COMING OFF MEMPHIS VICTORY, FORCE FOCUSED ON TITLE CHASE Points Leader Aims for Fifth Win in Mac Tools U.S. Nationals INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Coming off a victory two weeks ago at Memphis, Tenn., John Force rolls his Castrol GTXÂ® Ford ...
COMING OFF MEMPHIS VICTORY, FORCE FOCUSED ON TITLE CHASE
Points Leader Aims for Fifth Win in Mac Tools U.S. Nationals
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Coming off a victory two weeks ago at Memphis, Tenn., John Force rolls his Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang into O'Reilly Raceway Park for this week's 52nd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals as the POWERade points leader even as the NHRA announced steps to make his continued dominance more difficult.
Borrowing a page from the play book of other major sports, the NHRA on Wednesday unveiled its "Countdown to the Championship" concept which will eliminate the possibility that a driver like Force could clinch the title months before the end of the season -- as he did in 1996 when he had secured the title by the time he left ORP.
Under the new NHRA format, beginning in 2007, racing in the first 17 events will determine which eight drivers in each pro category will be eligible to compete for the championship. After the 17th race, the point standing will be adjusted so that there is only a 10-point difference between each position in the Top 8.
After four more events, the number of contenders will be reduced to four and the points re-adjusted again to set up a two-race shootout for the championship.
"NHRA makes the rules and as long as they're fair to everyone, I don't care," Force said of the new format. "The job's the same and that's to win. They're just trying to create more excitement."
Ironically, across the board, the points races this season have been the most competitive in recent history. In fact, Force's Memphis win gave him the lead for the first time this year and it is a tenuous 17 points over Ron Capps.
"It's a big weekend," Force said. "Indy, the Skoal Showdown (the Funny Car bonus race that pays the winner a whopping $100,000), the points race. We need to make a statement. Cappsie has been spanking us all year. We need to step up with these three Mustangs (his own national record-holding Castrol Mustang and the Fords driven by Eric Medlen and Robert Hight)."
Ironically, Force has said all season long that the real race for the championship wouldn't begin until the U.S. Nationals. NHRA's Wednesday announcement only made the time frame official.
Despite the fact that he finally was able to slip around Capps, Force doesn't think the championship chase is anywhere close to being over. He's not even sure it's only a two-man duel between himself and Capps.
"Tony (Pedregon) is one of the ones to watch," he said, referring to his former teammate, whom he dispatched in the Memphis final. "While me and Cappsie are battling up front, he could drive around us.
"Eric (Medlen, driver of the Castrol SYNTEC Ford) and Robert (Hight, driver of the Team Castrol/Auto Club Ford) aren't out of it either. Even Scelzi (reigning series champion Gary Scelzi) has raced his way back into it. And Tommy Johnson, too. It's gonna be like last year and come right down to the wire."
In fact, Force's lead is less than a round entering a race in which the 121-time tour winner has failed to advance beyond the second round in four years. Last year, he was beaten in the opening round by Phil Burkart Jr. The last of his four U.S. Nationals victories came in 2002 and he hasn't doubled-up (won both the Skoal Showdown and the U.S. Nationals) since 1996.
Nevertheless, few would argue that the championship now is his to lose.
After dogging Capps for the season's first 16 races and after failing to take advantage of several opportunities, the 57-year-old icon has begun to flash the form that earned him the 1996 Driver of the Year award and 13 berths on the Auto Racing All-America team selected by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association.
"The big thing is (crew chiefs Austin) Coil and Bernie (Fedderly) finally have some data on this new hot rod and it's starting to show. At Memphis, we had a good car in the heat. So we're ready for whatever they give us at Indy."