QUALIFYING A MAJOR ISSUE IN FORCE'S LATEST TITLE BID Coming Off DNQ, Champ Tries to Rebound and Repeat at Memphis MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For 20 spectacular seasons, the only thing as certain as death and taxes was that John Force and his Castrol...
QUALIFYING A MAJOR ISSUE
IN FORCE'S LATEST TITLE BID
Coming Off DNQ, Champ Tries to Rebound and Repeat at Memphis
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For 20 spectacular seasons, the only thing as certain as death and taxes was that John Force and his Castrol GTX® Funny Car were going to be in the starting lineup at every event in the NHRA drag racing series.
En route to 14 series titles, drag racing's most dominant driver qualified for a record 395 consecutive races, an iron man streak that may never be duplicated.
Unfortunately, that was then.
In the now that is the 2007 NHRA POWERade season, there is no assurance that Force and his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang will even make the 16-car starting lineup for this Sunday's 20th annual O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park.
That uncertainty has thrown the NHRA's inaugural Countdown to the Championship into utter turmoil.
Coming off his second DNQ of the season, a stunning stumble in the world's biggest drag race, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind., a race in which he had been the No. 1 qualifier the previous four years, Force finds himself in a position with which he has become far too familiar this season.
Twentieth in POWERade points after the season's first six races and 15th after 11, drag racing's biggest winner scratched and clawed his way all the way up to third place by winning three times in the last six qualifying races.
Now, though, he's slipped back to sixth place and, as a result, faces another uphill battle to earn one of the four positions in the final Countdown.
His quest begins Friday with the start of qualifying in a Mid-South Nationals event he has won two of the last three years and five times over the course of his career.
"We've just gotta get our ol' heap in the show on Friday night," Force said. "That's when conditions are the best. We had two shots at Indy (in cooler evening temperatures) and just didn't get it done. If we had qualified, we had a car that could win in the heat, but first you gotta make the show."
Force's struggles in qualifying have extended over the course of the entire season. Nine times in 18 races the 58-year-old icon has found himself either racing in the first round against a quicker qualifier or, on two occasions, not racing at all.
For someone who, until this season, had qualified worse than eighth just 28 times in 440 races with Austin Coil as crew chief, that's cause for concern.
"It used to be automatic," Force said, "but Funny Car has gotten as competitive as Pro Stock. You make one mistake and you don't make the show. Every race, there's one or two good cars not in there and a couple of times it's been us. But everybody has the same chance. We just gotta do a better job."
Reminded that he has yet to qualify on the pole this season, placing in jeopardy a string of 21 consecutive seasons with at least one No. 1 start, Force said he'd gladly sacrifice the streak for a shot at a 15th championship.
"You qualify No. 1 and you get a check for $4,000," he said. "You win the championship, you get 500 grand. You don't give up a shot at half a million to win $4,000. I wouldn't say we're going to be conservative, but at this point, the last thing you want to do is beat yourself."
Winner of a record 125 tour events, Force is encouraged this week by the fact that his team has won the Mid-South Nationals five of the last six years with four different drivers. Moreover, it was last year's victory that sent the 14-time Auto Racing All-American into the points lead for the first time in what would be another championship season.