Phoenix: Series round two preview

JOHN FORCE BACK IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP HUNT AS NHRA FULL THROTTLE SERIES HEADS TO PHOENIX CHANDLER, Ariz. -- NHRA Funny Car legend John Force's Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang can cover a dragstrip's race distance in a little over four...

JOHN FORCE BACK IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP HUNT AS NHRA FULL THROTTLE SERIES HEADS TO PHOENIX

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- NHRA Funny Car legend John Force's Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang can cover a dragstrip's race distance in a little over four seconds at more than 300 mph. However, that isn't the performance that the 14-time world champion is most proud of.

To hear him tell it, the 60-year-old Force is just giddy over his newfound ability to master the treadmill.

"I remember I got on the treadmill and I couldn't run for two minutes," said a re-energized Force, winner of the season-opening Winternationals and current points leader who has committed himself to a rigorous physical fitness program to increase his stamina and build back lost muscle following his harrowing 2007 crash at the Texas Motorplex. "Now I can go for an hour.

"I read in the paper that 60 is the new 40, and I'm going with that."

Force will try to keep his energy level up and his early-season momentum on the track going at the 26th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway, Feb. 19-21. Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event near Phoenix, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.

Before the '07 accident Force was a top contender in the Countdown playoffs, looking to add to his world championship trophy collection. Since then, however, he has struggled on the track like never before. Last year he went winless for the first time since the 1986 season and it was the first time he didn't advance to a final round since the 1984 campaign.

"My legs were broken and they said I might not walk again or win again and that gets in your head," Force said. "Just coming out of the hospital and winning again in Topeka (2008) that was awesome. To win (the 50th Winternationals), was special because it's my home. I've worked hard and got back on my game because I really want it."

Force said there were times when he took pity on himself, but he never lost hope. He said he received plenty of encouragement from family and friends.

"My trainer told me if I kept working I could get my legs back," Force said. "He told me I had to keep building my legs so I could push on that gas... Over the winter I hit it harder and all of a sudden I had strength to get through the day. It is awesome."

During his aerobics filled off-season, Force also made some changes to his race team. He parked the team's fourth car, which was driven the last two seasons by Mike Neff. Neff was then named co-crew chief on Force's car alongside longtime tuner Austin Coil. Former co-crew chief Bernie Fedderly was reassigned to managing the day-to-day activities at the team's Brownsburg, Ind. shop.

"You used to think that winning was easy, and then it got real tough," said Force, who has earned eight of his NHRA-record 127 victories at the Phoenix track. "Then you start to think that maybe it's me that's the problem, and that maybe I'm not a good driver. But sometimes a little bit of change gets a team moving again, and this team is moving again. I've got a good brain trust and a good race car and we're going to win."

Standing in the way of a ninth FIR victory and a 15th world championship crown for Force is a large contingent of talented Funny Car drivers, including two-time and defending Arizona Nationals winner Capps, who finished runner-up to Force at Pomona in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger. Third-year driver Bob Tasca is also looking like a title-contender this season in his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Shelby Mustang, while Ashley Force Hood and defending world champ Robert Hight have also been highly touted as pre-season favorites in the 7,000-horsepower category. Del Worsham, Jack Beckman and Cruz and Tony Pedregon are all past Phoenix winners and will be in the hunt as well.

Two-time world champ Larry Dixon is setting the early pace in Top Fuel. The two-time Phoenix winner powered his Al-Anabi Racing dragster to the victory at the Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals and holds a 26-point lead over Doug Kalitta, a winner here in 2001. Tony Schumacher looks strong once again in his U.S. Army dragster and will try to add a fourth NHRA Arizona Nationals trophy to his collection. The seven-time world champ posted wins here in 2005, 2002 and 2000. Other past Phoenix winners who are among the pre-race favorites include red-hot Cory McClenathan in the FRAM dragster, Copart/Lucas Oil dragster driver Brandon Bernstein and defending winner Brown in his Matco Tools dragster.

In Pro Stock, defending world champ Mike Edwards picked up where he left off in 2009 with a victory at the season-opener in Pomona in his Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP. Three-time world champ Greg Anderson, who was runner-up last weekend, will try for his second win at FIR. Others to watch in the 200-mph category include defending winner Coughlin, Team Mopar's Allen Johnson and Larry Morgan, who looked strong with the debut of his Lucas Oil Ford Mustang at Pomona.

* SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Feb. 19 and at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Feb. 20. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21.

* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 26th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals. Call Firebird International Raceway at (602) 268-0200 or visit www.ticketforce.com to purchase tickets.

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 2 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 21. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 21. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of eliminations coverage beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 21.

* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The 26th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals also will feature competition in five categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8 a.m. on Feb. 19. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on Feb. 20.

-source: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Del Worsham , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Doug Kalitta , Larry Morgan , Cory McClenathan , Jack Beckman , Ashley Force , Brandon Bernstein , Allen Johnson , Robert Hight , Austin Coil , Mike Edwards , Mike Neff