If anyone knows how to convert failure to a roaring success, it's John Force.
He'll tell you so.
But he doesn't really have to. His NHRA fans have seen it time and again. He's the modern-day Horaio Alger, rags-to-riches story. And then he became the rags-to-riches-to-rags story. And if that weren't confusing enough, he's working steadily and surely at becoming the ultimate rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to- . . . You get the picture.
This 63-year-old Comeback Kid came back again late Friday. Like the nasty storm that rolled in with a hit-and-run rain blast midday, Force slammed to the top of the Funny Car order for the O"Reilly Route 66 Nationals in the ominous calm before another severe weather front slapped Joliet, Ill.'s Route 66 Raceway.
Force recorded a 4.505-second elapsed time at 310.77 mph on the 1,000-foot course in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.
It beat Don Schumacher Racing's Jack Beckman by four-thousandths of a second and his own teammate Robert Hight by a hundredth. Not even No. 4 Johnny Gray, who was fastest in the class at 312.57 mph in the DSR-owned NTB/ Service Central Dodge Charger, could match it.
And Force, who must hold onto the distinction through Saturday if he is to l;ead the field for Sunday's eliminations, did more than hint the was back.
He had that swagger of champion, at least that certainty.
However, he built up a crescendo of confidence, staring first rather apologetically for his performance slump since winning the season-opening Winternationals in February at Pomona, Calif.
"I'm a 15-time champ, and I owe my fans and my sponsors better than what I've been --last year and this year," Force said. "I came back from being hurt, won a championship, and now I'm not in the game.
"I feel like I'm failing, but failure's where I've always come from. That's where I come from: failure," he said. "I understand it, and I'm going to work my way out of this, out of the hole I'm in."
As he spoke, he gained confidence, almost like a runaway semi he might have tried to corral in his truck-driving days decades ago.
He said he defines "being in the game" with one simple word: winning.
It's a precious concept. It's not all he ever has known, but it's all he wants to know now, after 15 championships as a driver.
"If I wasn't low E.T. every other week I was upset. If I didn't win every third or fourth race, it was a bad season. Now I'm just not there."
He said crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and Danny DeGennaro have given him a "whole new combination. They'll get it right, and me, I'm learning how to drive they way they want me to drive their race car -- doing the burnout, just things that are different. But nobody knows this game better than me and I'll learn it. It's that simple.
"I just want to be in the game. I love it that much," Force said.
"We have been showing the last couple of weeks some consistency. It hasn't been anything to be excited about. We were able to get 10 runs in a row but couldn't win rounds. That 4.05 was OK," he said of Friday's effort, "but let's see what we can do tomorrow. I am sure (Ron) Capps or (Mike) Neff or Hight, one of them will be able to break that. I thought Capps would tonight. He has that kind of magic right now."
DSR's Capps, coming off his second victory of the season in his sixth consecutive final-round appearance, took the early lead. He used a 4.121-second E.T. at 303.98 mph in his NAPA Dodge Charger that's designed to recognize the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund for wounded soldiers and their families.
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