NEFF EXCITED, CONFIDENT HEADING TO DENVER DENVER -- At the halfway point of the 2008 NHRA POWERade season rookie of the year favorite Mike Neff and his Old Spice Ford Mustang team are looking to capitalize on previous experiences and take on ...
NEFF EXCITED, CONFIDENT HEADING TO DENVER
DENVER -- At the halfway point of the 2008 NHRA POWERade season rookie of the year favorite Mike Neff and his Old Spice Ford Mustang team are looking to capitalize on previous experiences and take on new challenges. As they head to Denver for the 29th annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway Neff is looking forward to continuing his 8,000 hp, 300-plus mile per hour education.
"It will be an experience for me as a driver (racing at Bandimere's elevation). I've talked to Robert (Hight) about some of the differences you get from the altitude in Denver. That is what is really helpful about having Robert, Ashley and John to help explain all these things," said Neff. "I love the Western Swing. I love it out west. The swing will be crucial for a lot of us and we are going to need to do some good out there. After that it is almost cut time."
For Neff "doing well" does not translate into the usual rookie type successes of consistently qualifying, learning the general "ins and outs" of racing at speeds in excess of 320 mph or handling trouble in his Ford Mustang Funny Car for the first time. Neff holds himself to a higher standard. As the world championship winning Funny Car crew chief with Gary Scelzi in 2005 Neff knows how hard winning can be and he has come close to experiencing the thrill of driving into the winner's circle as opposed to tuning your way in.
"I know how hard it is to get to a final round and you can't screw up when you get to a final. You just don't get a final every race and you have to have your act together. You have to be at your best in the final round. It is frustrating for me because I wasn't at my best (in Englishtown)," said the three-time 2008 finalist.
Neff's latest trip to the finals in Englishtown, New Jersey was bittersweet considering the entire NHRA community had to endure the loss of two-time Top Fuel champion and current Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta. When many drivers would have made excuses for being a little "off" the rest of the weekend Neff maintained his focus and felt that in the final versus Tim Wilkerson he should have stepped up.
"It was another close one but as a driver you need to win those. I didn't do my job right there. I was late. I should have had a good enough light to get us a win right there so I am really disappointed with myself. (Crew chief John) Medlen and the guys gave me a car that should have won that. I am mad at myself for not being at my best. I just feel bad for letting all these guys down."
Neff's teammates are impressed with his ability to pick up the nuances of the Nitro Funny Car. Robert Hight spends considerable time with the rookie talking about both the technical and the practical sides of driving. Neff also gets tips from sophomore driver Ashley Force and 14-time Funny Car champion John Force. The downside is in twelve races this season Neff has pulled up beside his teammate/teachers in elimination rounds five times. He has a very respectable 3-2 round win record.
"You always hate to have to race your teammate. You know somebody will have a bad day since they are going to lose the first round. The one positive is you are guaranteed getting a car to the (next) round," said the Hemet, California native.
Racing against some of the best drivers in the modern era of Funny Car also catches Neff's attention but not long enough to distract him. In fact the challenge of going head to head with the greatest drag racer of all time, John Force, was one of the aspects that helped convince him to get behind the wheel.
"(One of) the first things that came to my mind when I found out I was going to be driving a Funny Car was being able to pull up side by side next to John Force and let it all hang out. Not too many people in their life will get to do that. I feel really privileged to be able to do that. To be able to race (Ron) Capps, (Gary) Scelzi and all of these great drivers is an honor. Someday when I am not driving anymore that will be something that I'll be able to look back on and feel honored I was able to do that. It is awesome."
The rookie has never been star-struck and in fact he shows patience beyond his years from the seat of his Old Spice Ford Mustang. He understands that the season is a marathon not a sprint and that his team will have highs and lows. Neff realizes that he has to maintain an even balance and stay focused as his team moves into the stretch run for the Countdown. Neff's comments after just missing his first win in Englishtown give anyone a glimpse into the mind of one of the toughest drivers on the POWERade Series -- rookie or veteran.
"Going to three finals in the last five races is good I don't care who you are. I am encouraged about that. Medlen and the guys are doing a great job with the car. I feel like we have a legitimate chance every time we pull into the track," said Neff. "I expect us to win and I know we are good enough to win so that is what makes it frustrating that we didn't win. I know the final round as a crew chief and that is when you bring your "A" game. That is what makes winners and champions. I lot of people would be tickled to death to go to the finals. I am pleased because we are making up ground. I don't want to be down there bouncing around fighting for that tenth spot."
"I'd like to get away from that (tenth spot) and get ourselves solidly into the Countdown. That is the goal right now. I believe we'll get better and I'll get better. Hopefully we make the Countdown and then be hitting our stride about that point and have a legitimate chance at it."