SUNDAY FINAL - NEFF CAPTURES SECOND STRAIGHT MAC TOOLS U.S. NATIONALS
To say that John Force Racing (JFR) has been a dominant player in recent years at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals would be stating the obvious.
Mike Neff rolled to his second straight U.S. Nationals title on Sunday after he disposed of Tim Wilkerson in the final with an impressive 4.079-second pass at 311.05 mph. It was also JFR’s fifth consecutive Indy event crown and its sixth title in the last seven years.
Previous JFR Indy winners include Robert Hight (2006, 2008) and Ashley Force Hood (2009, 2010).
“It seems like it was a never-ending saga here this weekend,” said an energy-drained Neff. “But, it’s the U.S. Nationals. There’s just something about it – you just know there’s a lot more at stake even though you try to tell yourself it’s just another race.”
Neff, the 45-year-old with the Hollywood good looks, knew going into the 2012 version of the NHRA’s most prestigious race that he would have to restore his confidence as driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang on which he also is the crew chief.
A two-time winner already this season (at Houston and Norwalk, Ohio), Neff, the mechanic, had been the harshest critic of Neff, the driver, especially after a foul start in the quarterfinals two weeks ago at Brainerd, Minn.
“I felt bad for my team, my sponsors, everybody involved,” he said. “They all put the work in and to just blow it like that (is painful). I’ve done that too many times, but we were determined to try and stay positive. I think we still have a great shot at the championship.”
Clearly, Neff will carry a great deal of momentum going into the opening round of the six-race Countdown to the Championship at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway in two weeks.
“We’ve had a good car all year,” he said. “We’ve been kind of racing under the radar and trying different things. Some of them have worked and some haven’t, but now it’s time to put everything together.
“Nobody accumulated more points than we did last year (in reference to his runaway victory in the NHRA’s 17-race regular season). But, like it or not, the championship is based off six races and you have to try and plan so your program is strongest in those last six races.
“The tricky thing about racing is sometimes it just doesn’t work the way you want it to. The thing is, if it was easy, everybody would be winning. Drag racing is all about making adjustments. Whether it’s Charlotte or Vegas or Indy, the track may be the same, but the conditions that you have to deal with are never the same.”
Despite his loss to Neff and a subsequent 10-point oil down penalty, Wilkerson managed to take the 10th and final Countdown position.
And, even after Wilkerson beat him in round two, Jeff Arend still clinched the ninth spot in the standings as the tour now prepares to head to North Carolina for the second time this year.
SATURDAY (WEEK TWO) - COURTNEY HOLDS ON TO NUMBER ONE SPOT
Apparently, the more things change, the more they do indeed stay the same. Such was the deal for Courtney Force on Saturday during final qualifying for the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
After departing Lucas Oil Raceway a week ago, Force thought she had pocketed her first career pole. However, rain postponed the race (and additional qualifying) to this weekend and the waiting game then began in earnest.
All proved to be right with the world for the Californian, though, as she survived two more rounds of qualifying and thus reclaimed that first career pole.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “I mean, just getting the No. 1 spot, let alone with the career-best of a 4.04, it couldn’t have been at a better place. Being that it’s at Indy is the best thing possible. It’s just crazy. I’m so excited for my team.
“We have a great car and we showed that (last Saturday night) running the 4.04 and getting the top speed track record with a 317 mph run. It’s huge for us. Our Traxxas Ford Mustang has been running good all season long. We’ve just been trying to keep it consistent and keep it going and stay focused. But, when we had a good run (last Friday) and we were in the field, we thought why not go out and see what our car is capable of doing and just push it to the limits and we really showed what we could do.”
Force became just the 11th woman to qualify in the top spot at an NHRA Full Throttle event. She joined Erica Enders (number one in Pro Stock) and Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle) as the only number one female qualifiers at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in the four professional categories.
“We were crossing our fingers we could hold on to number one,” Force added. “We were trying to see if we could back it up again.”
Despite the weeklong delay, Force was not fazed about having to endure two more qualifying runs. After all, it’s Indy.
“It’s delayed a week, but it is still the Indy race – the Big Go,” she said. “The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals is obviously the biggest race of the season and it really sets the mood for the Countdown to the Championship. Everyone is trying to lock in.”
