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Winternationals prove Top Fuel face is changing

POMONA, Calif. -- At a quick glance, Sunday's National Hot Rod Association Winternationals action looked like business as usual.

John Force (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), multiple-time champions who have 11 season-openers at Auto Club Raceway to their credit, dominated their respective classes. The Funny Car final was an all-John Force Racing affair. Anderson and final-round opponent Jeg Coughlin have four series crowns apiece.

But the Top Fuel landscape is like a once-tidy jigsaw puzzle that somebody bumped, dislodging a few pieces and scrambling the picture.

Spencer Massey ran the second-quickest pass in Top Fuel history at 3.745 seconds (which also is quickest national speed record among active drivers) and reset the national speed record at 328.62 mph before beating Don Schumacher Racing colleague Antron Brown to win the season-opener for the first time.

Massey means business after finishing second last season to Del Worsham. And he takes his points lead this weekend to Phoenix's Firebird International Raceway, where a shocking failure to qualify doused his dreams of a championship last October.

Brimming with momentum and motivation, Massey, at least at the moment, is the poster boy for what the NHRA is promoting as its nebulous "Nitro Generation" -- or, better defined, "Next Generation."

That Massey's monster run in the semifinal round blew away strong-performing and laser-focused Tony Schumacher (who had a stout 3.809 / 322.88) and his ü ber-capable U.S. Army team speaks volumes about Massey's potential in the Todd Okuhara-Phil Shuler-prepped Prestone/FRAM Dragster. Spencer Massey is a power the dragster drivers absolutely cannot ignore.

His boyish appearance, easy chatter, and playful mugging for the cameras belie his intensity, his drive, and his passion. He already has an International Hot Rod Association Top Fuel championship -- and he did that in his first year in a 7,000-horsepower nitro-burning dragster, after earning his license and winning his first two races all within 20 days in 2008.

Although he sticks to driving duties and sponsor obligations for his DSR team, Massey is a throwback. He's keenly interested in mechanics and skilled with a wrench, having served on pits crews for Scott Palmer, Ashley Force [Hood], and Morgan Lucas. He follows the sportsman ranks. And he's content to drive himself from home in Fort Worth, Texas, to every race on the tour in his motorcoach.

Brown, Sunday's runner-up in the Matco Tools Dragster, has his own dreams. He easily could be the one to knock from the top of the standings throughout the year. The 10-year pro Stock Motorcycle competitor is starting his fifth season in Top Fuel, and he's destined to add "champion" to his "popular driver" label. Like Massey. Brown is affable, gregarious, and animated. Unlike Massey, Brown always slips into his entertaining shtick a reminder of just how fiercely he fights for his piece of the promise.

Morgan Lucas qualified No. 1 and might have made it to the finals, had the brand-new rear end in his GEICO / Lucas Oil Dragster not broken in the semifinal against Brown. Lucas had won the 2011 Winternationals, but what transpired between that victory and his top-qualifying feat is something Lucas might not want to forget but certainly wouldn't want to repeat.

With new crew chiefs Aaron Brooks and Rod Centorbi bringing expertise and stability to the team -- and off-season acquisition Brandon Bernstein, a folded-team evacuee, adding his brand of professionalism in the MAV TV Dragster, team manager Lucas has all the tools to keep up his consistently aggressive start.

Sunday simply wasn't Shawn Langdon's day, nor was it a stellar debut for his Al-Anabi Racing teammate, Khalid al Balooshi. But those two, with Alan Johnson's tutelage and resources, will make plenty of noise this year. Each has series championships, two for Langdon in the NHRA Super Comp class and one in Jr. Dragster and two Pro Modified titles for Dubai native al Balooshi in the ADRLs (one in the U.S.' American Drag Racing League, the other in the Arabian Drag Racing League). So they know the quickest way down a dragstrip.

Bernstein still qualifies as a "young lion," and Schumacher, even with seven championships, remains among the young crowd. Same for Steve Torrence, baby-faced 28-year-old team owner-driver from Texas.

Soon fans will get a closer look at Austin Lambright, who competed at Bristol, Tenn., last year and will be on the track in Terry McMillen's second Hoosier Thunder Motorsports dragster. Lambright is hard-working, earnest, smart, and just might be an exciting rookie-of-the-year candidate to challenge al Balooshi and Funny Car's Alexis De Joria and Courtney Force. He's just 24 years old, but he's wise and intensely determined.

Down the road, Brittany Force is expected to step up from alcohol racing to a Top Fuel dragster.

Just as "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Joe Amato, Don Prudhomme, and Shirley Muldowney gave way to Gary Scelzi, Larry Dixon, and Tony Schumacher, the freshest crop has arrived in Massey, Brown, Lucas, Langdon, al Balooshi, and Lambright.

With three-time champion Dixon, uncharacteristically unemployed, on the sidelines and reigning champion Worsham retired from driving but tuning De Joria's Funny Car, the Top Fuel scene is changing.

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