Despite odds, Neff optimistic about title bid
POMONA, Calif. – It should not be too surprising to find that Mike Neff is largely undaunted by the formidable task with which he is confronted this week in his bid to succeed his boss, John Force, as the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Champion.
I can go try to be more aggressive and just try to make it run as good as I can; kind of let it hang out and not worry about it.
After all, the odds that he will race from fourth place to first in this week’s Full Throttle Series finale are much shorter than were the odds that he would even be driving in the 47th annual Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway.
The 45-year-old rightfully believed his relatively short professional driving career was over when the car in which he won the 2009 Auto Club Finals was moth-balled for economic reasons, reducing the Force Fleet from four cars to three.
Without a ride, Neff returned to his day job as one of the sport’s premier crew chiefs, guiding Force to six wins and his record 15th championship.
That all changed last January, however, when two-time Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Champion Ashley Force Hood revealed her pregnancy. Faced with a sudden driving dilemma, Force summoned Neff from the bullpen like some drag racing version of LA Dodgers’ closer Javy Guerra – and with similar results.
In the dual role of driver and crew chief of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, Neff went to nine final rounds, won five races and coasted to the regular season championship. Unfortunately the Countdown to 1 has not been nearly so kind although Neff still believes he has a car and a team capable of again defying the odds.
“We’re excited and we’re optimistic,” said the man who, in 2005, won his first championship as crew chief to Gary Scelzi, “and I feel good about our chances. Like I said, with the help of my teammates (Force and 2009 champ Robert “Top Gun” Hight) and all the other Fords, if we’re running at our best, even if we’re behind, we still have a good chance of pulling this thing off.
“You saw what happened last year (when Force made up a 37-point deficit on the final day),” he continued. “It’s definitely going to be one exciting day of racing. Getting (front runners Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman and Cruz Pedregon) out early and keeping them from going to the final round is what it’s going to take. Then I’m going to have to win the race.”
Actually, the deficit Neff faces entering the Finals is three points less than the margin Force overcame to win a year ago.
Besides, after leading the points for almost the entire season (15 races), Neff believes there’s an advantage to the current situation.
“The gut-ache’s going to be there no matter (whether you’re in the lead or behind),” he said. “One thing it does when you’re not in the points lead is it takes some pressure off you. Now I’m in the position where I don’t have anything to lose. I can go try to be more aggressive and just try to make it run as good as I can; kind of let it hang out and not worry about it.
“When you’re leading the points, there’s a lot of pressure involved because you’re the one who has something to lose and that can change your strategy,” he explained. “You tend to be more conservative and more cautious when you’re in the points lead as opposed to when you’re not.”
Then there’s the issue of familiarity.
Neff actually has won the Finals the last two years – in 2009 as pilot of the Drive One Ford Mustang and last year as crew chief to Force.
“Being that we do race (at Auto Club Raceway) twice, early in the year and then later in the year, the conditions are usually pretty similar,” he said. “(It’s) a good racetrack and (there are) usually good conditions, so that’s all helpful. You kind of go back and look at the beginning of the year when we were there; how we approached it then and use some of that now.
“But, there again, a year of racing’s passed and a lot of stuff changes throughout the year, so it’ll never be exactly what it was but the more times you race at a place, the more data you get. You kind of know the racetrack better.”