While Force retained her first pole, her opponent for the first round of final eliminations changed from last weekend. She will take on 16th-place qualifier, Jon Capps, who nudged into the show during the last qualifying session.
Other first round meetings of note include Don Schumacher Racing teammates Ron Capps and Matt Hagan, Tim Wilkerson and Bob Tasca III, as well as Robert Hight and Cruz Pedregon.
The Capps-Hagan race features a driver looking to clinch the number one seed for the Countdown to the Championship (Capps) against a driver trying to get into the playoffs.
With Wilkerson-Tasca III, the spotlight is on two drivers also trying to secure spots in the Countdown.
And, then there’s the Pedregon-Hight confrontation. Both drivers were clearly left for “dead” last Saturday following what was thought to be final qualifying. But, when persistent rain postponed additional qualifying and the race to this weekend, they were given another opportunity. Each definitely took full advantage of the situation.
POSTPONEMENT WORKS WELL - Ron Capps arrived back in Indianapolis this weekend with a full plate.
He owns 36 NHRA event titles, but the biggest win missing on his resume is the prestigious U.S. Nationals.
He's also trying to leave the rain-delayed NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway with the Funny Car points lead so he can start the six-event Countdown to the Championship in the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series with a 30-point lead after earning 20 bonus points for being No. 1 after the 17-event regular season.
That's a full, two-course meal so he's glad that wet grounds at the facility west of Indianapolis pummeled by vicious storms the night before led NHRA officials to postpone the inaugural Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Cars for two weeks until the series competes near Dallas on Sept. 22.
Capps and his NAPA Shocks Dodge Charger R/T team is the top seed in the eight-car, all-star event that will pay the winner's team a $100,000 bonus.
"It was kind of nice that they delayed the Traxxas Shootout for a couple weeks," Capps said. "It's nice to have a lot of pressure on you but it really is a lot when you're trying to win the biggest race of the year, hold the No. 1 spot in points and also have to worry about getting that $100,000 for winning the Shootout."
COURTNEY SPENDS QUALITY TIME WITH DAD - So, what does a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate do to kill time between race weekends? In Courtney Force’s case, of course, she spent quality time with her dad John Force.
When the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals was pushed from last Monday to this weekend, the Force family opted to stick around Indianapolis instead of jetting back to California. What did father and daughter do for fun?
“We saw a bunch of movies and had a great steak (dinner),” said Courtney, who will be looking for her first U.S. Nationals win on Sunday.
A HAPPY EXPLOSION - One would have thought Todd Lesenko to be rather downtrodden after experiencing a violent engine explosion during his final qualifying run on Saturday. But, that was far from the case.
Despite having the body on his car blown completely off, Lesenko managed to record a field-qualifying 4.173-second pass at 287.66 mph.
“I’m great,” Lesenko said afterwards in excitable fashion. “We’re in the show and it couldn’t be any better. We have another body and some wires. I might need a new fire suit since this one is burned to shreds.”
JON CAPPS CLAIMS SPOT - It came down to the last qualifying session, but Jon Capps still secured a spot in Sunday’s U.S. Nationals. And, a relief it was.
“These guys (his team) are awesome,” Capps offered. “It’s the last round of qualifying. I can’t tell you how happy I am.”
SECOND LIFE FOR CRUZ PEDREGON, ROBERT HIGHT - As quickly as the door shut on Cruz Pedregon and Robert Hight last weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway, it was reopened just as fast during final qualifying for the NHRA’s most prestigious race.
Leaving the track last Saturday night, both drivers were resigned to the fact they were not going to appear on race day. However, Mother Nature intervened and offered two more shots at qualifying a week later.
“You don’t get many second chances in drag racing,” Hight related. “Usually you lose a round and you are out of here. If you don’t qualify you are out of here. Getting to try and qualify is (was) big.
“We have to look back at how we ran at the beginning of the year and get my Auto Club Ford Mustang back on track. We have been making a lot of races here and you go down the track one time in qualifying and it gets you qualified. Sooner or later that gets you.
“Indy is a different race because it has five qualifying sessions. If this would have been a normal race where you only get four I doubt they would have reopened qualifying. I don’t know the reasoning behind that and I don’t make those calls. I am glad they gave us and some more teams another shot.”
