A day after declaring himself "a hillbilly country kid" living out his dream, top-fuel driver Steve Torrence captured his first victory at the Circle K National Hot Rod Assn. Winternationals in Pomona.
Torrence began Sunday as the No. 1 seed in his class and cruised past his competition with three consecutive sub-3.8-second performances. He replicated that success in the finals against Doug Kalitta, winning with a time of 3.735 seconds.
"To get this head start in the season — come out, qualify well, run well on race day — it's huge for us," Torrence said. "I've never been in this position, and shoot, I kind of like it."
Torrence also ended up with the fastest track time of the weekend (3.703 seconds) and had a special guest in attendance — his mother Kay, who had never seen him win a top-fuel race in person.
"It's Valentine's Day, and mom, this is for you," Torrence said from the winner's circle.
The funny car and pro-stock finals resulted in hole shots, which is when the winning driver crosses the finish line first thanks to a quicker jump at the start, but actually registers a slower overall time than the opponent.
In funny car, second-seeded Ron Capps defeated fifth-seeded Del Worsham for his third Winternationals victory.
"Nothing taken away from Del," Capps said. "He brings every bit out in me for sure as a racer, as a good friend, and as a returning champion. All that together made it bigger than a final round."
Capps was especially pleased to end up in the winner's circle as part of the NHRA's inaugural live broadcast with new TV partner Fox. Capps' sponsor, NAPA, was already in the spotlight Sunday after 20-year-old Chase Elliott, also driving a NAPA vehicle, became the youngest person to take the Daytona 500 pole position.
"To kick the race off knowing it was going to be on Fox Sports 1, there's just so much excitement," Capps said. "What better way than to be the funny-car driver that got to get up there and get all that TV time? That was cool."
Capps has 46 victories but is still seeking a funny-car title. He couldn't help but discuss the possibility of ending that drought after grabbing a season-opening trophy.
"The championship is going to come someday," Capps said. "We're in it every year. What else can you ask for? We end the year back here in Pomona and I promise you, if I'm standing back up here and I win the championship with our team, it's going to be about a month-long party."
The pro-stock final came down to teammates who qualified first and second, Greg Anderson and Jason Line. Anderson had a 6.617-second run to Line's 6.609, but his reaction time was enough to put a stop to Line's recent dominance at the Winternationals, where he had won twice in a row.
"Fantastic team effort," Anderson said. "Things just went so well all weekend, and I just felt so confident all day long until the final round. I honestly felt like the underdog there."
Pro-stock drivers are still adjusting to a switchover from carburetors to electronic fuel injections (EFIs), and Anderson was pleased with how his team has risen to the challenge.
"It's absolutely getting better with every run," Anderson said. "That's the joy and the beauty of being able to go four rounds on Sunday to get some more track time and experience."
The early rounds of competition featured the demise of some big names, including top-fuel drivers Tony Schumacher and Shawn Langdon (who won twice at Pomona in 2015), along with two-time pro-stock champion Erica Enders-Stevens. In funny car, Gary Densham did not participate after his Dodge Charger was wrecked Saturday.
Round 2 went mostly as expected, except for funny-car top seed Jack Beckman, who fell to John Force. There was also a crash involving pro-stock's Vincent Nobile, whose Chevy Camaro swerved from the right lane and slammed into the left wall. He wasn't injured and took the blame for the mishap.
"I know we've got a great group of guys, and we'll get it fixed," Nobile said.
Next up, the drivers will have a couple of weeks off before the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Phoenix starting Feb. 26.
"This pumps me up a lot," Torrence said of his performance. "I'm ready to go to Phoenix right now."
Shultz is a writer for the Orlando Sentinel