GAINESVILLE --- Last night Mike Neff talked about being aggressive on the track today and he put his bonus points where his mouth was. Neff’s Castrol GTX Ford Mustang was the quickest funny car in both sessions on Saturday at the 42nd annual Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals. He made his best run of the day 4.086 seconds in the first run of the day and ended the day with a 4.088 second run on a hot track. Both runs were beside and quicker than No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan. Neff will enter eliminations as the No. 3 funny car and will face veteran Jim Head for the second consecutive race in the first round.
For Neff a successful day would be a career first at the Gatornationals and would give him bragging rights over his good friend and Full Throttle world champion Gary Scelzi.
“It would be great to be able to win here tomorrow. This is one place that goes all the way back to when I was with Gary (Scelzi),” said Neff who crew chiefed Scelzi to the 2005 funny car championship. “He won a ton of races and I have been in the winner’s circle a lot with the teams that I have been on but neither one of us has ever won at this race. We always joked about it and every time we lost here we were bummed. There were only a handful of tracks maybe three or four that we never won at on the whole tour. He would be the first person I call if I get into the winner’s circle tomorrow.”
Neff knows that before he can get into the winner’s circle he needs to replicate his success today.
“We wanted to make a couple of good runs today. The conditions today will be pretty close to conditions tomorrow. It is important and it does help build your confidence,” said the six-time national event finalist. “You want to go into race day on offense instead of going up there with your fingers crossed. It was a good day for us. It is always a bonus to pick up and extra six points.”
Robert Hight stepped up his performance in the Auto Club Ford Mustang but he was unable to race into the top half of the field. Unfortunately for the 19-time national event winner he will have to face 132-time winner John Force in the first round. This will be the second race in a row that the two teammates have matched up.
“I have to race the champ. That is not how we want it we are supposed to be racing each other in the final. We got behind the eight ball and it just shows you how important that first run of the weekend is,” said Hight, the points leader and most recent event winner. “The conditions were good enough that you could have made a run quick enough to get you in the show. Then you could have stepped on it and gone for it on Friday afternoon. We didn’t have that luxury. We smoked the tires and then we had an air line blow off in the second session. We ran 4.24 and it wasn’t good enough to get into the top twelve. We came into today needing to get into the show.”
“(Crew chief) Jimmy Prock did a really good job running a 4.16 first run. That just kills him. It is the hardest thing for him to just go down the track. He wants to push it and see what he can get. We stepped it up a little bit tonight. It still wasn’t what he was looking for. If it would have run the way he wanted it to like Neff did we wouldn’t be racing Force in the first round. It is our own fault.”
At the NHRA Winternationals Hight got the best of Force in the second round before racing to the win to open the 2011 season. Hight, 13-11, is one of a few drivers with a winning record against the most dominant drag racer of all time.
The historical significance of successful day tomorrow is not lost on Hight either. For the former crewman who was on Force’s team for his dominance at Gainesville Raceway a win tomorrow would be a career bucket list moment.
“There are a handful of races that are your favorites. Pomona, Indy, and the Gatornationals is one of those. Denver is a big one because it is different altitude. There is a lot of history at the Gatornationals. Don Garlits’ Hall of Fame is close and it just seems like there’s a ‘Who’s Who’ of drag racing here. When you pull up to the starting line and you see a quarter mile of fans in the stands and its packed on Saturday. That is a big deal. You pull into this joint in the morning and there are people outside selling tickets because it is sold out. This is huge. Everybody everywhere you go talks about being at the Gatornationals. This is where everybody comes. It is huge and you don’t want to retire and look back and say you didn’t win the Gatornationals.”
Hight is most excited that even though he did not rotate the earth with his runs today in the Auto Club Mustang he can take some comfort in two runs going into race day. For a fan of baseball the idea of swinging for the fences has its sizzle but Hight is looking for more of a “small ball” attitude from his team.
“Jimmy has a definite tunable set up here. It is always tunable when you go down the track and you have data. When you smoke the tires then you have to back off to find out where you are. That is not tunable. We are taking baby steps,” said Hight.
“We did that on race day in Pomona. We weren’t the quickest car every round. That is normally how we win races. We are usually dominant when we win. We were good enough in Pomona. We have to keep that mindset. We have to go down the track and give me a chance to hopefully leave first on whoever it is.”
“It is a little like small ball in baseball. You want everyone to do the little things and not swing for the fences all the time. We look back at last year and we could have won not just more rounds but more races if we would have just been doing what we are doing now: going down the track. We can’t beat ourselves. If we keep doing that we can win a lot of races this year.”
Force and his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang struggled in both sessions under the Florida sun. The 15-time funny car champion will be looking to advance to the winner’s circle at a track that he dominated in the 90’s winning five races in a row starting in 1992. Force will enter eliminations as the No. 7 qualifier.
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