“We have new life,” added Pedregon. “The weather put us in this predicament and the weather kind of got us out of it.”
SAY WHAT? - Tim Wilkerson entered the final day of qualifying for the U.S. Nationals holding the third starting spot. Yet, he didn’t seem to notice.
“We got ourselves in a position we don’t want, so we’re going to go try and get out of it,” he said.
Wilkerson ended up with the fourth starting spot.
UNPLEASANT MATCH UP - Don Schumacher Racing teammates Ron Capps and Matt Hagan will square off in the first round of final eliminations on Sunday.
While that was the pairing after what was thought to be the final qualifying session last Saturday, it was not the case heading into session number five. That was until Hagan dropped to 14th in the order and Capps jumped up to third. Oops!
On one side, Capps is fighting to clinch the number one seed in the Countdown to the Championship, while on the other side Hagan is scratching and clawing just to grab a position in the playoffs.
SUNDAY - RAIN INVADES THE BIG GO; ACTION SCHEDULED FOR MONDAY
Persistent rains have forced NHRA officials to cancel the final two qualifying sessions for the Mac Tools U. S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis on Sunday. The fields for all the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series categories -- Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle -- have been set by the qualifying sessions that took place on Friday and Saturday.
Courtney Force in Funny Car, Spencer Massey in Top Fuel, Erica Enders in Pro Stock, and Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Motorcycle will begin eliminations Monday in the No. 1 position.
Fields in the Lucas Oil NHRA Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by ProCare RX have also been set.
In addition, the NHRA Traxxas Funny Car Showdown scheduled to run on Sunday has been postponed to a later date.
“We believe that with the forecast for the remainder of the day that it would be extremely difficult to get the track into racing condition,” said Graham Light, NHRA senior vice president racing operations. “We are planning to run a full day tomorrow.”
Sportsman racing will begin at 8:00 a. m. with the first round of eliminations for the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series to take place starting at 11 a. m.
RAIN CREATES INTERESTING RACE DAY MATCH UPS - With Mother Nature taking care of the last two qualifying sessions on Sunday, the focus now turns to the Labor Day extravaganza known as the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
To say the very least, there are a number of intriguing, eye-brow raising, match-ups littered throughout the Funny Car final eliminations ladder. To that end, following are some notes on each pair --
#1 Courtney Force vs. #16 Blake Alexander
It will be rookie against rookie in this confrontation. After officially collecting her first career pole once Sunday’s activities were called, Force will now turn her attention to winning her first U.S. Nationals trophy.
#2 Jack Beckman vs. #15 Todd Lesenko
In his 150th career professional race, Beckman will be seeking his third national event win of the season and the 15th of his career. He held the provisional number one spot through two rounds of qualifying until Courtney Force pushed him off the top in the third (and final) session.
#3 Tim Wilkerson vs. #14 Jon Capps
Simply stated, this is a must win for Wilkerson given his fight to get into the Countdown to the Championship field. Three or four round wins are probably necessary for Wilk if he has plans for the playoffs.
#4 Alexis DeJoria vs. #13 Jim Head
DeJoria would just love to see her car continue to improve. Right now, she’s living the dream for sure.
#5 Ron Capps vs. #12 Matt Hagan
No doubt, this is the marquee pair of the opening round. Capps will be attempting to solidify his hold on first-place in the standings, while trying to win his first U.S. Nationals trophy. Hagan desperately needs a round win over Capps and then some if he is to entertain playoff hopes.
#6 Tony Pedregon vs. #11 Bob Tasca III
Tasca III is also scrambling to stay in the Countdown field; hence, he clearly needs this round win over “T Ped.” While Pedregon has been running better, the good news for Tasca III
is the former has emerged from the first round only once in 16 races.
#7 John Force vs. #10 Mike Neff
This certainly wasn’t what the boss wanted – a first round, all-JFR race. Force’s only round win over Neff this year was in the final at the season opener in Pomona.
#8 Johnny Gray vs. #9 Jeff Arend
Gray would love to help his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Hagan, with a win over Arend, who is among four drivers fighting for the remaining two Countdown spots. There hasn’t been a lot of history between the two in 2012 – Arend beat Gray in the second round at Atlanta Dragway in their only race day meeting.
