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Leah Pritchett realizes goal by winning top-fuel race at NHRA Winternationals

Leah Pritchett
Leah Pritchett makes a qualifying run in her top-fuel dragster during the Circle K NHRA Winternationals on Saturday night.
(Marc Gewertz / NHRA )

On Saturday night, after securing the top qualifying time at the Circle K National Hot Rod Assn. Winternationals, Leah Pritchett made it abundantly clear how much a title at Pomona would mean to her.

“This would probably, for me, rank above a U.S. nationals,” Pritchett said. “To be able to get up on a stage someday here would be incredible. But again, that’s tomorrow, 24 hours from now.”

A day later, the Southern California racer realized her dream with her second career top-fuel victory, defeating second-seeded Doug Kalitta.

“If I’m tongue-tied, it’s because what just happened is the best thing that has ever happened to me professionally in my career,” Pritchett said. “What we have right now is what you’d call a level-10 pizza, a perfect pizza. We have the perfect group of people — partners, sponsors [and] a car that is reacting.”

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Pritchett took down some of the biggest names in her class on the way to the finals, including Steve Torrence and Tony Schumacher. In the last round, she faced Kalitta, who had six consecutive sub-3.7 times up to that point. But Kalitta’s car stalled at the start, and Pritchett cruised the rest of the way with a 3.711-second time.

“As terrible as it sounds, I’ve got a saying … we went from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Pritchett said. “I’m looking off into the mountains and I’m like, this is my mountains, my streets, my taco stand, my house. That’s how I talk to myself. You’ve got to have confidence if you’re going to run one of these beasts.”

It was a rewarding weekend for the No. 1 qualifiers at Pomona. In addition to Pritchett, the funny car and pro stock winners were the top seeds from Friday and Saturday, the first such occurrence since an event at Sonoma in 2015.

Matt Hagan took the funny car trophy by defeating Courtney Force with a time of 3.875 seconds, besting Force’s 3.901. Hagan was dominant from day one, tying a track record for fastest-ever time on Saturday. The season-opening victory comes a month after the death of his brother Kyle.

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“This is a very special win for me,” Hagan said. “A very emotional off-season. … I feel like I’m a big old tough country boy and I don’t break down and cry, but that’s just real life, man. That’s something I’m going to deal with the rest of my life.”

His lone near-hiccup came during a compelling semifinal. On one side of the bracket, third-seeded Courtney Force defeated second-seeded John Force by .014 seconds, ending at eight a streak of consecutive losses to her father.

Hagan advanced on a controversial call versus defending Countdown to the Championship winner Ron Capps, who red-lighted at the start. Hagan veered over the center line during his run, but NHRA officials ruled that his tires didn’t fully cross, so he moved on. If he had crossed, Capps would’ve won.

“I guess I’d rather be lucky than good any day,” Hagan said. “A lot of times, you’re just out of steering and you’re along for the ride. You’re just hoping it doesn’t go too far … there’s only so much you can do.”

Pro stock concluded in remarkably similar fashion to last year’s postseason. Jason Line and Greg Anderson qualified first and second — their respective finishes in the 2016 points standings — and pushed their way to the championship Sunday. In their 35th matchup in a final, Line came out on top, recording a time of 6.568 seconds to Anderson’s 6.579. Line was aided by a .005 reaction time.

“He’s tough,” Line said of Anderson. “If there’s one person I don’t want to race in the final round, even though I do, if that makes sense, it’s him. That guy wants to win more than any person I’ve ever met in my life.”

It was Line’s fourth year in a row in the final at Winternationals and he has emerged victorious in three of those appearances (his 2016 defeat was against Anderson). He has five victories at Pomona.

“I’m not really into stats, but that’s a cool stat,” Line said. “My dad is into stats, and he hacks on me every year, like, ‘Make sure you win in Pomona, that way you keep the streak going.’ ”

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sports@latimes.com


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