AFTER STRUGGLING TO GET IN, FORCE A COUNTDOWN FAVORITE Veteran Seeks Record 15th NHRA Funny Car Championship READING, Pa. -- Forty-five days ago, John Force was being administered his competitive last rites as a Funny Car drag racer. ...
AFTER STRUGGLING TO GET IN,
FORCE A COUNTDOWN FAVORITE
Veteran Seeks Record 15th NHRA Funny Car Championship
READING, Pa. -- Forty-five days ago, John Force was being administered his competitive last rites as a Funny Car drag racer.
Off to the worst start of his 30-year career, the driver of the Castrol GTX® High Mileage® Ford Mustang failed to make the 16-car starting lineup last April at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ending at 395 the longest qualifying streak in NHRA drag racing history, one encompassing 20 seasons.
In this year's first 11 events, he won exactly two rounds. Not two races, mind you, two rounds. Moreover, drag racing's biggest winner celebrated the July 4th holiday mired in 15th place in POWERade points, further back than he ever had been in mid-season with Austin Coil as his crew chief.
Nevertheless, when the NHRA tour rolls into Maple Grove Raceway this week for the 23rd annual Toyo Tires Nationals, the last race in which drivers can race their way into the Countdown to the Championship playoff system, Force won't be one of those sweating out a starting spot.
In fact, he has gone from zero to hero yet again, defying the odds at age 58 to establish himself as a the early favorite to win the $500,000 bonus that accompanies the championship.
Although he's "only" fourth in the current Funny Car standings behind Ron Capps, Robert Hight and Mike Ashley, Force has won three of the last five races including two straight.
When he beat Kenny Bernstein by .004 of a second to win last week's Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., it not only put him in the Countdown, it extended one of the most amazing streaks in sports history.
Force now has won three or more tour events for 18 straight seasons and at least one race for 21 consecutive years. To put that accomplishment in perspective, pro golfer Tiger Woods' longest streak with at least three PGA tour victories is five straight years (1999-2003).
Last week's win, the 125th of his remarkable career, gave Force back-to-back victories for the 45th time but for the first time in more than two years.
What likely will keep his rivals awake at night, however, is the fact that he could have won five races instead of just three.
At Denver, Colo., he was guilty of a foul start in a semifinal match with Jack Beckman, a misstep for which he took full responsibility. The following week, at Seattle, Wash., the fuel shutoff vibrated shut in the final round, interrupting the flow of nitromethane to the 8,000 horsepower engine while Force's Mustang was leading at half track.
"I didn't wake up one morning and not know how to drive," Force has said, "and Coil and Bernie (Fedderly) didn't wake up not knowing how to tune a hot rod. We just had some issues."
Apparently they've been resolved.
"We're guilty sometimes of losing our focus," Force said. "We're so busy taking care of corporate America and trust me, we couldn't operate without them, but sometimes we get so caught up in all of that that we forget why we came. Bottom line, we love what we do and you never want to forget that."
So what happened? How could a driver who went 2-9 with a DNQ in his first 10 starts this season, go 17-2 in the next five races? Force doesn't really know.
"Something just had us snakebit," he said. "We never did figure out what. We did some clutch work and then finally we changed the chassis (just before the race at Bristol, Tenn., that began the current streak). But, bottom line, I think it was getting our heart back after losing Eric (driver Eric Medlen, who succumbed to injuries suffered in a testing accident last March at Gainesville, Fla.). He's been riding with us every week."