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A Driving Force Behind Changes

Times Staff Writer

What would be more difficult, being a totally inexperienced driver replacing a reigning champion, or being the reigning champion leaving his team and going out on his own?

Those are two of the more intriguing questions about to be answered when the 44th annual K&N; Filters Winternationals opens the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Powerade drag racing series today at Pomona Raceway.

Eric Medlen, 30, who has never driven a nitro fuel funny car in a race of any kind, has been named by John Force to take the seat of champion Tony Pedregon in the Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang.

Pedregon, 38, who dethroned Force -- his boss the past eight seasons -- in winning the NHRA championship, has formed his own team with Quaker Oil sponsorship and will have brother Cruz as his teammate.

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It will be some time before the questions are answered, but the first hints will be available sometime after 2:30 p.m. today, when the first of four pro qualifying sessions -- one today, one Friday, two Saturday -- begin to fill the 16-car fields for Sunday’s eliminations.

Force is the man in the middle. He lost his champion driver to a rival oil company and to fill that seat he chose an untried rookie, although Medlen has worked as Force’s mechanic for eight years and has the champion’s crew chief, his father John Medlen, tuning his car.

“I want to tell you, in these days of multiple teams and multiple sponsorships, it’s like putting a Rubik’s Cube together to find a driver,” said the effusive Force when he revealed his choice. “Some guys wanted more money, some wouldn’t fit in our program, some couldn’t handle the attention, so I looked around and decided Eric was my guy.

“He’s competitive. He’s never raced funny cars, but he’s gone fast in go-karts and he’s been my guy in the clutch department. We took him over to Las Vegas and I was totally in shock when I saw his numbers.”

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Medlen ran 4.79 seconds at 324 mph, which would have qualified him seventh in last November’s Auto Club finals at Pomona. Pedregon’s 4.721 equaled Force’s national record.

“I think having my father there takes some pressure off,” Medlen said in a conference call. “Our communication lines are very open. Having John Force there is great. He’s not John Force, 12-time funny car champion, he’s just John. He’s there and he’s great to talk to and that takes pressure off.”

And what about Pomona?

“Pomona is tricky,” he said. “It can get cold there. What I want is to get qualified on the first run. I want to be able to show the sponsors that, even though they took a huge risk, they made the right choice. If we give it our hearts, we’ll get qualified and hopefully we’ll be in the top half.”

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Medlen’s situation is somewhat analogous to that of Brandon Bernstein, who replaced his oft-champion father, Kenny Bernstein, in a top-fuel car last year, despite having no experience driving nitro cars. Brandon, who had driven alcohol cars, was an immediate success, winning three of the first eight events before suffering a near career-ending injury May 18 at Englishtown, N.J.

With Brandon hospitalized, Kenny Bernstein came out of retirement to win four races, including the Auto Club Finals at Pomona. Now Brandon will return to the cockpit for the Winternationals, with his father returning to the easy chair.

On the other hand, Pedregon is returning to Pomona as not only the NHRA champion, but as defending Winternationals champion -- in an entirely different car.

He drove a Ford Mustang last year; this year he will be in the Quaker State Chevy Camaro until the team’s new Monte Carlo bodies are completed. He will have one of his former crew chiefs, Dickie Venables, with him. Venables worked with Medlen on last year’s car.

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“Forming my own team had been on my mind for a long time and this seemed to be the time,” Pedregon said. “Cruz had his own team and we’ll work together. It’s been a challenge, starting up a team from scratch, but we think we’ll be ready for Pomona.”

And what of Force, the champion for 10 consecutive seasons before his protege took it away from him?

He is 54 now, his daughter Ashley will make her debut in an alcohol dragster at Pomona, he has a rookie teammate instead of a proven winner, and his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang is uncharacteristically No. 3.

“It was Dale Earnhardt’s number, so it’s not all bad,” he said, not too convincingly.

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