John Force Racing press release
Neff has revised his goals for NHRA countdown
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – When he was thrust back into the cockpit of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang this year after Ashley Force Hood announced she was putting her driving career on hold to start a family, Mike Neff’s goal was to lock up one of the 10 starting berths in the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs beginning two weeks hence.
However, after winning the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., last March, the 44-year-old revised his game plan, rightfully believing that as driver and crew chief on the car that last year carried John Force to his 15th championship, he might have a shot at least at a top three starting position.
So, yeah, to win Indy would definitely be a highlight of my career.
Now, on the eve of the 57th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the last race before the Countdown, Neff has made another adjustment. A four-time winner this year and the points leader after all but three races, the California native now is committed to locking up the regular season title and, then, winning it all.
He can take the first step simply by winning one round Monday at Lucas Oil Raceway. That would deny teammate Robert Hight any hope of claiming the No. 1 starting spot while insuring Neff a 30-point lead entering the playoffs.
Nevertheless, a single round win in the sport’s oldest, largest, richest and most prestigious event is not Neff’s goal.
“I've never won Indy as a crew chief or a driver,” he said. “I've probably been on the winning team five times (starting with Cruz Pedregon in 1992) but that was when I was working on the crew.
“Indy is the big one,” said the man who’s won five tour events as a driver and 21 as a crew chief. “Ashley won it the last two years and Robert has won it a couple times, too. So, yeah, to win Indy would definitely be a highlight of my career.
“I didn't expect to be doing as well as we have,” Neff said, “but it’s really a tribute to my team and those 30 points could be huge.”
What should frighten his rivals is that Neff has adapted so readily to double duty. After dealing with mental and physical exhaustion early in the season, the 2008 NHRA Rookie of the Year has developed a routine that has proven manageable.
“These are the circumstances,” Neff said of his dual responsibilities, “and you've got to do what you've got to do. It wore me out right at the beginning, especially going to the final round with a long, stressful day trying to do both. It was stressful enough doing one or the other, and both definitely wore me out in the beginning, but I've kind of gotten used to it and now it doesn't really seem that bad anymore.”
Neff credits those around him for the improvement.
“The secret is to hire good people and then trust them to do their jobs,” he said. “My right hand man, John Schaffer, makes sure the maintenance is done, Danny Hood has taken on some of the things that (Austin) Coil did a year ago and Bernie (Fedderly) is the glue that holds it all together.
“For me, actually, there’s been a lot less pressure this year,” he said. “Last year, with John driving, everybody expected him to do good and he needed to do good. His sponsors were wanting him to get back on track, so there was a lot of pressure.
“The way it worked out this year with me getting thrown back in at the last minute, there really wasn't any pressure. It was just ‘fill in for the year and do the best you can.’ But now that we've done as well as we have (seven finals in 15 races) and now that we’re in the points lead, I'm starting to feel the pressure because you just don't want to let it slip away now.
“The Countdown is coming, and you're just hoping that you can finish strong and keep it going. The worst thing would be to do this well and then get to the Countdown and bomb out,” Neff said. “So now the pressure comes from ourselves, just wanting to keep it going to the end.”