Matt Hagan, a young cattle rancher from Virginia, moved closer to corralling the old bull of drag racing, John Force, Thursday during the first day of qualifying at the Auto Club National Hot Rod Assn. finals at Pomona.
Hagan, 27, picked up three bonus points for the fastest qualifying run of the day. That may not sound like much, but it gave Hagan a 40-point lead over the 61-year-old Force in the funny car division of the NHRA's elite Full Throttle Series.
If that lead holds up through the next two days of qualifying, Force would have to win at least three rounds more than Hagan on Sunday, which is elimination day and the culmination of a 17-race regular season and a six-race "Countdown" playoff.
"There's still a lot of racing and a lot of qualifying left," said Hagan, who has 300 head of cattle on his 800-acre ranch near Christiansburg, Va.
His elapsed time Thursday for his 1,000-foot qualifying run was 4.139 seconds with a speed of 293.86 mph.
In top fuel, Van Nuys native Larry Dixon came into the finals with an 85-point lead over Tony Schumacher and set the pace with a run of 3.813 seconds and 318.39 mph.
In third place is Cory McClenathan, who grew up in La Habra and now lives in the Indianapolis area. He qualified fourth at 3.853 seconds and 317.07 mph.
"I'm OK with that," he said.
Beginning on Halloween Day, life had not been a treat for McClenathan.
On Oct. 31, a 10-cent part caused engine failure in the first round of elimination during the NHRA stop in Las Vegas, a development that couldcost him $450,000.
Had McClenathan made it past the first round and won at Las Vegas, he would have come into Pomona within 26 points of Dixon. Instead, a third-place finish is likely.
The champion in top fuel and funny car each earn $500,000. Third place is worth $50,000.
"It had been a great year before what happened in Las Vegas," McClenathan said during Thursday's qualifying.
The part that failed holds a spring in place on an exhaust valve. It simply broke.
"I've been racing for 20 years and never seen this happen before," McClenathan said.
Schumacher got the win at Las Vegas to move ahead of McClenathan and into second place.
Later that evening, McClenathan got a call from his boss, who wanted to meet with him the next week. McClenathan had been driving for the Don Schumacher Racing team for three years but had heard the rumors he may be dropped after the season. That was confirmed when he met with the elder Schumacher, Tony's father.
McClenathan, 47, thinks his age might have been a factor but says he has no ill feelings toward Schumacher. He hopes to hook on with another team or find a sponsor who will foot the full bill so he can be his own boss.
He and his fiancee, Debi Dixon — no relation to Larry — plan to marry sometime early next year.
"First I have to get a job," he said.