It was billed as one of the best battles of the weekend.
Robert Hight vs. J.R. Todd for the Funny Car championship.
But what began as a title fight for the ages ended with a victory parade as Hight smoked the tires in his first-round matchup and Todd went on to earn the win and ultimately the championship Sunday at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
After watching his championship opponent bow out in round one, Todd felt a huge sigh of relief as the team finished the weekend playing with house money. And, with all of the pressure lifted from the Kalitta Motorsports team, Todd went four big rounds on Sunday culminating with a win over Tommy Johnson Jr., his sixth of the season.
“People kept asking what we need to do to clinch and I kept saying what we need to do is win the race and not worry about what we need to do to clinch,” Todd said. “Seeing Robert smoke the tires first round, that was like instant relief. You hate to wish bad things on anybody, but seeing that it was a huge relief. I was pretty stressed. I tried not to show it, but it was definitely a stressful time between Vegas and here.”
With the weight lifted, Todd drove to his sixth win of the year and the third of the Countdown with a 3.872-second pass at 329.10 mph in the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car. Johnson, who had won at the season finale at Pomona the past two years, had a 3.889 at 327.51 mph in the runner-up effort.
But it was the pass in the final that truly put an exclamation mark on an impressive season for the veteran racer in only his second year in Funny Car as the team found its groove at just the right time.
“What can I say, they are great at what they do. Todd Smith and Jon (Oberhofer), they really have a handle on the tuneup and they were almost calling their shots today,” Todd said. “Except for that 88 in the semis where they were trying to run a 90 and actually overachieved, they were spot on. Then in the final I had it way out of the groove driving like an idiot and I thought for sure I was going to smoke the tires and then the win light came on and I was like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’
“To see the 87, that was a big-time run. They just have a really good handle on the car. They are racing smart and the yellow fellas’ do an awesome job preparing this thing. They definitely stayed focused all day long because there were a lot of distractions around our pit area. They did their job and the other Kalitta Motorsports teams chipped in. It is a huge family over there and it is awesome to have that kind of support.”
Todd added wins over Ron Capps, Bob Tasca and Jim Campbell to reach his eighth final round of the year and the fifth of the six-race Countdown. Tasca proved a tough out in round two with a very close 3.952 to a 3.962 and it was relatively smooth sailing from there.
Johnson, in his third final of 2018, had wins over Jack Beckman, Courtney Force and Cruz Pedregon, but came up shy of recording his first win of the season on Sunday.
But it was a stunning first-round result that had the biggest impact on Sunday. Needing to go three additional rounds than Todd and with an opportunity to go head-to-head in round two, Hight shockingly spun the tires in his first-round matchup with Tasca, limping across the line while watching his hopes of a repeat championship – quite literally – go up in smoke.
From there it was all-in for Todd, who dominated the back-half ot the schedule.
Recording just two wins in the season’s first 17 races, Todd concluded 2018 with four wins in the final seven races beginning with a win at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and ending with the win on Sunday.
“For us, it all changed after Brainerd. Todd and Jon O, they hit on something there in Brainerd in the semifinal and carried that into the Indy test and the car ran really well,” Todd said. “We carried that into Indy, won the race, and really kind of stuck with that setup and did a great job maintaining that momentum.”
For Todd, winning the championship is the culminations of nearly two-decades worth of highs and lows. From the lows of losing his ride multiple times since he made the jump from Junior Dragster to Top Fuel at the age of 18 in 2000, to the highs of winning in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car categories, back-to-back U.S. Nationals victories and, ultimately, a championship.
And to do it in Funny Car, a class that many said he would never succeed, made the win all that more enjoyable for the NHRA veteran.
“I understand (the questions). I questioned myself last year if I could drive one of these things. They are tough. It’s hard to get used to and it comes with time and you just have to tell yourself to be patient,” Todd said. “I didn’t want to give up on it, but I was getting frustrated with myself. I still get mad at myself driving that thing because I feel I can do a better job.
“In my opinion, Funny Car is the toughest category in our sport. You are racing against guys like John Force, I grew up idolizing guys like that. It is surreal to me that I am racing against guys like that, Capps, and getting calls and text messages from guys like Gary Scelzi, Snake, Kenny Bernstein. To me, when you win any of these Funny Car events you feel like you’ve accomplished a major milestone. It’s really cool to do. I am not taking anything away from dragsters, I still feel like I have unfinished business in Top Fuel. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy what I am doing in Funny Car.”
After the race, Todd had a unique opportunity to reach out to the man that made it all possible, team owner Connie Kalitta, who gave Todd an opportunity at a rather unexpected time just two short years ago. Now the two are celebrating a championship.
“I went over and thanked him after first round and he told me good job and that is all he was going to tell me. Seeing him smile and telling me good job, that is what it is all about. It is an honor to drive that Funny Car,” Todd said. “I saw these guys do this in 2015 with Del (Worsham), so I knew that the opportunity was there and I just didn’t want to be the reason for it not to happen. It was pretty special, but we had some help from above from guys like Scott Kalitta and Eric Medlen. Things work out for a reason.”