NHRA: Under pressure, Pedregon earns his money

Cruz Pedregon had prepared himself for this moment. Had told himself everything would be all right, that he would be relaxed, that the first round of the 44th Auto Club Finals in Pomona would be just another race.

That’s what he kept telling himself, lying with every word.

Money time.

He was going up against journeyman Jerry Toliver. It would be OK.

Keep calm and stay focused. It was no different from 500 other runs in his career.

Then he tried to strap himself into his 8,000 horsepower Toyota Funny Car and it took hold.

The pressure that he said he would avoid? His body was imploding.

Money time.

Pedregon had crossed over into Ron Capps’ world, had discovered what it was like to be stuffed into a fishbowl and squeezed with a million dreams.

Capps was visibly seized as the 2005 championship came down to him and multi-time champions John Force and Gary Scelzi. That same constrictor was wrapping itself around Pedregon, the man with a 13-point lead heading into the final day of the season but in the crosshairs of Tim Wilkerson and Robert Hight.

“When I climbed in the car, I couldn’t catch my breath,” Pedregon said. “My chest was pounding, I was thinking I need a beta blocker to get my heart rate to come down. I almost red-lit in the first round.

“I was hoping all my organs and everything would work because my mind, my heart rate, were just out of control.”

With the benefit of Rahn Tobler’s tune-up, Pedregon was the first of five contenders who could breathe a sigh of relief, however short-lived.

In the first pair of the day, Toliver had issues getting down the track. Pedregon, who feared red-lighting, was instead late off the line with the round’s slowest reaction time, 0.110 of a second. Still, he sailed to 1,000 feet with the second-fastest elapsed time of the round. In less than five seconds he had eliminated Jack Beckman and younger brother Tony, the defending champion, from the title hunt.

Money time.

Then came the remainder of the longest round of Cruz Pedregon’s life.

In the next pair was Wilkerson, the one-car underdog who is owner, driver and crew chief with a team of five employees and a couple of guys who fly in on the weekend. In the other lane was 14-time champion John Force with the most well-financed program in the series and whose horse in the championship was Hight.

“Both of us were amped up,” sentimental favorite Wilkerson said after he missed his opportunity at the championship by fouling. He left before the green light by 0.024 of a second, 2/1000ths quicker than Force jumped the gun.

It was Wilkerson’s first red light since the 2004 season.

Money time.

Pedregon waited as the squeeze got tighter.

“I wasn’t thinking championship,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘There’s one bullet (dodged), but there’s another bullet coming right behind it.’ Robert Hight and that car strike fear in me.”

Four more pairs went down the track before the bullet wheeled to the starting line opposite Tony Pedregon.

Hight had the benefit of Team Force’s brain trust behind him, including his own crew chief, Jimmy Prock. They had the benefit of seeing the other three Force cars go down the track, John and Ashley Force in the right lane, Mike Neff with the round’s quickest elapsed time in the left. All had won.

Pedregon, a driver for Force when he won his own championship on the final day of the 2003 season, chose the left lane. Hight cut a 0.043 light, the second-best reaction time of the day’s 15 races.

But Hight’s Mustang created too much power. The runner-up the past two seasons, his chances went up in tire smoke as Pedregon streaked to the finish line.

Money time.

“I’m emotionless,” Cruz said, the first words out of his mouth in the post-race press conference. “I’m wore out. I was so relieved.”

Pedregon won a championship in 1992 and hasn’t done much since. But on this day, with his Advance Auto Parts team, he had risen to the occasion. They punctuated their first round by beating John Force in the second, Neff in the third and Capps in the final.

It was the third consecutive victory for Pedregon, who had won only twice in the previous 10 years.

With the enormous weight off his shoulders, Pedregon’s championship came with a trophy, a jacket and a check for $500,000.

All because he and his team got it done when it counted most.

Money time.

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