first-time 2016 winners. This is the first season since 2001 there have been four different Nitro class winners in the first four races.
In the Top Fuel final, two-time series champion Brown, the No. 3 qualifier, did a 3.843 at 314.68 in his Toyota dragster to beat the 3.918 and 307.58 of No. 12 Troy Buff, a part-time competitor who was trying to become the third consecutive first-time winner in the category. It was the fourth Las Vegas win and 39th of Brown’s career in Top Fuel, tying Don Schumacher’s driver with legendary Kenny Bernstein for fourth on the all-time list.
“It’s never boring,” said the affable and consistent Brown — he ran four of the five fastest passes Sunday — about returning to the victory platform by overhauling the upstart Buff, who was quick off the line but dropped a cylinder.
“You win, but you never know when the next one is going to come. I brought a knife to a street fight but Troy pulled out a bazooka. But I had some legs at the end.”
In the Funny Car final, it was a Team Kalitta showdown as Alex DeJoria (3.968 at 315.49) edged Del Worsham (3.988 at 323.58) in an excellent drag race featuring Toyota-powered cars. It was the first time Connie Kalitta’s organization had put two cars in a Funny Car final, and the first time Kalitta and Co. had done it any class since 2006 in Memphis, when Doug Kalitta, Connie’s nephew, downed Hillary Will in Top Fuel.
“It feels like the first one all over again,” said DeJoria, who earned her fourth career victory and second at LVMS, halting a 33-race winless streak.
It was the third Nitro victory by a women in the past three races as DeJoria joined Top Fuelers Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force as 2016 winners. “It’s an amazing day in NHRA drag racing, and we’ve come so far,” she said of hot rod girl power.
It also was a duel of de facto teammates in Pro Stock where Jason Line and Bo Butner lined up on either side of the Christmas tree in cars owned by Las Vegan Ken Black. Points leader Line (6.771 at 206.32) won when Butner red-lighted.
Butner ran the faster time (6.709) but when it went up on the big board at the north end of the track, a crew member at the starting line already had tossed a yellow kerchief high into the air, signaling defeat.
It was the second win of the season for Line, who has made it to the final round of all four races. He said it was salve for the wound of losing to teammate Greg Anderson in Saturday’s K&N Horsepower Challenge, a special bonus race for the factory stock division.
“I’ve won Wallys before,” he said of the golden statues presented to NHRA winners. “I’ve never won a K&N Race. I really would have liked to win that trophy.”
Erica Enders-Stevens saw her Las Vegas regular-round victory streak end at 18. After struggling during the first three races of the season upon switching to a new manufacturer (Dodge), the two-time reigning Pro Stock champion displayed customary form, winning two passes before coming up a tick shy against Line in the semifinals.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski