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Funny Car free-for-all set for Finals at Pomona


The brain trust that gave John Force 15 overall championships and 11 victories in 22 races this season among him and his two hired drivers couldn't help Mike Neff or Robert Hight.

Not even Don Schumacher's shelves of quality parts could help Matt Hagan or Jack Beckman.

Not even having a decent reaction-time reputation could help Cruz Pedregon.

Not even channeling the St. Louis Cardinals, baseball's late-rally marvels, could help.

Nobody could stop Ron Capps from winning Sunday's Big O Tires Nationals final at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

And nobody could avoid a final-weekend scramble Nov. 10-13 at the NHRA Finals at Pomona for the 2011 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Funny Car.

Capps got back into the championship chase as a long shot. He'll battle Don Schumacher Racing mates Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman, John Force Racing's Mike Neff and Robert Hight, and independent owner-driver Cruz Pedregon.

Hagan regained the lead, replacing, and is a single point ahead of him. Only 72 points separate Hagan and sixth-place Capps.

No. 3 Pedregon improved to third place and trails Beckman by eight points and Hagan by 26. Neff is 34 points off Hagan's pace. Darkhorses Hight and Capps are a point apart, 71 and 72 points back in fifth and sixth.

"It's coming down to the last day and we'll be ready. It's a dog fight out there, and we're happy to be in it," Hagan said.

Hagan's Die Hard Dodge Charger had a catastrophic mechanical failure in his monster quarterfinal match-up Sunday against Pedregon and grenaded early in the run. The DSR racer had fought Force to the final day of last season and lost his lead and lost out on the championship after much pre-race angst -- and wore the weight of the drag-racing world for a little while afterward. But this setback he took in more comfortable stride.

"We had a parts failure, which happens. It was nobody's fault," Hagan said. "I have a lot of confidence in my guys. We've been here before, and we know what to do and what's going to happen. This is the fourth consecutive race where we could have put some distance between us and the field, but the same thing can be said by everyone in the top group.

"There's no pressure. It will be what it will be. I'm having fun," he said. "I didn't win the race, which is disappointing, but we got out of the first round, which some other guys didn't do, and we’ll be back in two weeks to take a shot at the championship."

Like Hagan, Beckman made it no farther than Round 2 at Las Vegas. But that set the table for a drag-racing feast that he's approaching with gluttonous gusto.

"The top three drivers will be less than two rounds apart [and] the top six, less than four.

If you could script it and write a book, this is how you would want it to come out," Beckman said.

"The only difference with a book [is] you can turn to the end to find out how it comes out. In our case, you have to stay with it to the end. This is why the Funny Car category is one of the most popular for so many drag-racing fans. For the drivers, the pursuit is great. That's what we signed up for," the driver of the Valvoline NextGen/Aaron's Dream Machine Dodge Charger said.

(Beckman lost to Capps, who said, "It was an emotional race with Jack. Again, I have to commend Don Schumacher, who makes sure we race straight up at DSR. There are no team orders in our camp. You have to race and earn your place."

The two contenders losing in the opening round were Neff and Hight.

Hight and his crew chief Jimmy Prock said they thought they had fixed what was troubling their Auto Club Ford Mustang. But they suffered a setback when Hight lost traction against Tony Pedregon, whose engine exploded at the finish line to heighten the drama.


"That caught me a little bit off-guard. The gremlin's back," Hight said. But the avid baseball fan said, referring to the come-from-behind World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, "It's not over till it's over. Look at the Cardinals in Game 6. They never gave up, and they never quit digging. I hope my teammates do their jobs."

They couldn't help him -- or themselves.

Neff, who led the standings for most of the season, smoked the tires on his Castrol GTX Mustang and lost to Paul Lee, and John Force fell to Beckman, taking an unprecedented sixth consecutive first-round loss.


The Castrol GTX Mustang crew chief-driver said, "That was a tough loss. I am not going to let one round loss ruin my season. We have won five races this season, and we are still in this championship chase. No one here is hanging their heads. John (Force) just had a team meeting telling us he was proud of everyone in the organization and I believe that. We made all the right calls.

"Our Castrol GTX Ford Mustang ran great all weekend and that is what you want to take away. We aren’t looking for problems. I know what I need to do," Neff said. "Sure, we will need some help these next couple of rounds. We got some help from some of the guys behind us, and we have a manageable deficit. We will be ready for Pomona, and that will be an exciting race."

After both Beckman and Hagan won in the opening round, Hagan maintained his one-point lead. But neither could capitalize in the second round. When No. 1 qualifier Capps sidelined DSR mate Beckman, he handed Hagan a tailor-made opportunity to extend his points lead significantly.

However, Hagan's car lost traction right after he stood on the gas, and all of a sudden Pedregon -- who entered this event in fourth place and has been lurking in the top five all season -- vaulted to prominence again, to No. 3.


Capps is no immediate threat but with this victory, his second of the year, he said, "It's cool heading into Thursday in Pomona having even a chance for the championship. It's a long shot, but Tim now knows this car. Besides, he is so good, and the weather in Pomona can be cool. So he might be able to go for a record." A national elapsed-time record is worth 20 bonus points.

"And, Capps said, "who knows what could happen?"

With a six drivers vying for the crown -- and for four of them it would be a first-time title -- that's reason enough to show up at Pomona, where the season began.

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