Seattle: John Force preview

Memories of past Seattle events haunt Force at Northwest Nationals. KENT, Wash. He shares with Joe Amato the record for most career victories in the Lucas Oil Northwest Nationals, but it is not with great fondness that John Force recalls his...

Memories of past Seattle events haunt Force at Northwest Nationals.

KENT, Wash. He shares with Joe Amato the record for most career victories in the Lucas Oil Northwest Nationals, but it is not with great fondness that John Force recalls his past at Pacific Raceways, the track formerly known as Seattle International Raceway.

Although he drove his Castrol GTX0x00ae Ford Mustang to a track record (4.827 seconds) last year, thereby securing his fourth Budweiser No. 1 qualifying bonus (twice the total of any other FunnyCar driver), Force's most vivid memories of Seattle are much darker.

After starting from the No. 1 position in 1999, for instance, the 11-time series champion recalled an upset loss to Del Worsham in the semifinals and the fact that he lost in the first round in three of the next four races.

He remembers, too, what happened last year. After again qualifying No. 1, he was upset in round three by Whit Bazemore, who went on to win the event and chase Force to the championship. Trailing the champ by 427 points before Seattle, Bazemore made up 358 points over the last 10 races to finish second in the final standings.

Mainly, though, the 11-time Auto Racing All-America selection remembers that his 1992 season, the only one of the last 12 that didn't produce an NHRA series championship, began to unravel at the Northwest Nationals when he was upset in the first round by unheralded Gary Clapshaw.

The loss to Clapshaw opened the door for Cruz Pedregon, who won the next five races and, ultimately, the championship. Force led that year by the equivalent of eight rounds (162 points) going into Seattle. When the season ended, seven races later, he was six rounds down.

The upshot is that even though he has won 101 NHRA tour titles and nine straight series championships and even though he is the current points leader, Force is anything but overconfident going into this, the second of three races comprising the "Western Swing."

"We've won at Seattle, but we've stumbled, too," Force said. "We just have to stay focused. Bottom line, the (race for the) championship isn't over. There are a lot of teams still in the hunt."

Last year, when the NHRA tour moved from Denver to Seattle, Force enjoyed a 407 point advantage over second place Bruce Sarver. This year, nine different drivers are closer to the lead than Sarver alone was one year ago.

Teammate Gary Densham, the only driver other than Force to have led the driver standings this season, is just 61 points behind. Del Worsham is only 112 points back and the 10th place driver, Tim Wilkerson, is just 387 off the lead.

To put it more simply, if any one of seven different drivers were to make up as much ground over the last 10 races as Bazemore did one year ago, there will be a new champion crowned in November.

That said, it would be ludicrous to pencil anyone else's name into the "Pay To" line on the $400,000 champion's bonus check. After all, Force has been challenged before.

Two years ago, he wasn't even the points leader coming into the Northwest Nationals. That distinction belonged to Jerry Toliver, who faded down the stretch and eventually finished third. In 1998, he led Chuck Etchells by a single point and Ron Capps by just 52, but rallied to win by 135.

This year, he's won as many races as any other driver (three), has started from the No. 1 spot more often than anyone else (three times) and has appeared in more finals than anyone else (five). As a result, in an nhra.com on-line poll, 74.66 per cent of the respondents still picked the veteran from Yorba Linda, Calif., to win the championship.

"I don't trust polls," Force said, "but I do trust Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly. Bottom line, we're not going to just give (the title) away. They're going to have to take it from us."

-www.johnforceracing.com-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Bruce Sarver , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Chuck Etchells , Gary Densham , Cruz Pedregon , Tim Wilkerson , Jerry Toliver , Austin Coil