DESPITE QUALIFYING STRUGGLES, FORCE A COUNTDOWN FAVORITE Champ Without a No. 1 Start for First Time in 22 NHRA Seasons INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Over the course of his remarkable career, John Force has started a Castrol GTXÂ®Funny Car from the...
DESPITE QUALIFYING STRUGGLES,
FORCE A COUNTDOWN FAVORITE
Champ Without a No. 1 Start for First Time in 22 NHRA Seasons
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Over the course of his remarkable career, John Force has started a Castrol GTX®Funny Car from the front of the pack a record 131 times.
He's qualified No. 1 at least once in every season since 1985 and, at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, which this week begins the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship, he's set the preliminary pace 11 times in the last 17 years.
In fact, beginning Friday, he'll try to make it five straight No. 1 starts in the world's oldest, largest, richest and most prestigious drag race. Appropriately, he has qualified No. 1 more often at the U.S. Nationals than at another other event in the POWERade Series.
That said, if he can't sustain his qualifying dominance this week at O'Reilly Raceway Park, there's a good chance his streak of No. 1 starts will end at 21 consecutive seasons.
Last year, his only No. 1 start came at ORP and while he has bolstered his Countdown stock by reaching the winners' circle in three of the last six tour events, his overall qualifying performance this year in the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang has been anemic.
Not only has the 58-year-old icon failed to start a race from No. 1, he's qualified ninth or worse seven times, eight if you count his jaw-dropping DNQ at last April's SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a stumble that ended a record streak of 395 consecutive starts dating back to 1988.
Never has the 125-time tour winner qualified so often at the back of the pack. In fact, only one other time has he had as many as five starts from outside the quick eight (1984) and, over the course of his career, he has qualified fourth or better almost 65 per cent of the time (315 times in 491 races).
In the most bizarre of his 30 professional seasons, the 14-time Auto Racing All- American has won this year from the No. 10 starting spot (Bristol, Tenn.) and reached the final round after qualifying only 15th (Reading, Pa.). It's only the second and third times in his entire career that he's reached the finals from that far back in the field.
"Coil and Bernie are figuring it out," Force said of co-crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, who struggled with a race car that won just two rounds in the season's first 11 races.
"Now it doesn't seem to matter where we qualify. I've had a good hot rod on race day and that's all you need."
Not only is he riding a wave of momentum into the season's biggest race, the ORP track record holder (4.691 seconds) also is motivated by the memory of a foul start that took him out of last year's race in the very first round.
Although the sting of that loss was lessened somewhat by teammate Robert Hight's eventual victory in the Auto Club Mustang, Force hasn't forgotten.
"That was painful," said the man who, in 1996, became the first drag racer to win the Driver of the Year award for all of American motor sports. "My guys gave me a great race car and I just didn't do my job."
Force has dealt with a couple more foul starts this season including one two weeks ago in the final round of the Toyo Tires Nationals at Reading, Pa. However, he doesn't believe it's a long-term issue.
"I'm just pushing a little harder to get up for these kids," he said, referring to his Funny Car rivals, some of them as young as 24. "You know they're gonna cut a light on you and you try to amp yourself up. Sometimes it bites you, but we'll be fine."