NEFF, HIGHT STILL IN TITLE CONTENTION LEAVING PHOENIX
CHANDLER, AZ --- With two races left in the Countdown to the Championship Mike Neff and Robert Hight are leaving the 27th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals with a legitimate shot at winning the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship. In spite of disappointing performances today both drivers are closer to the points leader than 2010 Funny Car champion John Force was when he left Reading (then the third from the last race) last season.
Heading into Las Vegas in two weeks Neff is 22 points behind points leader Jack Beckman and Hight is 58 points out of first place. Last year Force was 64 points behind Matt Hagan with two races left and he came back winning the final two races of the season to claim his 15th Full Throttle Funny Car championship.
Mike Neff and Robert Hight met in the first round of eliminations and in one of the closest races of the day Hight took out Neff, the points leader, 4.361 seconds to Neff’s 4.356 seconds. At the top end Neff’s Castrol GTX dropped two cylinders on the same side of his BOSS 500 motor forcing the Mustang towards the guard wall.
“It was on a good run. It was probably going to run a 4.20 something, a mid to high 4.20. It just spun down there and like I said had it not put the two cylinders out I would have been able to drive it to the end and keep it going straight. It happened so fast. It got sideways and I saw the wall. The last thing I want to do is drive it into the wall. I don’t think I could have stayed in it any longer. I just barely missed hitting it as it was,” said Neff the No. 4 qualifier.
“I had to lift at the top end because it spun the tires. It put two cylinders out on the right side and when it does that you have your hands full. When it puts one cylinder out it doesn’t move the car too bad but when it puts two cylinders out on the same side the car makes such a violent move that it is uncontrollable. It got sideways so fast the next thing I knew I saw the wall and I had to lift or I thought I would drive it right into the wall so I lifted before I got to the end. That was probably the difference.”
It was so close at the finish line neither driver was sure who won when they stopped their Ford Mustangs in the shut down area.
“I never saw Robert. After I lifted he went by so I knew it had to be close. It is not what we were hoping for in the first round,” said Neff. “We just keep fighting. We went through this last year. I have to go win the next two races. It is as simple as that.”
The round win kept Hight’s championship hopes alive as he paired up with Jack Beckman in the second round. A win would have moved Hight within a couple of rounds of the points leaders. In a shocking turn of events, Hight’s Auto Club Ford Mustang red-lit for the first time in his career handing Beckman a round win and tightening up the points chase with two races left.
“I didn’t do anything different before that run as far as my routine. I don’t think I put any more pressure on myself. I know I wasn’t thinking I have to try extra hard for this run. I try hard on every run whether it is qualifying or eliminations,” said Hight, the 2009 Funny Car champion.
“You can’t dig any deeper out there. You have to have a routine. I wish I knew what triggered my foot to leave. It was like it had a mind of its own. There is no excuse. I didn’t have any more pressure. You have to win every round all the time. That is what I tell myself. There is no perfect time for something like that but I can tell you there are worse times than others.”
“You take out your teammate and then you go up there and do something like that is bad.”
Hight knows that he has a tough road ahead of him to get his second Full Throttle Funny Car championship but it is a road that is not unfamiliar to JFR.
“John won the first Pomona and the first Vegas last year and he won the championship when he won the last Vegas and Pomona. I won the first Pomona and first Vegas this year and that is what I have to do,” said the five-time 2011 winner.
John Force was standing between both of his teammates in the first round and his emotions were pulled in two directions simultaneously. Earlier in the first round Force lost to Beckman and he had to hope that one of his drivers would dominate at Firebird International Raceway.
“What bothers me most is two things one is I can’t run for the championship and I can’t help my guys. I needed to get Beckman,” said Force. “(crew chief) Jimmy (Prock) and Robert’s car has struggled and they beat my lead car. That is racing. We have actually had the discussion; do we need a fourth Funny Car to run into each other. It gives you a gut ache when you are all teammates. I told my guys at prayer this morning there are two things I want of today, No. 1 I want to win this race but No. 2 and most important I you guys to love each other and still be a team no matter what happens.”
“(Watching Hight and Neff race) is like having two grandbabies you don’t know which one to hug. I love race cars and people. I stood in the middle of the starting line with Rick Stewart. I wanted them to know that I was not taking any sides. It hurt because he had such a lead. They are going to have to fight it out. I never pray against another team to go down. I pray for them to be safe.”