It has been a long, challenging season for former Funny Car champion Jack Beckman.

Despite having a car good enough to record two wins in four finals this season, the team never truly felt a part of the championship discussion. And with a brand new crew and all-new parts and pieces on the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car entry for Don Schumacher Racing, who could blame them.

But as the season has progressed, Beckman has slowly risen to peak form, culminating with the No. 1 spot two weeks ago at Las Vegas and, potentially, another No. 1 this weekend in Pomona. The only problem is, the team has run out of time to make that progress truly matter.

Still, Beckman showed why his team remains one of the best in the business, rocketing to the top of the Funny Car ladder with a 3.835-second pass at 334.98 mph to pace the field Friday at the 53rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

“During the summer I think we found it for the hot racetracks. We won Englishtown, were runner-up at Bristol and then won Norwalk back-to-back-to-back. We decided to park that car. It was a prudent decision We unloaded the new one, tested it, and while it took a little while, we have got a pretty good handle on it,” Beckman said. “If you look at four or five months ago in good conditions we were not a top three car. Now we are a top three car no matter what the conditions are. We are really satisfied with how we have progressed, we just wish we had six more races to go.”

Beckman edged Courtney Force to earn the provisional top spot on Friday, with Force placing the Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet second with a 3.871 at 334.57 mph. Tommy Johnson Jr. was third with a 3.887 at 314.31 mph, followed by Alexis DeJoria (3.894) and Tim Wilkerson (3.913).

Championship points leader Robert Hight currently sits on the outside looking in after two runs in 17th with a Friday-best of 7.801, while fellow title contender Ron Capps sits seventh. All of the drivers will have two more shots at the track on Saturday before entering the final elimination round of 2017.

While not a part of the championship discussion, Beckman knows there is value in a good showing this weekend, as the team earns valuable data towards a rebound next season.

“Everybody on this team, with the exception of (John) Medlen and the guy holding the steering wheel, were new this year so we started from scratch and it has taken us a lot of runs to get where we are,” Beckman said. “We needed to get a bunch of data and there is no way to get that except to go to a bunch of different race tracks, be smart about it, and once you develop that database, as the season goes along, you have that starting point to go back and say this will get us where we need to be.

“A lot of us started off as mechanics. I think I have a good handle on things, but we are not that privvy to the nuisances of what the crew chiefs are doing. They are digging deep into the timing box and the clutch trying some stuff and, frankly, I think sometimes they don’t want to tell us because they are afraid we might say something.

“And that applies to the six-disc. We ran it at the finals last year with Jimmy Prock and either set low ET or didn’t go five feet. Changing something that major always creates a learning curve, but the six-disc, for whatever reason, when you add that extra disc, you have to back everything off from the clutch levers and the weights to compensate. If you back it off too far you overcompensate and you don’t move three feet. It is all about finding that balance, which is what we have spent this year doing.”

While not formally in the title hunt, sitting in fourth place some 152 points back of Hight, Beckman knows a lot can be learned this weekend - but admits that it doesn’t take the sting off of not contending for the championship.

“If Capps and Hight got in a bar fight tonight and the NHRA fined them 100 points each, then we would be right back in the thick of it,” Beckman said with a laugh. “We are not going to catch them. You want to be in the bottom of the ninth with two runners on and two outs in the World Series and you are next at bat. You dream of moments like that and it is really anticlimactic to come out here without a shot at it.

“We stumbled out of the gate at Charlotte and never caught up. We have a great car, but sometimes you can’t control what that car in the other lane does. I love that about the sport, it is all or nothing.”

And that all-or-nothing battle will continue on Saturday as Hight maintains a narrow 15-point lead over Capps heading into the final round of eliminations on Sunday.