NEFF AND OLD SPICE TEAM RUNNER-UP AT SOMBER SUPERNATIONALS Three JFR Drivers Move Up In Point Standings, Ashley Force Remains No. 2 ENGLISHTOWN, NJ -- Rookie Mike Neff continued to make a case for his anointment as NHRA Rookie of the...
NEFF AND OLD SPICE TEAM RUNNER-UP AT SOMBER SUPERNATIONALS
Three JFR Drivers Move Up In Point Standings, Ashley Force Remains No. 2
ENGLISHTOWN, NJ -- Rookie Mike Neff continued to make a case for his anointment as NHRA Rookie of the Year racing to his third final round as a driver in the last five races. Neff was tripped up for the second time in a final round by veteran and POWERade points leader Tim Wilkerson. Before he reached Wilkerson the 41 year-old had to race his way through a "Who's Who" of veterans and world champions at the 39th annual Lucas Oil NHRA SuperNationals.
In the first round Neff defeated perennial championship contender Ron Capps. In the process he made the quickest run of the session covering the historic Old Bridge Township Raceway Park quarter mile in 4.874 seconds setting up another tough race.
In the second round he had to dispatch reigning POWERade World Champion Tony Pedregon before squaring off against 14-time World Champion and boss John Force in the semi-finals. Force had lane choice but in a classic side-by-side race Neff edged the winningest driver in NHRA history, 4.971 to 4.977. Neff also evened his head-to-head record with Force at 1-1 avenging a first round loss in Atlanta.
"Racing guys like that is exciting for me. I feel good about that. It was great racing John. That was the first thing that came to my mind when I found out I was going to be driving a Funny Car was being able to pull up side-by-side next to John Force and letting it all hang out," said the former world championship crew chief.
"Not too many people in their life will get to do that. I feel really privileged to be able to do that. Someday when I am not driving anymore I'll be able to look back at racing guys like Capps, Scelzi and the rest of these great drivers and feel honored I was able to do that. It is awesome."
In the final Neff was faced with a rematch against his first career final round opponent Tim Wilkerson. In St. Louis Neff was just edged out at the finish line by Wilkerson but today Neff was unable to turn the tables on the veteran and lost another close race 4.883 to Wilkerson's quicker 4.877 second run. Neff was discouraged by the outcome personally, but he had nothing but positive accolades for his team.
"It was another close one but as a driver you need to win those. I didn't do my job right there. I was late. I should have had a good enough light to get us a win right there so I am really disappointed with myself. (Crew chief John) Medlen and the guys gave me a car that should have won. I am mad at myself for not being at my best. I just feel bad for letting all these guys down," said Neff. "I don't mean to sound negative but I am just hard on myself because I just want to be able to do my job. I feel like I didn't do my job in that final round."
Team leader John Force was happy to see Neff racing into another final even though today was a bittersweet day for all the competitors after losing fellow Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta yesterday. Reaching the final again after struggling for two races validated what Force already knew; Neff had the "it" that makes a successful driver.
"This was a sad weekend for everybody at JFR as well as everyone involved in the sport. It was so hard today to go out when you know that the family hurts. Mike Neff stood up to the plate, got it to the final and took me out in the semi-final with the Old Spice car. Neff was on his game. I am very proud of him and I can say now after three final rounds, 'He will win!' At the end of the day I made the right choice."
In an emotional tribute to World Champion and friend Scott Kalitta Robert Hight took the green light as Kalitta's entire team stood in the lane beside him during the first round of eliminations. Hight covered the quarter-mile barely above an idle to pay tribute to Kalitta who just the day before succumbed to injuries sustained during the final qualifying session. Fans stood and clapped as the Auto Club Ford Mustang crossed the finish line twenty-three seconds after taking the Christmas Tree.
"My motor was idling and I could see my car on the Motel 6 Vision and it showed the Kalitta team and family. That really chokes you up. Then they showed the stands and everyone clapping. I could see out the sides of my Mustang at all the people clapping. The whole time down the race track it was a twenty three second run I couldn't even tell my motor was running it was so quiet," said Hight.
