FORCE LEADS TEAM CASTROL FORDS TO 3-4-5 START AT POMONA
Johnny Gray Surprise First Day Leader; Weather Could Impact 2011 Opener
POMONA, Calif. -- On a day on which being the quickest qualifier wasn't as important as simply being qualified, the three Team Castrol Ford Mustangs were equal to the challenge Thursday at Auto Club Raceway.
With weather likely to become an issue in the 51st renewal of the Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals, reigning Full Throttle Funny Car champion John Force led his team to a 3-4-5 start behind surprising leader Johnny Gray (4.079) and veteran Cruz Pedregon (4.088).
Force, the defending Winternationals champion, was third in 4.093 seconds in the new Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang. Robert "Top Gun" Hight was close behind in the Team Castrol/Auto Club Ford at 4.097 and Mike Neff made the most of his return to the cockpit by coaxing the Castrol GTX Mustang to a time of 4.103 couple to the fastest first day speed of 311.20 mph.
"All three of our cars, Robert, Mike Neff and myself, Castrol, Auto Club and Ford, we all three ran big numbers," Force said. "You never know on race day, but here it is, they've got a situation of possible rain tomorrow and definitely Saturday. That's what they're saying. It don't make it a fact, but, boy, you need to get in (the starting field)
"We were talking about, do we pedal (feather the throttle)? Do we try to drive through shake? What do we do? Robert was calling back (with information); Neff was calling back, telling the crew chiefs (what was happening). We were all working together trying to figure out how to go from A to B in case it's a one run qualifying deal."
Confident now that none of his cars is likely to be bumped out of the 16-car field, Force is looking forward to whatever the weekend brings.
"My energy is so huge right now," said the 132-time tour winner. "Wintertime is so much work. Shows and appearances and preparation and building our new midway and our new TV studios. Just to get out of the office and be back with the race teams is huge.
"I'm with Dean Antonelli, (who) was taught by (Hall of Fame crew chief) Austin Coil. I raced with Dean (for the 10 years he was Team Leader on the Champ's car), so I'm right at home with Dean. (Co-crew chief) Ron Douglas, he's great. Neff is back with his team (as both driver and crew chief) and Jimmy Prock with Eric Lane and Robert Hight. We're all excited.
"Mike Neff came out of the box flying," Force said, "but at the end of the day, having all three of these hot rods in the show...."
Although he was third among the Team Castrol Fords, Neff may have made the team's definitive run.
His Castrol GTX entry was one of the first two Funny Cars to go down the track (Gray being the other). It was his first competitive lap as a driver since November, 2009, and it was almost flawless, providing a baseline for getting the other two Mustangs, which ran later in the session, solidly in the show.