Photos by Editor Mark Gearhart

This weekend was the opening salvo in what promises to be a highly competitive and entertaining season of Formula Drift. 2010 Champ Vaughn Gittin Jr. is back in a new 2013 Mustang, coming off of an unsuccessful bid for the 2011 crown. Rather, it was rising star Justin Pawlak, who nearly snatched victory in the last round before falling to 2nd place. With these two Mustang-driving all-stars on the track for 2012, who would come out on top?

Well now we have our answer. For the second year in a row, Just Pawlak has won the first round of the Formula Drift championship, winning the Streets of Long Beach after taking down two former Formula Drift champions.

Both Pawlak and Gittin were rocking the new-for-2013 Mustang body style, which incorporates LED lights and more Shelby-esque front fascia as a part of the exterior enhancements. Under the hood is an all-new 6.7 liter V8 engine making 800 horsepower, built by the famed racing engine outfit Roush-Yates.

Pawlak came tantalizingly close to securing the 2011 Formula Drift championship, falling short in the last round to fellow Falken Tire teammate Daijrio Yoshihara. On his way through the lineup at the Streets of Long Beach, Pawlak faced off against consistently good drivers, including 2009 Formula Drift champion Chris Forsberg. Pawlak would beat Forsberg in the quarter-finals, before going up against Yoshihara in the final round.

In what must have been a sweet victory, Pawlak would overcome Daijiro in the final round, taking home first place and starting off the 2012 Formula Drift season in a great position. Pawlak had nothing but good things to say about the 2013 Mustang, singing its praises (as any good sponsored driver should) but demonstrating some humility going forward, pledging to stay focused. Pawlak was up and down all last season, nabbing two first-place finishes but falling down the ranks several times, before clawing his way back to a 2nd place finish.

Pawlak’s run stood in stark contrast to fellow Mustang driver and teammate Vaughn Gittin Jr., who qualified third but was knocked out in the first round. Gittin made a “stupid mistake” in his own words, and was unable to make up for it in the chase round. It’s a tough spot to be in right from the get go, but Gittin is already looking forward to the next round in Atlanta. After an equally-rough start in last year’s opener, Gittin went on to come in 2nd place at Atlanta. He also finished in 2nd place during his championship 2010 season. For comparison, Pawlak has yet to earn a podium finish at the Road Atlanta track as a Formula D driver.

The 2012 Formula Drift season is already off to an exciting start, with Pawlak taking the top spot in the season opener. But don’t count Vaughn Gittin Jr. out yet. The 2010 champion has clawed his way out of tough spots before, though this may be the year Pawlak finally goes all the way. Which Mustang drift driver are you rooting for?