HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- John Force confirmed Monday night that 2003 NHRA POWERade points champion Tony Pedregon has been released from his contract with John Force Racing, effective immediately.

Although Pedregon's contract originally was to have run through Dec. 31, 2003, Force agreed to an early termination so that his one-time protege could pursue other options in time to prepare for the 2004 season.

"Tony's been a great teammate," Force said following the POWERade awards ceremonies at the Kodak Theatre. "We wish him the best except, of course, when he pulls alongside one of our Fords.

"I don't know exactly what he's doing but I know it's always been his dream to race with his brother Cruz and I know better than anyone else how important it is to follow your dream."

Pedregon, driver the last eight years of the Castrol SYNTEC Ford Mustang, secured the team's 11th straight NHRA Funny Car Championship by winning a career high eight times during the 2003 season. His 27 career victories rank fourth on the all-time Funny Car list behind only Force (109), Don Prudhomme (35) and Kenny Bernstein (30).

John Medlen, who shared each of those victories, will continue to serve as Crew Chief for a SYNTEC team that closed the season by recording two of the three quickest quarter mile times in Funny Car drag racing history -- 4.721 and 4.722 seconds.

"We haven't made any decisions yet (on a replacement driver for Pedregon or on a driver for the third Mustang)," Force said. "We've talked to a lot of people but we really were not in a position to do anything until Tony's situation was settled. Now we can move forward.

"I feel about Tony like he was one of my kids," Force said. "We've had eight years together and I've seen him grow up. I have a lot of mixed emotions about seeing him go. I would have liked for him to stay and the door's still open for him but, at the same time, I'm proud that we were able to put him in a position, in a really tough economy, where he could go out and find his own deal."

Pedregon's departure from drag racing's most successful team, one that has won 142 events and 13 championships in the last 14 seasons, will provide a once-in-a-career opportunity for whomever winds up in the seat.

"Our primary goal always is to win the championship for Castrol, Ford, Mac Tools, All-Pro/Bumper-to-Bumper, Auto Value, all the rest of our sponsors, and, of course, John Force Racing," said the team owner, "but if we can develop some young drivers and young mechanics in the process, well, that's pretty good, too."

Force, who suffered through his worst season since 1989, winning "just" three times in the GTX High Mileage Mustang, already has committed himself to winning back the title in 2004.

"As soon as my hands heal, I'm going to get on a program, lose some weight and go after the championship. We got behind so far at the start (of the 2003 season) that we were never in it, but we'll be ready for the new season. We've got a year of running this new combination behind us and we'll do plenty of testing before Pomona (and the season-opening K&N Filters Winternationals in February)."

An 11-time Auto Racing All-America selection, Force owns the sport's overall records for victories, victories in a single season (13 in 1996), series championships and consecutive championships (10). He now has won three or more events for 14 consecutive seasons, also a record.