Despite Success, Work Remains For Neff
Points leader Mike Neff’s surprising first round loss last week at Sonoma, Calif., has not been cause for concern inside John Force Racing, the high energy, high performance juggernaut that has won 17 of the last 21 NHRA Funny Car championships.
It shouldn’t be a big source of encouragement for Funny Car rivals, either.
... we we want to hold onto that top spot.
It probably is just what 44-year-old driver and crew chief on the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang said it was: an off day – which is why few expect a repeat in this week’s 24th annual O’Reilly Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways.
“We just started off on the wrong foot,” Neff said of last week’s race, the second of three in the critical Western Swing. “We didn’t make big enough changes coming back down to sea level (after racing the previous week at the 5,800 foot altitude of Denver, Colo.). We were also trying a few things since we were already in the Countdown.”
That doesn’t mean that the man who’s already won four times this year is going to coast into the Countdown.
“We want to make sure we do well these next three races,” he said, “because we want to hold onto that top spot. We’ll make some adjustments. Jimmy (Prock, crew chief on teammate Robert Hight’s Auto Club Mustang) was having a hard time, too. We run pretty much the same setup, so we’ll both make some changes.”
The first Funny Car driver to earn a guaranteed starting spot in the six-race Countdown, Neff doesn’t believe the No. 1 position is secure by any means.
“As far as it being a relief (to make the Countdown), I’d say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ It’s a relief to know that we’re in, but I really want to go in there No. 1,” he said.
“We’ve been leading the points long enough that I would hate to let that slip away. Those 30 points (the bonus that goes to the No. 1 seed when points are recalculated for the playoffs) are going to be very valuable. We’re just trying to hang onto that.”
Basically, although the paint is different, the car Neff is driving is the same one in which his boss, John Force, won last year’s championship in dramatic fashion. Neff was the crew chief then. Now, the man for whom he is tuning is himself.
"I'm probably more comfortable doing it this way than I was last year with John as the driver," Neff said. "There was more pressure with John in the car because everyone wants to see him do well -- the fans, the sponsors, everybody.
"Now, if something goes wrong, I don't have to go explain it to anybody. If it smokes the tires, I don't have to go explain to a driver what happened and if I screw up as a driver, I don’t have to answer to the crew chief."
He doesn't have to explain to the team owner, either, which he says is an exception, not a rule. . "John is not the kind of team owner who’s always in here asking why you didn't run better," Neff said. "He's always positive, even if things aren't going well. He's pumping you up. He tells you he has confidence in you. He’s real supportive and that's pretty rare, believe me. It's not like that at a lot of these teams. They don't cut you any slack."
Neff actually thought he might have made his last appearance as a driver in 2009 when he earned a breakthrough first victory. Shortly after he won the Auto Club Finals, Force made big changes to his operation in response to the economic downturn, cutting his rolling inventory from four Mustangs to three.
That left Neff without a car to drive but not without options. Force immediately brought him on-board to breathe some new life into his own program, which struggled in 2008 and 2009, the seasons immediately following a devastating crash in Dallas, Texas.
With Neff handling the tuning chores, Force won six times in 2010 en route to his 15th championship. However, when daughter Ashley announced that she was taking a year off because she and husband Dan were expecting their first child, Neff found himself back in the cockpit.
He’s made the most of the opportunity, going to the finals seven times in 13 races and leading the points after all but three events.
By: john force racing