Neff looks for first win in Lucas Oil Nationals
BRAINERD, Minn. – As a driver, Mike Neff hasn’t won a single racing round in two previous appearances at Brainerd International Raceway, site of this week’s 30th annual Lucas Oil Nationals.
Of course, that’s no cause for real concern in the Neff Nation. After all, neither the Funny Car points leader nor his rivals really expected him to get to the winners’ circle this week on his driving talent alone.
Realistically, while he’s done a workmanlike job behind the wheel of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang, Neff, the driver, hasn’t been the nemesis this year of those left scattered in his wake. Mike Neff, the crew chief? Well, that’s another matter altogether.
Fact is, Neff believes that his current situation, one in which he is both driver AND crew chief on one of the world’s most powerful race cars, provides the best opportunity for a breakthrough victory at BIR.
Despite consecutive first round losses at Sonoma, Calif., and Seattle, Wash., the 44-year-old’s confidence remains high if for no other reason than because his crew chief credentials at Brainerd are impressive enough to overshadow his anemic driver resume (first round losses to Tim Wilkerson in 2008 and Jack Beckman in 2009).
As crew chief to Gary Scelzi for four BIR appearances, Neff sent the 2005 series champion to two final rounds (2004 and 2006), a track record quarter mile speed of 328.90 miles per hour (2005) and a No. 1 starting position (2003). Mechanically, that’s a foundation on which he knows he can build this week.
A finalist in exactly half the races contested thus far this season, he has positioned himself to become the third different John Force Racing driver to win the Full Throttle championship in as many seasons. Teammate Robert Hight won the 2009 title in the Auto Club Ford and team owner John Force claimed last year’s championship with a dramatic stretch run in the Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Mustang.
Now, Neff hopes it’s his turn and, as a result, he’s focused on regaining whatever momentum may have been lost in his two most recent outings.
“I really want to go (into the Countdown) No. 1,” Neff said. “We’ve been leading the points long enough (for 11 of 14 races) 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.”
Barring some sort of catastrophic meltdown on his part, it is unlikely that anyone can mount a realistic bid to snatch the regular season title away from him. After all, he comes into the next-to-last qualifying race 125 points ahead of Hight and 138 in front of Beckman, the highest-ranking non-JFR driver.
With 20 points awarded for each round won, the challenge for the pursuers is a daunting one.
Still, after helping Force to last year’s championship with an unlikely victory on the final day of the season, Neff knows that anything is possible.
“We just need to get back to where we were,” he said, recalling a mid-season run in which he reached the finals six times in seven races and dominated in the most extreme conditions. “We’ve been a little bit off the last two races but we know what we need to do.
“My team is great,” said the five-time tour winner, “(and) that’s what’s making this possible. They’re so good at what they do (that) I don’t even have to worry about the car and the maintenance.”
Instead, he can spend his time on tune-up decisions likely to carry him into the playoffs as the Funny Car favorite.