Mike Neff Starts No. 3 At Bristol
A three hour rain delay at the 11th annual NHRA Ford Thunder Valley Nationals gave the three John Force Racing Mustangs a chance to improve their qualifying positions and they took advantage of Mother Nature’s gift. After the first session on Saturday Mike Neff would have run teammate and owner John Force with that winner possibly having to run Robert Hight in the second round.
In the opening session Robert Hight in the Auto Club Ford Mustang was the class of the field running a session quickest 4.169 seconds well ahead of the pace of Ron Capps 4.194 seconds and JFR teammate Mike Neff 4.195 seconds.
“The first run today going down there and being low ET quite a bit ahead of everyone else and speed wise too was nice. That was good,” said Hight, who picked up three valuable bonus points for his efforts.
Luckily for the three JFR Mustangs the skies opened up and the track cooled off. The final qualifying session saw lots of movement in the Funny Car qualifying order and eventually Mike Neff landed in the No. 3 position, his best starting spot of 2011, followed by Hight in the No. 6 position and Force in the No. 8 spot.
While the ETs were low expectations for repeat performances were even lower going into the first round of eliminations.
“Tonight was not huge for tomorrow. It won’t be anywhere near those conditions. (This weekend) was four runs in a row getting down the track really well,” said Hight. “We weren’t trying to run a whole lot better than that run. (Crew chief) Jimmy (Prock) thought it might have run a 4.08 but it wasn’t going to be a whole lot quicker. It did what he asked it to do. Tomorrow will be a whole new ball game.”
Hight was more excited about his opening run on Saturday than his final run of the day. When asked if he thought the first run was more important to Sunday success than the quicker final run Hight was succinct in his answer.
“Big time. We’ll even have to back it off from there. Even though it was safe and Jimmy said you can run that again on a hotter track,” said Hight, a three-time winner in 2011. “Tomorrow will be hot and it will be a whole new ballgame for everyone. Having gone down the track every run gives you confidence.”
The biggest winner of the delay was Mike Neff and the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. Had they not gotten back on the track or if conditions would have stayed hot most likely he would be staring a first round match-up with John Force in the face.
“The delay made the track better. It really cooled off and made the conditions a lot better than they would have been had there not been rain. It worked to our advantage because we would have had a hard time running that quick if the track would have been hot,” said Neff, the 2008 Bristol finalist.
Neff also thinks that the final run was more for show and the earlier run of the day will impact the dough on race day.
“The run right here (final qualifying session) was pretty much just for qualifying position. It won’t factor into tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a whole new ballgame and whole new set of circumstances. I feel confident now after making a couple good runs today.”
For the second race in a row Neff had to play it safe on the first run on Saturday to secure a spot in the race on Sunday. Two weeks ago in Englishtown at the NHRA SuperNationals Neff had to be conservative on Saturday and he ultimately qualified No. 7. The Castrol backed driver then went on to win the race. The biggest concern for Neff was not having to face a teammate in the first round.
“We had to play it safe the first run to make sure we got qualified. Tonight the conditions got better and we wanted to be sure we moved up. We got away from racing our teammates first round. That is all we were looking to run.”
You can’t say that you want this race more than any other race.
The marquee race of the first round will feature 15-time champion John Force versus two-time champion Cruz Pedregon. These two titans of the racetrack have met 78 times previously with Force having the upper hand in 57 of those meetings. In first round match-ups Force holds a 13-5 record and they are even (2-2) in four races at Bristol Dragway.
The winningest driver in drag racing history is not putting too much pressure on himself even though he is a in a precarious points position sitting in the No. 6 position with only 20 points separating 6th from 10th place in the Full Throttle point standings.
“Tomorrow is no different than any other race. I won here last year so we know how to do that. These kids are up for it and I know (co-crew chiefs) Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas are fighting (for me),” said Force.
“You can’t say that you want this race more than any other race. We have to start winning now. Bob Tasca III might have gone around me. He was low qualifier but he is in another Ford. At the end of the day we have to turn this Mustang around. I am going to do my part. I’ll be out here early in the morning to remember Jeff Byrd and we’ll do the track walk. We’ll do the open ceremonies parade and ride in some Ford trucks. Then we’ll get into first round and pound the ground. We are going to make a move here.”
Robert Hight will race Ron Capps in the first round and Mike Neff and the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang will face Tony Pedregon. All three John Force Racing Mustangs will have lane choice in the first round. Neff has won his last three meetings with Pedregon and Hight has won the last five races versus Capps.