And, then there were the “Did Not Qualify” notables -- Cruz Pedregon and Robert Hight. Enough said.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THE FLAGSHIP CAR THUNDERS TO THE TOP
DOWN GOES BECKMAN - Seemingly, it just keeps getting better and better for Courtney Force.
First, the John Force Racing driver was voted into Sunday’s Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Cars, then she decided to go ahead and swipe the provisional number one qualifying spot from Jack Beckman following the second day of qualifying for the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
The California rookie laid down a sizzling 4.049-second pass at 317.27 mph in round three of a scheduled five rounds and in the process knocked Beckman from the provisional pole that he collected on Friday.
“I went up there and saw my dad (John Force) run a 4.07 and bump me down and I thought I better go bump him down,” said Force. “It was a good run for sure. But, hey, this is Indy – it’s awesome. We’re going to keep our heads on straight and get after it again tomorrow.”
Both her elapsed time and speed proved to be career best numbers, which came as a total surprise.
“I had a good feeling about that run, but I didn’t know it would be career bests,” she offered. “The rain delayed us and the more we were delayed, the cooler it was. We figured we might as well go for it. To get career best numbers at Indy is huge.”
Force, sixth in the standings, is in hot pursuit of her first career pole. She’ll be hoping to parlay that success story into a great race day on Monday.
“I was excited going into Indy this week because it’s kind of like a second home track for me. It’s where John Force Racing is based. We’ve had a lot of family history at this track and my sister (Ashley Force Hood) has been really successful here so I’m definitely excited to be racing in the Funny Car class,” she said.
Force clearly has some big shoes to fill this weekend, knowing that older sister, Ashley Force Hood, took back-to-back wins at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in 2009 and 2010.
“I really want to push our team hard and see what our Traxxas Ford Mustang can pull out this weekend. We have a good race car and we’re just hoping to go out there and get some good runs in and make it into the Countdown.”
It’s pretty much a safe bet now that she will make it into the Countdown since all she had to do was qualify for the race.
“We’re excited,” she added.
Since the NHRA began awarding points for the three quickest passes during each qualifying session, drivers in all of the professional classes seemingly emerged from a deep sleep to realize the significance of a pre-final eliminations lap down the track.
With the potential of making up almost a round of racing over two qualifying days (three days in the case of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals race weekend), Funny Car driver Matt Hagan, who has been making a late regular-season push to make it into the Countdown to the Championship field, understands the importance of every 1,000-foot trip.
SHE'S STILL A ROOKIE - She’s almost 17 races into her first season on the NHRA tour, but don’t tell Funny Car driver Courtney Force she’s not a rookie anymore.
“I feel like I’m still in a big bubble of a dream,” she said after collecting the provisional pole following Saturday’s qualifying action. “I’m definitely still learning as a driver.”
EVERY POINT COUNTS - After struggling on Friday, Hagan returned to Lucas Oil Raceway on Saturday afternoon following a lengthy rain-delay and posted what appeared to be a points-grabbing 4.119-second jaunt at 307.65 mph in the second qualifying session. However, he ended up empty-handed.
His Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Jack Beckman, pocketed the three points for being the quickest in the session after a second straight 4.05-second lap, while Jeff Arend and Courtney Force followed closely behind.
Arend’s 4.088-second run at 311.20 mph (which garnered two points) proved to be a bit of a dagger as he is among the three drivers Hagan is battling for the final two Countdown spots.
To add further insult to injury for Hagan was the fact he could not jump into the top half of the field. He recorded the exact elapsed time John Force rang up on Friday, but the latter’s speed was faster and thus broke the tie.
Heading into the third qualifying round, Force is eighth and Hagan is ninth in the order.
"You can't change what other people do, you can only control what you have available in front of you, and that's what we have tried to focus on," said Hagan.
ROUGH SLEDDING FOR CRUZ, BUT CLEAR SAILING FOR BROTHER TONY - It wasn’t the best of Saturdays for Cruz Pedregon. After three rounds of qualifying, the former world champion is still not in the show.
To make matters worse, “C Ped,” who is 19th in the order, scraped the wall with his Snap-on car during his third round run.
