Gainesville: John Force preview

FORCE FOCUSES ON POINTS LEAD AT MAC TOOLS GATORNATIONALS 13-Time Series Champ Trails Burkart Jr. GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Having once again silenced those who would suggest -- or hope -- that he no longer has the desire to chase the NHRA Funny...

13-Time Series Champ Trails Burkart Jr.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Having once again silenced those who would suggest -- or hope -- that he no longer has the desire to chase the NHRA Funny Car Championship, John Force takes aim this week on surprise points leader Phil Burkart Jr. when the NHRA tour moves to Gainesville Raceway for the 36th annual Mac Tools Gatornationals.

Force, the series champion 13 of the last 15 seasons, trails Burkart by a scant 12 points after driving his national record-holding Castrol GTX® Start Up® Ford Mustang to victory in the Feb. 27 CSK Nationals at Phoenix, Ariz.

That victory, the 115th of his remarkable career, quieted speculation that arose after he and his two teammates, second year driver Eric Medlen and rookie Robert Hight, were ousted in the very first round of the season-opening CARQUEST Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

"It happens," Force said of the first race misstep, only the second time all three of his cars were eliminated in the first round. "Maybe because we tested so good (at Las Vegas and Phoenix), we thought it'd be easy. We knew better, but maybe that's what we thought.

"Bottom line, we just got overconfident. I did, all of us did. (Crew chief Austin) Coil called me up (afterward) and said, 'I'll fix this at Phoenix.'"

The upshot was a convincing victory that enabled the 55-year-old veteran to extend to 19 the number of consecutive seasons in which he has won at least one tour event.

"A lot of people said I was focused on my daughter or on Robert Hight or Eric Medlen and I wasn't paying attention to my own driving," Force said. "That's not true. I just got knocked out at Pomona, first round. All of us did. The whole Mustang squad. It happens, but we're fine now."

A seven-time Gatornationals winner, Force has come a long way since the days when he used to take his car out of the racetrack every night so he could display it at Gainesville-area Wendy's hamburger locations the next day.

     "We'd be out on the street corner at a Wendy's story on race day," Force
recalled.  "Then we'd load it up, take it back to the track and race it.  We wanted to race
so bad.  We'd do anything to get the funding."

In fact, while he was racing with Wendy's as his principal sponsor, Force even took a gig which required that he put on the blonde pigtails and outfit worn by the hamburger chain's namesake.

     "The girl that was supposed to do it didn't show," he said, "and they were paying
50 bucks, so I said I'd do it.  That'd buy a lot of bologna sandwiches."

In his first 10 appearances at the Gatornationals, Force won just six total rounds of racing. He lost to Tom McEwen, to Dale Armstrong, to driving school maven Frank Hawley, TV host Mike Dunn, John Collins, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch, Tom Hoover and Chuck Etchells.

But starting in 1990, it seemed that no one could beat Force at Gainesville.

During one stretch, from 1991 through 2001, he went 36-4, winning five straight years, a personal best. If he reaches the final round on Sunday, he will have won 50 rounds of racing at the Gatornationals. In only one other event, the Lucas Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., has he won at least 50 rounds.

A 12-time Auto Racing All-America selection and the 1996 Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing, the first drag racer ever so honored, Force recently signed a five-year contract extension with Castrol that will keep him in the cockpit through the 2010 season.

"This is a four-season sport," Force said. "We're not driving around for three- and-a-half hours every weekend like NASCAR. They get burned out at 40 but as long as I've got my health and my vision, there's no reason (to get out of the car). I still love what I'm doing only now it's even better because I get to work with all these young

John Force at Gainesville:

Final Rounds: (10) 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004.

Wins: (7) 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001.

No. 1: (5) 1988, 1992, 1995, 2000, 2001

Last year: The No. 5 qualifier, John beat Ron Capps, Tony Bartone and Tim Wilkerson before losing to Del Worsham.

Notable: John can extend drag racing's longest qualifying streak to 349 straight events.

Television (all ESPN2): Qualifying 12:30-2:30 a.m. (ET) Sunday; Racing 5-7 p.m. (ET). Repeats on March 21, 2:30 a.m. (ET) people who are the future of the sport. And that's keeping me young, too."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Mike Dunn , Tony Bartone , Del Worsham , Ron Capps , John Force , Chuck Etchells , Tim Wilkerson , Phil Burkart , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight