Neff looking for momentum swing at Phoenix
PHOENIX, Arizona – Five years ago, Mike Neff’s path to the Full Throttle Funny Car championship would have been far less circuitous than it has been thus far this season. In fact, if this was 2006, the man who is both driver and crew chief on the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang might be thinking more about his acceptance speech than about winning this week’s 27th annual Arizona Nationals at Firebird Raceway.
The only real pressure comes from ourselves because the worst thing would be to do as well as we have and then bomb out here at the end.
“The Countdown changes everything,” Neff said of the NHRA playoff format that, with six races remaining, took away a 215-point lead and turned it into a mere 30-point advantage that, in the first three playoff races, was transformed into the current two-point deficit to Matt Hagan.
“It would be a whole different ball game,” Neff said of the accumulative system that crowned NHRA champions before 2007. “Even though I’d still be taking it one race at a time, I’d have a big advantage right now (198 points) and if I could just go a few rounds at the next few races, I would pretty much have it sewn up.
“But that’s not the case,” he said, “and now it’s like starting over and just fighting to hang on.”
Indeed, although he has taken his Ford to the final round in nine of 19 races this year, celebrated five victories and won 39 racing rounds, 11 more than any other Funny Car driver, he finds himself this week trying to recapture momentum lost to points leader Matt Hagan.
Not that Neff is overly concerned.
“Our car is running good,” he said. “I’m not discouraged or worried in any way. We have come from behind and won championships before (including last year’s title when he was crew chief to John Force). We’ve got three more races to go. That’s a lot of racing.
“The only real pressure,” Neff continued, “comes from ourselves because the worst thing would be to do as well as we have and then bomb out here at the end.”
Trying to become the first driver/crew chief to win a series title since the late Shirl Greer did so in 1974, Neff led the points for 13 of the 16 races in the regular season and after the first two playoff races.
Neff, who won his first NHRA Funny Car championship as crew chief to Gary Scelzi in 2005, is on pace to become just the 26th driver in the modern era to reach the final round of at least half the races in the series. That isn’t what motivates him, though. The championship is his focus as both driver and crew chief.
“My goal at the beginning of the year was to make the Countdown,” said the 2008 winner of the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award that identifies the NHRA’s Rookie-of-the-Year, “so to even be in the running (for the championship) here at the end is pretty awesome.”
Although he has earned kudos for his standout performance in two distinctly different jobs, Neff gives most of the credit to his crew, largely the same crew that directed Force to the title last year.
“You get good people and you delegate,” Neff said. “All these guys are efficient. You can’t do everything by yourself and, if you try, you won’t be effective. You have to trust your people. Jon Schaffer pretty much runs the crew. He oversees all the maintenance. Bernie (Fedderly) is still a big part of it and Danny Hood They’re the ones that make this even possible.”