“We’re just trying too hard,” he said. “It’s Indy and we’re pressing. We just have to back it down a bit.”
While Cruz Pedregon was battling Lucas Oil Raceway, his brother, Tony, was ecstatic to finally land some clean runs and end up sixth in the lineup with two rounds of qualifying remaining.
“I’m happy we’re able to put a couple (runs) together,” Tony Pedregon related. “We’re using Cruz’ set up. It’s all about teamwork.”
“WILK” LANDS IN TOP THREE - He may have swung and missed at the first two pitches of the weekend, but Tim Wilkerson wasn’t about to get called out on strikes.
During qualifying session number three, “Wilk” recorded a 4.060-second trip at 306.60 mph and went from out of the show all the way up to the third starting position.
“I was mad at myself,” Wilkerson said about his first two attempts of the weekend. “I told my guys I was missing it left and right. That (last run) was for them.”
IF LOOKS COULD KILL - Ron Capps definitely knows when Rahn Tobler has something up his sleeve.
Just prior to making his third qualifying run, Capps happened to gaze up at his crew chief and saw something which has become all too familiar.
“Tobler had a serious look on his face for sure,” Capps said.
With that, the NAPA driver proceeded to stop the clock with a 4.064-second run at 312.13 mph, which was good enough for the fifth starting spot.
“And, that’s the way it should be right there,” Capps added.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK -
FIRING THE FIRST SHOT - Jack Beckman, in his Valvoline NextGen Dodge Charger R/T, captured the provisional pole following the first day of qualifying for the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway.
Beckman posted a 4.051-second pass at 302.62 mph in the only session of the day and as a result sat atop the leader board with four more qualifying runs to go.
“It (the lap) never felt that quick,” Beckman related. “The thing was trying to move over the center line for the first half of the run. I kept fighting it and fighting it and finally got it back in the center and then it goes and drops a hole and then another one later. When I pulled the chutes and looked up at the scoreboard and saw the 4.05, I thought that it must be the guy in the other lane. It was far from a perfect run, but the ET slip was certainly perfect for sure.”
The California resident, who arrived in Indianapolis holding third in the points, feels a recent two-day test in Indianapolis greatly helped his cause on day one.
"Our car has been running great," Beckman said. "In all conditions, it's been awesome. Our Achilles Heel has been these runs that crop up when it gets out there to 400 or 500 feet on the track and once in a while it will spin the tires."
Beckman, who is shooting for his third pole of the season and the 14th of his career, felt confident his crew chief, Todd Smith, knew the exact approach to take to overcome their prerace issues.
"The first thing we did at the test was to reconfigure our clutch application to try to fix that and we did," Beckman said. "Then, we tested a lot of our spare parts to make sure that in the Countdown if we had to change something we had an equally good replacement for it.
"We were able to test a new clutch and clutch discs. Testing for the sake of practice just wears out parts. Testing is productive when you have things that you want to try or change and see what results you get so you can make a list and cross things off. I think we had a real successful test."
Now, since he’s off to a flying start to the weekend, the focus has shifted to preparing to win the most important race on the schedule.
"The interesting thing is Indy has bounced back and forth to being the last race of the regular season and the first race of the Countdown," Beckman said. "The reality is you can put Indy in December and it wouldn't matter because it's still going to be the biggest race of the year. Winning four rounds on Monday means everything to a team. You want that on your resume.”
COURTNEY GETS HER PLAYOFF SPOT - Courtney Force checked off another goal on her highly successful first season, clinching a spot in the 2012 Countdown to the Championship, by qualifying No. 3 provisionally with a 4.085.
After winning the Traxxas Nitro Shootout fan vote – garnering 63% of the Funny Car votes - and lottery on Wednesday to secure the final spot in the $100,000 to win bonus race on Sunday attention switched to insuring that she had a shot at winning her first NHRA Full Throttle Championship.
“That was a huge round for us. Going into that round, mentally you’re trying not to think about everything you need to do, but really we needed that run; we needed to go from A to B. It was an important run for us. To be able to go out there on the first run of Indy and make a great pass like that and put us not only in the top half of the field, but in the third spot, with a 4.08. That’s good run on any race track and to do it at Indy. That’s right where we want to be,” said an excited Force.
