COMMERCE, Ga. - John Force is in unfamiliar territory. The last time the nine-time NHRA Winston champion was labeled a 'top five contender' was back in 1989. After six events this season, Force is second in the NHRA Winston points standings,...
COMMERCE, Ga. - John Force is in unfamiliar territory. The last time the nine-time NHRA Winston champion was labeled a 'top five contender' was back in 1989.
After six events this season, Force is second in the NHRA Winston points standings, just a few points away from his usual perch high atop the Funny Car category.
Force hopes a victory at the 20th annual Advance Auto Parts NHRA Southern Nationals, May 4-7 at Atlanta Dragway will put him back in the familiar territory that he's so accustomed to: Being No. 1.
Force is the defending Funny Car winner at the $1.7 million race, the seventh of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Force is a five-time winner at the Georgia quarter-mile.
In '89 - the season before his career took off with a flurry -- Force was ninth overall after five races, but went on to post a sixth place finish. In the '90s, he had already conquered the top spot once the schedule reached this point and was well on his way to another championship trophy, leaving a wake of spent and frustrated Funny Car drivers in the distance.
So far in 2000, the mood suggests that times have changed. Starting in late '99, WWF Racing's Jerry Toliver and teammate Jim Epler began to demonstrate an ability to compete with the great Force dynasty, which also features a second Castrol Ford Mustang team car, driven by Tony Pedregon.
Beginning with the second event in Houston last year, Toliver's team has advanced to six of seven straight final rounds -- winning four times. Toliver has won twice this season, while Epler has logged one victory. Toliver, driving a Chevy Camaro with wrestling icon 'The Rock' on its hood, holds the Winston points lead for the first time in his career. Epler, driving a red Camaro with wrestling character 'Kane' on board, ended a six-year winless drought by winning at Las Vegas.
"I always worry when things aren't going too good," said Force, who has earned victories in Phoenix and Virginia this season. "We've had some bad things happen this year that you don't expect. But, bottom line, Toliver and (crew chief Dale) Armstrong have a good operation over there and they're going to be tough all year."
Force, from Yorba Linda, Calif., is hoping at least three more victories will put him atop NHRA's all-time winner's list. Retired Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden currently holds the record with 85 wins. Force is also seeking a 10th Winston championship title this season, another record held by Glidden, who also drove a Ford for much of his career.
"Records are great but that's not where our focus is," said Force. "Right now we just want to win some more races."
Force's most intense championship challenge came in '92 when Cruz Pedregon (the last driver other than Force to win a Funny Car title) claimed the crown. In '98, Force was pushed to the wire by Ron Capps, driver of Don Prudhomme's U.S. Tobacco Chevy Camaro. Of Force's nine championships, he's won seven in a row since '93.
Force, the all-time winningest Funny Car driver with 83 career victories, also holds the NHRA national performance records for elapsed time (4.788 seconds) and speed (324.05 mph). Last season he made drag racing history by winning the $200,000 Winston Showdown, NHRA's all-star event at Bristol Dragway, the first NHRA event to feature Top Fuel dragsters against Funny Cars.