Photos by StangTV Editor Mark Gearhart

On Friday, all eyes were on one Vaughn Gittin Jr. – the new face of drifting and last year’s Formula Drift Champion. With a new 5.4 liter engine under the hood of his winning Mustang, and those steady, sure hands piloting the car, we imagine even Vaughn Gittin Jr. might have felt invincible coming into the opening race of the 2011 Formula Drift racing series on the Streets of Long Beach.

Then Gittin failed to qualify in Friday after two disappointing qualifying runs, and with the former Formula Drift champion out of the picture, it was suddenly anybody’s game. That is when Falken Tire teammate and fellow Mustang driver Justin Pawlak stepped up to the plate, surprising everybody by stealing his very first Formula Drift victory from perpetual underdog Matt Powers and his LS7-powered Nissan 240sx.

Pawlak may not be as well known as Vaughn Gittin Jr., but the man has been drifting around North American for over five years, but the best finish he has ever landed in a Formula Drift competition (not qualifying) has been third place. So this victory is a long time coming for the fabricator and drifter from SoCal. Pawlak was added to the Falken Tire team last year for the 2010 season, though the star of last year’s show was no doubt Vaughn Gittin Jr. Gittin also started off his championship season by winning at Long Beach, so this could be the start of a new rising star in the Formula Drift series.

Pawlak slowly clawed his way through the rounds, turning in consistent performances until reaching the championship match against Matt Powers. It was an unbelievable upset victory for Pawlak, who seemed just as surprised as everybody else. “This victory feels unreal. I have worked so hard for this and can’t believe I’m on top to start out the season,” Pawlak said.

2010 champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. was unable to qualify for Saturday's elimination rounds.

Since Pawlak is such a dark horse, there isn’t the wealth of information available as there is on Gittin, so we’re not sure if Pawlak’s Mustang packs the same 5.0 engine that took Gittin to the championship last year, or if it also features the naturally aspirated 5.4 liter V8 that Vaughn Gittin Jr. swapped out prior to the start of the season. We’re not sure what went wrong on Gittin’s qualifying runs, and we can’t help but wonder if it didn’t have something to do with the engine swap. Sometimes it is best not to mess with success (though the car looked fine at practice.) Or perhaps it is just Pawlak’s time to shine. As long as the Ford Mustang keeps winning, we’ll keep cheering, regardless of the driver.