“It definitely gives us confidence going into tomorrow. It’s great knowing that we’ve clinched in the Countdown. We just wanted to keep fighting and working hard until it was official and I’m glad to say that it finally is. It’s really exciting. I can actually officially look for a banquet dress for myself and it won’t be for my dad’s banquet which is going to be really cool.”
“My Traxxas guys have worked so hard this season and all I’ve wanted was just to be a good driver for them and really do the best I can. That was such an important run. If I would’ve made a little mistake it might have really screwed things up for us. I’m really proud of my guys and everything we’ve accomplished so far this season. Going into Indy, we’re excited. We’re pumped up. We’ve got a great car. Our Traxxas Ford Mustang has been running good and I really think we can be competitive this weekend; not only for the ‘Big Go,’ but for the Traxxas Nitro Shootout as well. I think we’re going to give everyone a run for their money,” added the youngest Force.
NOT WHAT HE HOPED FOR - Tim Wilkerson kept true to his earlier words. He said, in Brainerd and prior to this race, that he was "going for it" by aiming higher with each run down the race track, and his effort during the Friday night session did not belie that point. Powering hard early while driving away from Matt Hagan, he to be ready to put a big number on the board, but Wilk's Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang got a little squirrelly just past half track, which caused it to eventually drift to the right and as soon as the right rear tire got out of the groove, the LRS Ford went into tire smoke. The 4.533 was not good enough for the top 12 overnight, so Wilk will go into Saturday with no official time on the board, weather permitting.
"We're looking at the data and the video, and something weird happened out there at around 330," Wilk said. "It's almost like it went over a bump, but I don't think there's a bump there. Whatever it was, it unsettled the car just enough for it to get a little loose and the whole rear end of the car started to sashay to the left a little. It's only a matter of inches, but you can see it on the video, and once the rear went left I was pointing a little to the right. I yanked it back but by then we were in the marbles over there by the center line and it wasn't going to hold. It didn't blow the tires off, it just rolled right into spin over there.
"So now the problem is the weather. You don't often see so many forecasts that all look so dire, but what's left of old Isaac is up here in the midwest now and all the experts are calling for it to hit us tomorrow and Sunday. Those experts are wrong a lot, so maybe we'll get lucky. Either way, we can control a lot but we can't control the weather so we'll be here, and we'll see how it goes. Maybe we'll stay dry as a bone."
A DIFFERENT KIND OF UNSETTLED - Jeff Arend came to the U.S. Nationals ninth in NHRA’s Funny Car point standings.
Although this is the final regular season event before the Countdown to the Championship begins Sept. 14-16 at Charlotte for the top 10 drivers in all the pro classes, Arend is doing his best to keep things in perspective.
“I’m pretty comfortable because we have a two-round lead over (Matt) Hagan and (Tim) Wilkerson,” Arend said. “We are also a round ahead of (Bob) Tasca (who is in 10th), so long story short if everybody qualifies one of those cars would have to go to the semis, Hagan or Wilkerson, in order to knock us out. But, Hagan’s group has been on a pretty good roll lately, going to two finals and the semis. If we can make it through the first round and second round we are looking pretty good.”
Arend admitted he’s glad he’s not chasing drivers in the top 10.
“I think I would much rather have a two-round advantage than the two-round deficit,” said Arenda, who drives the DHL Toyota Camry for Kalitta Motorsports. “You never know what can happen in drag racing, but I like the way our car is running right now. Our DHL car is running great and our crew has been doing a good job, and our new setup has been very good as well. It is running a lot better than our old car. We just changed it before the last race, and it is showing some great numbers, and I have a lot of confidence going into this race.”
A year ago, Arend qualified for his first Countdown, and finished a career-best eighth in the points.
“Obviously, we are looking to do better this year,” said Arend, who has one win this season at Chicago. “It is pretty rare that we are not locked in (the Countdown) because we have had a pretty good year. We had a couple breaks and we got a couple of bad breaks. It is all about timing sometimes and we are going to see how it plays out this weekend. We are not going to change our game plan too much. We are going to try and qualify well on our first shot and try and go rounds Monday.”
On Friday, Arend qualified No. 9 with a 4.144-second lap. Tasca is No. 5, but neither Hagan or Wilkerson cracked the Top 12 Friday. - Tracy Renck
Gray, of Artesia, N.M., was just a couple of ticks behind his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman, who was the No. 1 qualifier with a 4.05 pass.
"I was pretty sure we were going to run that 4.07," said Gray, who has consistently been a threat this season in his NTB/Big O Tires Dodge and is currently fourth in the Full Throttle Series Funny Car standings.
"The only surprise was that 3.6-seconds into the run, it took the tires off and spun to the finish line," Gray continued, referring to a loss of traction. "It wandered around down there and lost quite a bit of e.t. and speed."
HAPPY WITH FRIDAY RUN - Mike Neff, driver and tuner of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, was running beside his rookie teammate and his Funny Car crossed the finish line in 4.089 seconds at 306.53 mph. As the defending event winner Neff and his Castrol GTX crew brought a strong performance car to the first session.
“We’re really happy with that. It’s been a little stressful. You know, you go all day Friday waiting for that one run. Just being Indy, the stress level just seems like it’s pegged, but only getting the one run and knowing what we know about the weather and possibility of rain the next few days, this was just probably the most critical run that we’ve made all year,” said Neff. “Being the biggest race of the year and the chance of rain the next few days, the goal was to make a good run and get qualified well so we didn’t have to sit here and stress about it the next few days. It did exactly what we wanted it to so we’re really glad.”
GAME ON - With the first of five qualifying sessions for the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals slated for this evening, there will be four Funny Car drivers, in particular, who will be seeking to post instant, positive results.
Matt Hagan, Tim Wilkerson, Jeff Arend and Bob Tasca III are all fighting for the final two spots in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, the NHRA’s version of the post-season playoffs.
While Arend and Tasca III have the upper hand at the moment given their ninth-place and 10th-place standing, respectively, Hagan and Wilkerson will clearly be looking to make a statement during the three days of qualifying in an effort to put the pressure on.
"I'm just glad we still have a fighting chance to go out there and do this," Hagan said of getting into the Countdown. "We still have a big hill to climb. It's just a matter of getting out there and making big plays and stepping up to the plate and trying to knock it out of the park. But things have got to line up, too."
Entering Friday’s action at Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Hagan is 19 points behind Bob Tasca III in 10th-place while 12th-place Tim Wilkerson is nine out of 10th.
"You can't change what other people do, you can only control what you have available in front of you, and that's what we have tried to focus on," said Hagan, whose Dodge has advanced to a pair of championship rounds and a semifinals in the past three events.
For Wilkerson, owner/tuner/driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang Funny Car, the plan is quite simple – to not only get in the show, but as high up on the ladder as possible.
"You can look at the five-lap deal two ways," Wilkerson said. "When you're not running well to start the week, you feel better knowing you're going to get one more shot at it than you would anywhere else, but when you are running well you also know that all these big hitters out here have one more shot to knock you off your perch and push you down the ladder. It's a very difficult race to qualify well at, because everyone gets that extra chance to figure it out.
"We finally got our heads screwed on right in Brainerd, just kind of going for it instead of being conservative, and it worked. We're going to keep that same mindset the rest of the year, too. We have nothing to lose, so we might as well take some shots. Not wild and crazy shots, where you're just guessing, but more like you look at the range of what you think you might be able to run, and instead of thinking 'Well, we'll aim for the middle of that window' you kind of just aim for the best option. You go for it.
"You've got four of us here, trying to earn the last two spots, so winning rounds is obviously key. If we had control of how it lays out, it would be great to have your fate in your own hands. If the four of us could somehow line up racing each other in round one on Labor Day, that would be some huge drama and a lot of fun. If we're all running someone else, all you can do is run your best and hope they lose. I think it would be way cooler if we could somehow duke it out against each other, but none of us can control that. Being the team in 11th, we might need some luck to have the ladder fall our way. We'll see."
THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
COURTNEY IS IN - Given her extreme popularity, it was not surprising to see Courtney Force claim the eighth and final position for Sunday’s Funny Car Traxxas Nitro Shootout.
After capturing the fan vote/lottery spot, the 24-year-old Force, who ironically enough drives the Traxxas Ford Mustang, will meet top-seed Ron Capps in the first round.
