DENVER, Colo. – Robert “Top Gun” Hight overcame a first round ignition problem, beat No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan in the semifinals and stopped boss and teammate John Force in the final round Sunday to win the 31st annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals and stamp himself as the favorite to repeat as NHRA Funny Car Champion.
After sneaking past unheralded James Day with a unremarkable 4.319 second time in round one, Hight used his starting line skills to best Ron Capps despite a slower 1,000 foot performance in round two and then powered past Hagan and Force with back-to-back 4.21s.
It was Hight’s 18th career victory, tying him on the all-time list with Ed “the Ace” McCulloch and Mark Oswald, and it was his second triumph at Bandimere Speedway where he won the Mile-High Nationals as a Funny Car rookie in 2005.
With only the Aug. 13-15 Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., remaining before the Countdown to 1 playoffs, the only thing certain is that either Force or Hight will be the No. 1 seed and start the six-race shootout with a 30-point lead on the field. Force left Bandimere with a 28-point lead; Hight left with momentum after beating the boss for the first time in three final round showdowns.
While the win over Force was gratifying, especially since it was his first in three final round meetings with his boss and mentor, Hight was most pleased with a second round victory over Ron Capps. The former Rookie-of-the-Year won with a time of 4.251 seconds at 293.54 mph to Capps’ quicker and faster 4.235 at 296.11 mph in the NAPA Dodge now tuned by John Medlen.
“I don’t get a lot of (holeshots) because I shallow stage,” Hight said, referring to a technique that negatively effects reaction time. “We didn’t even know if we were going to make it back up (to the starting line). We had all kinds of ignition problems. That is actually why it slowed down on the first run. We didn’t find it until right at the end (of second round preparation). These guys behind me – Jimmy Prock, Eric Lane and my entire crew – they just pulled together. They never quit working on it and it paid off.”
It was the 33rd all-JFR Funny Car final but the first since Hight beat his sister-in-law, Ashley Force Hood, to win last May’s Summit Southern Nationals at Atlanta, Ga. For Force, who advanced to a category-best seventh final round, it was his 209th career final round; his first at Denver since he won in 2003.
Even though it was a win-win final for him as the owner of both Team Castrol Fords, Force admitted that he badly wanted to win on the mountain track on which he has had so much history.
“Bottom line, he is my teammate (and) my son-in-law; the dad of granddaughter. I ain’t mad at him; I just don’t like losing. I’m 61 and I am signed for five more years. I have a car that can run for the championship. Every point counts (because I know) I may not get that chance again.
“I have a car that is good now and it could go bad like it did the last three years. If anything, I am just an old sourpuss; a guy that just got spanked. I’ll get over it. We are celebrating. If (Robert) goes around me next week, I don’t care about that. I do, but that is part of the game. It is a Ford and it has Castrol and Auto club on it. At the end of the day, I just couldn’t believe I got beat, even in that lane.”
Although she locked up her spot in the Countdown, Force Hood endured her shortest outing of the season at the wheel of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang when she came up second best as one of the first two Funny Cars down the track in round one.
The 27-year-old graduate of Cal State-Fullerton rang up her best numbers of the weekend, posting the second best time of the round, but crossed the line a foot later than first round foe “Fast Jack” Beckman.
“I am just very bummed,” Ashley said after exiting in the first round for the third time in the last four races. “I was mad at the end of the track (because) we ran good and I know a million people are going to get on me about my lights (reaction times). I am thankful for Beckman. He came up to me at the top end and cheered me up. He said, ‘don’t let it get to you. You are doing fine.’
“He was my teacher back when I raced Super Comp (and) he is still teaching me a decade later,” said the national speed record holder. “You do get down (on yourself). It’s, like, what else do we have to do? I two-stepped (the throttle) yesterday. I didn’t mean to (but) I’m still trying things. The saying ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result’ is so true.
“I have been trying different things. To other people, it might not look like I am making progress, but I think I am. My lights ARE getting better. Today I didn’t get the win (light) but I know what I need to do. My team knows and they were telling me not to be down on myself. They were very supportive. They told me not to let this get into my head – (but) it’s hard.
“This is a mental game as well as a physical and mechanical one. To really put things into perspective, we got back to the pits and one of the main guys that was cheering me up, Matt Archer, fell and cut his head open. There was blood everywhere. The medics came over and it really got everyone over being bummed about the loss.
“Your heart stops when you hear ‘Guido’ (crew chief Dean Antonelli) yelling for a medic. (Matt) was OK. We told him he should save his head-banging for concerts. We are just in the biggest slump we have been in (but) I don’t know what I would change.
“For some reason, we are just having a crappy year (but) we got in the Countdown (and) we will just keep plugging away. I do thank Beckman because I was pretty upset. He could see how upset I was and he didn’t have to come over. He had stuff to do to get ready for the next round.”
Despite her problems, Force Hood will move on to Brainerd in position to finish as high as the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. She presently trails No. 6 Tim Wilkerson by just 25 points – one round and a handful of qualifying bonus points.
“Any driver, when they red light or two-step, are concerned the next time they come up there,” Antonelli said. “She didn’t leave late. She was dead shallow and had a respectable light. (Beckman just) nailed it pretty good. It was just racing. They ran good and we ran good. We were trying to run 4.17. We had a slide valve malfunction. It slowed a little bit in the middle. If the car would have not malfunctioned, we would have won. It just wasn’t our day.”
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