BAYTOWN, TX --- John Force and his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang held onto the top qualifying spot at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals, the 137th of his legendary career. It was Force’s third No. 1 in a row and has him one behind the all-time record set by Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson. Force’s top elapsed time of Friday night, 4.097 seconds, held up and the closest challenger today was two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon who recorded a 4.11 second pass.
“I am excited for my team led by Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas. They gave me a good car and it should be able to win a race. It is going down the race track,” said Force a 137-time No. 1 qualifier.
Tricky track conditions had Force thinking of his match racing days and the valuable skills he learned barnstorming the country.
“I still drive my car with the brake handle and mostly with the foot. When the crew chief says to me I don’t know if it will go that is when I get excited,” joked Force. “Now you are giving it to me. I’ll make some magic and get through here. Even if I don’t I want to believe that. You look at some of the guys that made the show they are match racers. A big high horsepower car isn’t what you need right now unless we get a cold front in here.”
“We weren’t trying to run a 4.0 then we were just trying to run a teen. You could call this a match racers race. The big dogs might step up if the cold front comes in and everybody will try and run ohs. This could be anybody’s race day. I still match race to keep sharp. It helps you because the car talks to you. That is what I am trying to teach (youngest daughter) Courtney. It really does talk to you.”
On Force’s last qualifying run his parachutes deployed early negating an apparently strong run but the 15-time Funny Car champion was not perturbed. At the top end when asked by co-crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli if he was upset Force was not even miffed.
“I knew it was parachutes. I didn’t jump on the radio and ask if it smoked the tires. There is only one thing that causes that sound. That is when you put a load against it,” said Force. ”That is not anything that will make me mad because a parachute just popped out. That car was going to make a pretty decent run in the heat. Guido asked if I was upset and I said no because of one mistake out of fifty runs. When you do crash you want something to save you. I’ll take that any time.”
For a driver that has set almost every record in the category new experiences are hard to come by. Force will face a new opponent tomorrow in the first round. Brian Thiel will become the 127th different Funny Car driver to race Force.
The star of the day for JFR was crew chief and driver Mike Neff who recorded the quickest run of the final session, a 4.142 second run. In the heat of the day on a track that was giving all the nitro teams fits Neff powering his Castrol GTX Mustang down the track for that time was impressive.
“The track is real tricky right there. Not too many guys were going down it. It shouldn’t have been because of the conditions. I tried to do some stuff that I haven’t even tried before. I wanted to make sure it went down the track and it got through that part that we know wasn’t very good,” said Neff, the 2011 Gatornationals winner. “It ended up making a good run. That is encouraging. The biggest thing for us is getting the engine to look good. The engine hasn’t been looking good the last couple of races. That has caused us some problems. It was hurting a piston or putting a cylinder out. We finally got it to make a good clean run. That was the most encouraging thing about that run.”
Robert Hight and the AAA Texas Ford Mustang had the most pressure on his back going into the last qualifying sessions as the clouds formed over Royal Purple Raceway and some rain drops even briefly attacked the track. Hight did not carry any qualifying times over from Friday and even if they would have they were not impressive. In the first run of the session Hight raced solidly into the show and could take a deep breath knowing that he would be in the show on Sunday.
“Tomorrow will be huge. It was nerve wracking this morning. You are seeing a chance of rain and it is spitting. Knowing there is a chance you might only get one qualifying run today,” said Hight the points leader. “You don’t want to get down to the last run. (Track specialist) Lanny (Miglizzi) kept coming up and saying the track was peeling up a little bit out there. That is why a bunch of cars were having trouble out there. That doesn’t sit very well when you are not qualified. That doesn’t help your confidence.’
“We were weak the first two runs. It is pretty rare that you shake weak on a 119 degree track. We did that yesterday. Usually the way Jimmy (Prock) is he is on the other side of that. We had to get after it today. That is when the track is not real good and rain is coming. You don’t want to come here and not qualify when you have AAA Texas on the side of your Mustang. I’m the points leader and that would just be bad.”
Hight has one of the toughest first round match-ups squaring off with 2010 championship runner-up Matt Hagan in the first round. It is a challenge that Hight relishes and he hopes to keep one of his pre-season goals alive with a first round win.
“I like racing Matt Hagan. That is a big first round. I have had a goal for this season and to this point I am doing well. I don’t want to lose first round. I don’t want any first round loses, that is how you will win a championship, no first round losses. I need to keep that streak alive.”
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