POMONA, Calif. – Mike Neff learned last year that winning the NHRA Full Throttle championship is not so much about what you do as when you do it.
The crew chief and driver of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang won a career high five races last year to share the category lead with teammate Robert Hight. In addition, he won more racing rounds (40) and appeared in more final rounds (nine) than anyone, Hight included. To top it off, he was the points leader after 15 of the 22 tour events.
Unfortunately, the bulk of that success came in the regular season and not in the six-race Countdown to 1 that, in essence, now crowns the champion.
When Neff won his first Funny Car championship in 2005 as crew chief to Gary Scelzi, the title reflected his team’s performance over an entire season. All that changed in 2007, however, when the NHRA adopted the current playoff system.
Not surprisingly, even though he won another title in 2010 as crew chief to John Force, Neff is not a big fan.
In fact, the premium placed on the Countdown races has compelled the California native to re-strategize for a 2012 season that begins this week with the 52nd O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway.
“It does change your strategy,” Neff said, “but that doesn’t mean you just sacrifice races at the beginning of the year (for testing purposes). We want to win every race we go to so we’re not going to approach it like ‘we don’t care what happens this week, we’re just going to test.’
“We’re just going to try and race smarter and take advantage of the two extra test days they’ve given us this year,” Neff said, referring to NHRA’s decision to up the number of approved, in-season test days from four to six. “Plus, if we run good on Friday (in qualifying), that may give us a chance on Saturday to try something different with some different parts.”
Regardless, the 45-year-old veteran knows a little better what to expect this time around even if he doesn’t know exactly what threw him off track last year.
“I wouldn’t look at it like I was ‘overthinking’ it or I was burned out,” he said. “I didn’t do anything differently than I did the first 16 races. Things just quit working. The tricky thing about racing is sometimes it just doesn’t work the way you want it to. Looking back on it, I can see some things I would do differently if I had to do it again. You work on your weaknesses and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. The thing is, if it was easy, everybody’d be winning.
“Our car runs great,” Neff continued. “We’re just trying to improve in areas where we might have been a little weaker. Nobody accumulated more points last year than we did, but it’s just based off six races now and you have to try and plan so your program is strongest in those last six races.”
Despite his disdain for the system, Neff feels good about his chances of becoming the first to win a Funny Car championship as driver/crew chief since the late Shirl Greer did so in 1974.
After testing well at Palm Beach International Raceway in Florida, he starts the season this week on a track on which he has been exceedingly successful.
Not only did Auto Club Raceway yield his first win as a driver (at the 2009 Auto Club Finals), it also was the site of key crew chief victories in 2007 and 2010. He won with Scelzi at the 2007 Winternationals, his last victory before moving from Don Schumacher Racing to JFR, and with Force at the same race in 2010, laying the foundation for the sport’s biggest winner to earn his record 15th championship.