Denver: John Force preview

FORCE NO. 1 TO START SECOND HALF, BUT RIVALS CLOSING IN AT DENVER 'Western Swing' Critical to Champ's Bid for 14th Title DENVER, Colo. -- Entering last year's critical Western Swing, the three-race set that historically begins the second half...


'Western Swing' Critical to Champ's Bid for 14th Title

DENVER, Colo. -- Entering last year's critical Western Swing, the three-race set that historically begins the second half of the NHRA drag racing season, John Force was perched precariously atop the Funny Car driver standings, just three points ahead of second place Del Worsham.

By the time the third of those races was over, drag racing's biggest winner had increased his lead to 146 points and, in the process, all but wrapped up a 13th series title for himself and a 12th straight for his team.

This week, Force is back at Bandimere Speedway for the 26th annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals, the first event in the Western Swing, and back in the POWERade points lead. However, any similarities between this year and last end right there.

In 2004, the 12-time Auto Racing All-America selection rolled into Denver having put his national record-holding Castrol GTX Start Up Ford in the finals at each of the two events immediately preceding the Mile-High Nationals. He had momentum.

This year he has none, having won just one round in the last three races.

Furthermore, while he enjoyed a performance advantage last year, thanks to the expertise of crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, who quickly adapted to NHRA's mid-season fuel restrictions, he has no such edge this time.

In fact, the man who has started No. 1 at least one time in each of the last 19 seasons, hasn't qualified No. 1 in 12 races this year. Significantly, he has not posted the quickest time of the event and, while he has won four races, he also has exited in the first round five times.

Finally, while he had to hold off only four legitimate contenders to win the championship a year ago Worsham, Scelzi, Whit Bazemore and Gary Densham, the 118-time tour winner is having to stare down twice that many this time around including Castrol teammates Eric Medlen and Robert "Top Gun" Hight.

What all that means is that Force has his rivals right where he wants them.

"We didn't win 13 championships -- 14, really (counting the one earned in 2003 by since departed team driver Tony Pedregon) -- without racing pretty good under pressure," said the man who has won five of the last 11 renewals of the Mile-High Nationals.

"There are some great teams chasing us, but this team isn't bad, either," he continued. "We've earned a living by getting up for the fight. We know we can't win forever, but that doesn't mean we're just going to hand (the title) over to somebody."

Indeed, each and every time his rivals or the media has presumed the 56-year-old's career to be in decline, he has proved them wrong.

He did so after losing the championship to Cruz Pedregon in 1992 by coming back and winning 10 straight titles. In 2000, after Jerry Toliver leapt into a commanding lead to start the season, he rallied to extend his championship streak and, in 2003, when Tony Pedregon booted him to the curb, he came back to reclaim the title in 2004.

With Force, it's a matter of pride.

"The competition, that's what it's about," he said. "There's nothing better than to get up on Sunday morning with a gut ache, knowing you're racing Scelzi or Worsham or (Tim) Wilkerson and knowing you're going to have to be on your game and Coil and Bernie are going to have to be on their games and everybody else is going to have to play a part. You have to prove yourself every week and I love it. It's what keeps me as young as these kids."

Did You Know? John's chances of extending to 359 the number of consecutive events for which he has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car are enhanced by his record at Bandimere Speedway, a track on which he has qualified no worse than seventh since he and crew chief Austin Coil began their collaboration in 1985....John has won at least one NHRA tour event for 19 straight seasons and three or more 15 consecutive years....Kevin "Duke" McCarthy, who first went on tour with John in 1986, grew up in Kansas but is a resident of Littleton. He is a cylinder head specialist on John's Castrol GTX Start Up Ford....13 of the last 15 seasons, John has come into Denver as the NHRA points leader, as he is again this year....John has won five times in his last 11 trips to Bandimere Speedway, most recently in 2003.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Gary Densham , Cruz Pedregon , Jerry Toliver , Eric Medlen , Austin Coil