The decision to sacrifice a very valuable opportunity to gather much needed information was 100% Hight's. He discussed the tribute with team owner John Force and his crew chief Jimmy Prock who agreed with the young driver that his suggestion was a fitting tribute.
"I thought it would be nice to do in memory of Scott. What did I have to prove? I knew I was going to the second round. It is not the way you want to win a round. How do you try and cut a light in that situation? How do you consciously really drive it down the racetrack when you have other things on your mind? Why not do something as a tribute to him and get ready for the next round? At a time like that reaction time, ET, and lane choice don't mean anything," confessed Hight.
Force added," I was very proud of him. I see that they care (about) more than just running low ET and getting the lane choice or winning a race. When a man makes a statement like that you want to support him. It was good timing because all of Scott's team was up there. So many people thanked us. That was Robert's call. It was brilliant because it showed heart. When you work so hard to win and you give it all you've got and then you've got to take away that edge where you've got a chance to test your car. Scott Kalitta is worth way more than anything that we can accomplish here this weekend or any year of our life. We lost a great friend."
In the second round Hight dropped a match-up with Del Worsham but still took some positives away from the early exit. His Auto Club Ford Mustang has been battling power issues at the top end and today while they did not reach the finish line under power they made some improvements that the team can build on.
"It was encouraging considering how far it went today to be on eight cylinders. It was still slipping. It (the motor) was a little too hopped up. There wasn't anybody close to us on performance at 330 feet. The motor looked pretty happy to that point. That is encouraging," said Hight.
During the run Hight's mind was working overtime as he tried to reel in Worsham who by his own admission nearly red-lit gaining a valuable starting line advantage. Hight did not begrudge Worsham chalking the quick start by the CSK Chevy up to "one of those things that happens" at the race track.
"A million things went through my mind (during the Worsham run). He left on me so bad and I saw him out there. I think I unconsciously drove towards him a little. I was ready to lift because I was afraid to get off center. He got away with one, just like we all have. I did it to (teammate Mike) Neff earlier this year in St Louis. When I raced Neff I guessed. I didn't mean to but that time I didn't get the win because I smoked the tires."
Castrol GTX driver Ashley Force dropped a photo finish race to current POWERade Funny Car world champion Tony Pedregon in the first round. Racing from the No. 2 qualifying position Force ran out of track at the top end as she and Pedregon reached the finish line one thousandth of a second apart.
* * * *
TEAM CASTROL/TEAM JFR Details:
JOHN FORCE, 59, Castrol High Mileage Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: 3rd at 4.810 seconds, 321.12 mph
Race Results: Beat Tommy Johnson Jr., Melanie Troxel. Lost to Mike Neff.
Notable: Beat husband and wife tandem of Tommy Johnson Jr. and Melanie Troxel in consecutive rounds
Quotable: "When you work so hard to win and you give it all you've got and then you've got to take away that edge where you've got a chance to test your car. Scott Kalitta is worth way more than anything that we can accomplish here this weekend or any year of our life. We lost a great friend."
ASHLEY FORCE, 25, Castrol GTX Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: 2nd at 4.803 seconds, 314.75 mph
Race Results: Lost to Tony Pedregon.
Notable: Remained in 2nd place in POWERade point standings.
ROBERT HIGHT, 38, Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: 4th at 4.810 seconds, 303.71 mph
Race Results: Beat Scott Kalitta. Lost to Del Worsham.
Notable: Hight moved to the second round after a first round bye run; he was slated to run Scott Kalitta, who tragically died following a qualifying crash yesterday.
Quotable: "It was encouraging for as far as my Mustang went today to be on eight cylinders even slipping. It was still a little too hopped up. There wasn't anybody close to us on performance at 330. The motor looked pretty happy to that point. That is encouraging."
MIKE NEFF, 41, Old Spice Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: 10th at 4.870 seconds, 306.12 mph
Race results: Beat Ron Capps, Tony Pedregon, John Force. Lost to Tim Wilkerson.
Notable: Moved up to 8th in POWERade points...second final round loss to Wilkerson...third final round in last five races
Quotable: "I don't mean to sound negative but I am just hard on myself because I just want to be able to do my job. I feel like I didn't do my job in that final round."