DALLAS, Texas – There are signs that the often difficult relationship between the man who drives the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang and the man who tunes it finally has begun to mellow, a circumstance that could change the dynamic of the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs.
Coming off a repeat victory in the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind., and a runner-up finish in last week’s Countdown opener at Charlotte, N.C., Neff has emerged as a legitimate contender for the $500,000 Full Throttle bonus.
Although he currently trails points leader Ron Capps by 73 points, the important thing is that, after struggling with his driving earlier in the year, the 2007 NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year feels like he is more efficiently handling the difficult round-by-round transition from tuner to driver and back again.
“It’s nice to have a good first race in the Countdown,” said the two-time former world championship-winning crew chief (with Gary Scelzi in 2005 and John Force in 2010). “To be able to go from fourth to second in points in the very first race feels really good. My guys have given me a great car the last two weeks.”
Trying to become the first in 38 years to win an NHRA Funny Car championship in the dual role of driver/crew chief, Neff has no illusions. However, he has gained confidence since he “lost the handle” on his tune-up last year and, after starting the playoffs as the No. 1 seeded faded to fifth in the final driver standings.
“It’s not an exact science,” he said of preparing an 8,000 horsepower race car for a trip down a 1,000 foot racetrack. “Whether the track is 100 degrees or 140, there are challenges you have to deal with. Anything can happen.
“That’s what’s so exciting about NHRA drag racing,” acknowledged the nine-time tour winner. “You can’t make it up in the next turn. You get one shot at it. You either get it right, you catch a break or it’s over with – and you have to do that four times in one day.”
Despite the challenge of handling, in essence, two full-time jobs, Neff has taken his white-and-green Mustang to the final round in 15 of the last 39 races with eight wins (three this year). Only John Force Racing teammate Robert Hight, the 2009 series champion, has won more often in that span (nine times).
For the former motocross rider and off-road truck mechanic, the most trying period is the four to five minutes between when he is strapped into the cockpit and when he mashes the accelerator.
“When you’re a tuner,” he said, “you’re always second-guessing yourself. So, one of the hardest parts for me is making a decision and, when it comes time to drive, living with it.
You can’t go up there thinking about the tuning part because you won’t drive as well as you should and, in the end, if you don’t perform as a driver, it doesn’t really matter what you did as a tuner.
“You just have to do one job at a time and not let them affect one another – and I haven’t always been able to do that,” Neff explained.
“The thing is, if it was easy, everybody’d be winning,” he said. He could have added “and everybody’s not.”
Source: John Force Racing