Bristol: John Force preview

FORCE IN 'SUPERMAN' FRAME OF MIND AS TOUR MOVES TO BRISTOL DRAGWAY Sans TV Crew, Champ Hopes to Gain Ground on Capps BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Free, at least temporarily, of the microphones and cameras that have been documenting his every move for ...


Sans TV Crew, Champ Hopes to Gain Ground on Capps

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Free, at least temporarily, of the microphones and cameras that have been documenting his every move for Driving Force, a real-life television series debuting this July on A&E Network, John Force finally can focus all his attention this week on a 2006 Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang in which he has been very fast, but surprisingly inconsistent.

The quickest qualifier in three of the season's first five races, drag racing's biggest winner has only a pair of runner-up finishes to show for his efforts and comes into this week's sixth annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Thunder Valley Nationals 105 points behind Funny Car pacesetter Ron Capps.

"We've got three fast hot rods," Force said, referring to his own national record- holding Castrol Ford (4.665 seconds, 333.58 miles per hour) and the similar machines of teammates Eric Medlen and Robert Hight, "but we're still learning about the new (Goodyear 2420) tire and the new body.

"We need to get more consistent -- like Capps," he said. "(Capps and crew chief Ed McCulloch) have just been doing a better job than everybody else. They haven't been beating themselves. It's too early to talk about the championship, but you don't want to let him get too far out. There's still a lot of racing left."

A top four qualifier in each of his five appearances in the Thunder Valley Nationals, Force has won just one time (2004). That said, the Tennessee track remains one of the 13-time champion's favorites because of what occurred there in 1999, two years before it became a regular stop on the NHRA POWERade circuit.

"It'll always be special because it's where we beat the (Top Fuel) dragsters (in the inaugural Winston Showdown)," Force said. "That's still the biggest payday I've ever had ($210,000). We were running the Superman car for Castrol and we just had magic."

Force has been trying to recapture the magic ever since. He found it briefly in 2004 when he beat Tony Bartone, Phil Burkart Jr., Gary Densham and Whit Bazemore to make Bristol the 23rd different track on which he has won an NHRA national event, but he lost it again last season when he was beaten in the first round by Cruz Pedregon.

In fact, the 119-time tour winner was ousted in the first round a record 10 times in 2005, the principal reason that he surrendered his title to veteran Gary Scelzi, settling for third place for the second time in three years.

Whereas he already had two first round losses coming into last year's Thunder Valley Nationals, the 13-time Auto Racing All-America selection has avoided that fate in five races this year.

"Last year was a wake up call," Force said. "I lost in the first round 10 times. Ten times. That's unacceptable. So we went to work in the off season."

That "work" included, but wasn't limited to, putting the finishing touches on the new Mustang body, one that was in development for 18 months. The work paid almost immediate dividends.

After breaking the 4.70 second barrier three times in testing at Las Vegas and Phoenix, Force opened the season by recording the quickest quarter mile in Funny Car history at 4.664 seconds, a time that qualified him No. 1, extending to 20 the number of consecutive seasons in which he has started at least one race from the "pole."

However, three Skoal Showdown No. 1 qualifying bonuses notwithstanding, the most significant statistic, one often overlooked because of his failure thus far to have reached the winners' circle, is the fact that Force has had the quickest time on race day at each of the last three events.

"We've been fast in qualifying and we've been fast on race day," he acknowledged, "but we haven't been able to close the deal. If we're gonna catch Capps, it looks like we're gonna have to start doing more than just winning rounds. We're gonna have to win some races."

* * * *

The fact that reigning POWERade Funny Car Champion Gary Scelzi and 2003 champion Tony Pedregon both have failed to qualify for a race this season makes John Force's record of having qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car for 374 consecutive tour events all the more remarkable. He last failed to make a 16- car starting lineup on Oct. 31, 1987 at the World Finals in Pomona, Calif.

John Force has been a Funny Car finalist in more than half the NHRA races contested since 1989 (170 of 339) and has won 34% of those events.

Bristol Dragway is one of only two NHRA POWERade Series tracks on which John has not started at least one event from the No. 1 qualifying position. He's qualified fourth twice, third twice and second once. The only other track on which he has been shut out is Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Tony Bartone , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Cruz Pedregon , Phil Burkart , Eric Medlen