Funny Car finale loaded with drama

 

The National Hot Rod Association Funny Car finale promises to be a nitro nail-biter at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., as only 83 points separate the six drivers eligible for the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series championship.

Matt Hagan, aced out by 15-time champion John Force (with help from Bob Tasca III) on the final day of last season, leads. He has a 12-point advantage over his Don Schumacher Racing colleague Jack Beckman after rain and impending darkness shortened Saturday's last qualifying session. He's the top qualifier.

Only 35 points off the pace and 23 behind Beckman is two-time series champion Cruz Pedregon. He'll have a fight on his hands, with the John Force Racing tandem of Mike Neff and Robert Hight charging hard as the Nos. 2 and 3 qualifiers. DSR racer Ron Capps, the Las Vegas winner from the No. 1 spot two weeks ago, still has a chance, even at 83 points off the lead.

"It's great being a round ahead going into the last race," Hagan said. "But I'm not looking at the points. We just have to go rounds tomorrow. If we do our job, it won't matter what the others do. They're all great competitors."

The farmer from Christiansburg, Va., had a spiritual slant to his attitude.

"It's really not in my hands. It's in God's hands," Hagan said. "I have turned it over to Him. I'm not a real religious guy, but sometimes you have to look the situation in the face and accept there are bigger guys out there than you.

"Sometimes you have to prepare yourself all year long for this kind of situation and take advantage of it. I feel confident coming into tomorrow. What I can control is in my hands, but the overall scheme of things and how this turns out is already written. It's just a matter of reading the book."

Beckman said his hope is for "a long and productive day." The No. 8 qualifier said, "We've always wanted to control our own fate at this point. And the way the ladder is set, we will. We would meet Matt in the second round if we both win our first-round races. This is what we asked for, what we've worked for the last 10 months. Now we just have to do the job."

But he said he knew he can't overlook his first opponent, Tim Wilkerson: "You can't take anything for granted in this sport. These are 8,000-horsepower race cars running on nitro, and anything can happen on any run. "You have to win each round. They are all do-or-die situations for everyone fighting for this championship."

Neff, whose virtual year-long lead unraveled starting at Reading in the third of six Countdown races, was crew chief for Force's run last year. And that has boosted his confidence.

"It is going to have to be the perfect day, and anything can happen. We had a perfect day here one year ago. It is not out of the question," he said.

Still, he knew the reality of this final day of competition. He knew earning his first championship as a driver could come from a variety of scenarios, but he indicated that winning the race -- something he did at Auto Club Raceway in the Finals to net his career-first victory and close out his first driving stint -- would give him the best chance.

"We have to go win this race and hope that everyone in front of us goes out early," Neff said. "We need Hagan out in the second round, (Jack) Beckman out by the semis and Cruz (Pedregon) out in the final," said Neff. "That is what it is going to take. We are definitely going to have to have a bunch of things fall our way."

He part he can control is being more aggressive.

"We have gone down the track three out of the three runs. That is always good," he said, referring to losing the last qualifying session to rain and darkness. "We didn't run as good as we would have liked the last couple. We think we can step it up and be competitive tomorrow. As a whole I feel pretty good about our chances."

Meanwhile, Hight had his own philosophy and strategy.

"Tomorrow is a normal race day for me. I go into every race trying to win. I believe I can win this race tomorrow. We have to do whatever we can to win this race," he said.

"The way I look at it is to look back at Las Vegas. We all got beat first round, and we lost to cars that should not have beaten us. Really, the truth is we beat ourselves. That can happen to our opponents," Hight said. "If they go out there tomorrow and they try and be cautious, this track has teeth and has some grip. If they are cautious to try and get a first-round win, they could shake. Jon Capps could take out Hagan in the first round. We have to win this race.

"If the cars don't fall our way, then I want to win this race, anyway," he said. "I want my sixth win of the year and we will go into the off season on a high note. That is always the best way to do it, win the last race of the year. We have done it before and I believe we can do it again."

Boss Force said, "Neff is calm and cool, and so is Robert. I am that way when I get to the starting line. We all have a job to do. This is exciting racing for the fans. I like the Countdown, and it is a shame that Mike and Robert won so many races and you lose the points [when the NHRA resets them at the start of the Countdown]. But it is fair to everybody.

"At the end of the day we have a job cut out for us," Force said. "It is going to be tough, but Neff and Robert will be fine."

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