Gallery: NHRA opens season at 53rd Winternationals in Pomona
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POMONA - While Brandon Bernstein's name atop qualifying at a NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event isn't all that unusual, Winternationals fans may have needed a double take when looking at the other two on top.
Gary Densham, the former teacher out of Bellflower, opened the 2013 Funny Car season Thursday by claiming the top spot with a run of 4.
In Pro Stock, V Gaines - who has never qualified first in 374 career national events - stunned the field by posting the best time of 19 entries.
At the same time, defending class champion Allen Johnson was at the bottom of the list.
Bernstein continued on his roll at the Fairplex strip. Winner of the 2012 Auto Club Finals season finale, Bernstein ran 3.761 seconds at 325.22 mph for three bonus points after the first of four qualifying passes. He edged Tony Schumacher by 0.016 seconds and took some of the pleasure from Clay Millican, whose 3.799 at 325.77 was a career best.
Densham withstood 14 attempts to unseat him when he ran 4.053 at 307.09 on the third pass of the Funny Car session. His run was 0.018 seconds quicker than Courtney Force, daughter of the man Densham once drove for, John Force.
Ironically, Force and John Force Racing teammate Robert High held two of the four slowest times in the class. A total of 17 cars made a run, meaning one will miss Sunday's 16-car finals.
The 65-year-old Gaines was perhaps the only one not surprised with his effort on the opening day of the series. He ran 6.538 seconds at 211.49 for the top spot, surviving runs by past champions Jason Line and Mike Edwards.
Young contenders Erica Ender and Vincent Nobile, running for the Rancho Cucamonga-based Mountain View Tires Racing team, were fourth and fifth, respectively.
"It was really good," Bernstein said of his run, "The car came out of the gate good. At half-track it was really moving. (Crew chief) Joe (Barlam) was kind of surprised because he had the car set up soft.
"We're not behind the eight ball when you don't make a good first run. I doubt that it will hold up."
Bernstein said Barlam changed the tuneup of the car during offseason testing, but reverted back to the setup the team used to defeat Tony Schumacher at the season finale.
"That gave us a lot of confidence, the win gave the team a boost," said Bernstein. "And in his first full year, it gave Joe even more confidence that we could run with the best of them."
In her much-anticipated debut run, Brittany Force rolled through the staging beams and was disqualified. Leah Pruitt of Cherry Valley, in the other lane, ran 4.08 at 251.86, in her first pass and is 11th, just behind three-time champion Larry Dixon.
Densham said he tested the cables of the parachutes at least "20 times" in the pit area, but they failed. He rolled into the sand pit designed to stop cars, finishing well in front of a protective screen.
"We'll switch to the car body from the Finals," said Densham, whose car was then driven by Paul Lee. "It's basically a one-man operation, but my team is making the high-dollar guys twitch for a while," Densham said of his team. "I think they do more with less than anyone.
"My seven guys do as much as John Force's or (Don) Schumacher (Racing's) 12 guys."
Gaines said he has a "hot, hot" car and spent the winter "waiting and waiting."
"We finished good last season and had a lot of winter testing," said Gaines, winner of four events. "We knew we would be pretty good."