FORCE TRIES TO MOVE UP
IN COUNTDOWN STANDINGS
14-Time Champion Seeks Record 11th Victory at Brainerd
BRAINERD, Minn. -- On a Brainerd International Raceway quarter mile on which he's won 10 of the last 19 races, the same track on which his late teammate, Eric Medlen, earned two of his six tour victories, John Force tries to tighten his grip this week on one of the eight starting spots in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship.
Winner of two of the last four stops on the NHRA POWERade tour including the July 29th FRAM/Autolite Nationals at Sonoma, Calif., Force could move his Castrol GTX® High Mileage Ford Mustang as high as fourth in the Countdown standings with a favorable result in this week's 22nd annual Lucas Oil Nationals.
Nevertheless, the 58-year-old icon admitted Thursday that after the season he's had, he would be happy simply to hang on to the position he presently occupies -- lucky No. 7.
"In one year, we went from being one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport to being one of the worst," Force said of a dreadful start to the current campaign in which he won just two rounds in 11 races and saw his streak of 395 consecutive starts ended at Las Vegas. "But now my 'ol Mustang is starting to talk to me. We just have to stay focused."
A month ago, Vegas oddsmakers likely would not even have handicapped the 124-time tour winner's chances of earning a record 15th Funny Car championship. Off to the poorest start of his 30-year pro career, the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection was only 18th in the Funny Car driver standings on July 5th and had been as far back as 20th.
He began a turnaround at Bristol, Tenn., where his final round victory over Cruz Pedregon extended to 21 the number of consecutive seasons in which he had won at least one tour event. He's been a factor ever since, putting his Mustang in the finals at three of the last four races.
"I didn't wake up one morning and not know how to drive," Force has said, "and (crew chiefs Austin) Coil and Bernie (Fedderly) didn't wake up not knowing how to tune a hot rod. We just had some issues.
"It was a combination of everything and, with the loss of Eric (who succumbed last March to injuries suffered in a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla.), I just couldn't get it right. John Medlen (Eric's dad) told me I wasn't being the guy that Eric looked up to, that led the team. He told me I was failing the team.
"So, after we lost at Norwalk (Ohio) in the first round again (on July 1), we switched cars, we switched clutches and then at Bristol (Tenn., before a race he ultimately won) I apologized to the team for not doing my job, for not being a good leader," Force said. "After that, Eric just gave us magic. I really believe that."
It would be difficult to dispute the fact, considering what has occurred.
However, for his rivals the really frightening realization is that Force could have, perhaps should have, won the last four races instead of two of the last four.
At Denver, Colo., he was guilty of a foul start in a semifinal race against Jack Beckman and, a week later, at Seattle, Wash., a malfunctioning fuel shutoff valve cut the flow of nitromethane to the engine while Force was leading Beckman in the final round, his day ending in an engine explosion and fire.
"We've got a good race car," Force said, "but we don't have a (Countdown) spot yet. I remember two years ago, we won Dallas and took the points lead (away from Ron Capps and eventual champion Gary Scelzi). We thought it was all over and then we lost (in the first round) at Vegas and Tony (Pedregon) beat us at Pomona and that was the championship.
"We've still gotta do our jobs for Castrol and Ford, the Auto Club, Mac Tools and the rest of the sponsors BrandSource, Mach 1 Air Services and Nordic Boats. And we have to do our job for Eric, too. He'll be riding with us."