"I'm so excited that my Traxxas Ford Mustang is in the Shootout! I'm so thankful to the fans for voting for me. I knew it was up to chance with the lottery, so I can't believe we actually won. It'll be so awesome to be in my first Traxxas Nitro Shootout, and I can't wait to line up on Sunday."
The Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Cars will be contested Sunday, Sept. 2, with rounds at 12:30, 3:30, and 4:30 p.m.
DUPUY RETURNS -After enduring a seven-year absence from the NHRA tour as he rehabbed from injuries suffered in a car accident, veteran tuner Wayne Dupuy will return to the track this weekend at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Having been associated with such familiar names as Joe Amato, Doug Herbert, Cruz Pedregon and Johnny Gray during a career that has spanned some 20 years, Dupuy will now be paired with Acme Refining Toyota Funny Car driver/team owner Terry Haddock.
“Because of my accident, I have to start all over,” said Dupuy. “My brother (Jim Dupuy, a popular crew chief in his own right) suggested I call Terry. I find it a challenge working for a smaller team. I’m back where I started and hope to move forward and soon be back on top.
“Terry and I have gone through the car; made some changes and put my set-up in it. I’m getting them more organized. They have more than I expected for a small team and its all good stuff. They just never get to put it together and get organized.”
The hiring of Dupuy proved to be a big step for Haddock, who has always fashioned himself as a do-it-yourself kind of racer.
“It was super hard for me to decide to hire a crew chief,” explained Haddock, “but I am smart enough to know that I have to step back to go forward. I am only one person and I have only been able to give 75 percent to any one job and not been very successful at any of them.
“Wayne called me and made the suggestion of coming on board with us,” said Haddock. “I really wasn’t looking, but the more I thought about it and talked with Wayne, I realized this was the right time. Wayne was the right fit for us because he was willing to come to the shop and start all over from the beginning. He has the work ethic that shows he’s dedicated. He didn’t take my word for anything. We took everything apart and reassembled it all. This has given us confidence in the car, the parts and each other. I think this is a good way to start our relationship.
“I now expect to continue to build on that confidence and look forward to becoming a regular qualifier and to begin going rounds on race day.”
While Dupuy is clearly on the same page as Haddock relative to predicting the team’s performance, he’s also a realist.
“I expect things to go smoothly when we get out on the track,” said Dupuy. “But I don’t expect to set the world on fire. I want to get the crew and everything on the right track. You know, you can’t buy success. You have to work for it and that’s what we are doing.”
ROOKIE READY TO ROLL - While Funny Car rookie pilot Blake Alexander clearly knows the significance of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, he’s not intimidated by any means.
With 25 cars entered for the NHRA’s most prestigious event, Alexander is confident he will be competing come Monday morning.
“Indy is obviously a big deal, but I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing all year, doing my best for my sponsors,” said Alexander. ‘The things I’ve learned all year will be applied, but the way I’ve tried to do things won’t change.
This weekend also marks Alexander’s first race with a new associate sponsor.
“This is our first weekend with Spy Optics on the car,” he offered. “I’m very excited to have them on board. Their action lifestyle image fits in perfectly in the fast-paced world of NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing.”
ALEXIS NOT CHANGING A THING FOR INDY - Alexis DeJoria, driver of the Kalitta Motorsports Tequila Patrόn Toyota Camry Funny Car team, will be sticking with the tune up and chassis combination used at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway two weeks ago.
Following the Lucas Oil Nationals, DeJoria’s crew chief, Del Worsham, summoned the team to Indy to test a new chassis as well as a completely different tuning combination. After seven passes, the decision was made to stick with their prior tune up and chassis going into the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
“While we were able to learn a lot from that test session, it was made very clear that we should stick with the same setup that we had in Brainerd,” said Jim Oberhofer, Vice President of Kalitta Motorsports. “The car has been so consistent lately, and at the end of the day, consistency will win you more rounds than anything else. We’re sticking by the old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage.”
DeJoria will be attempting to rebound from a disappointing result in Brainerd. In her first round match up with John Force, she crossed the center line and was disqualified which followed Force’s red light foul at the starting line.
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