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Crew chief Neff rescues driver Neff at Indianapolis

CLERMONT, Ind. -- The past nine months have brought undeniably dramatic change to Ashley Force Hood, the two-time Funny Car winner of the National Hot Rod Association's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. She understandably was absent from this year's edition, unable to challenge for three in a row. She gave birth in late August to son Jacob John Hood. So clearly her life has changed.

Her racing teammate Mike Neff proved Monday at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis that he, too, has transformed. Called back to the cockpit during Force Hood's maternity leave less than a month before the season-opener, Neff let the capable crew chief side of him rule the doubting driver side of him. And that's how he seems the most comfortable and how he seems most effective.

He carried on the John Force Racing tradition at the Labor Day classic, beating fellow Ford Mustang driver Bob Tasca III in the final round. That gave JFR its seventh Indianapolis triumph in the past 10 years.

So even when it appears John Force Racing isn't dominating, it still is.


Neff, who has led the points for all but the first of the 16 so-called "regular-season" races and had won four of seven final-round appearances before the U.S. Nationals, thought he had little chance of winning Monday. After all, Neff, who serves as his own crew chief, hadn't gotten a fifth special-edition pewter Wally statue in four whole races. And he began to question himself publicly and show his vulnerability, saying Sunday after qualifying a mediocre ninth, "We tried something. It didn't work. This is the big one. I don't want to be bumbling around here."

He hardly bumbled Monday, when it all counted. He advanced past teammate Robert Hight, upset-minded Jeff Arend (who had knocked off dominant top qualifier Cruz Pedregon in the first round of eliminations), and dangerous Matt Hagan.

"I wasn't feeling very confident coming in here today. We struggled the last four races, didn't do too well, qualified ninth, not really even in the ballgame until this morning against Robert," Neff said. "We said, 'Well, we don't have anything to lose. If we lose, it's our teammate. So let's just take a shot at it. It put us where we needed to be."

He was back in the winners circle after what seemed like an eternity -- to him. With gaudy statistics most racers, even the seasoned ones, only fantasize about, Neff will enter the Countdown with a 35-11 elimination round-win record, an advantageous 30-point margin over the No. 2 driver as the Countdown begins next weekend, and still one of the baddest hot rods in the Funny Car class. His Castrol GTX Ford Mustang is the one he tuned for John Force to win his 15th series championship last year.

And that high standard is what has changed Neff. He always has had it. But when he won the first of his class-best five races, in March at Florida's Gatornationals in Gainesville, Neff spoke like a driver. Barely able to hold the trophy because of exhaustion, he shared the double-duty perspective and the effect it has on a driver -- emphasizing that although his calling is as a crew chief, he wanted to be considered an outstanding driver, too.

(Much has been made of Neff's dual roles this year in Force Hood's hiatus, and it certainly is notable. But Tim Wilkerson, another who made the Countdown field, wears three hats as owner, tuner, and driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang -- and occasionally is crew chief for part-time racer son Dan Wilkerson. Jim Head has driven and tuned his own car for years, as well. To some extent, the independent Pedregon brothers, Tony and Cruz, handle set-up calls on their Funny Cars. It's not a totally uncommon situation in this class or any of the other classes.)

However, at Indianapolis Monday, he spoke like a crew chief who drives rather than a driver who is his own crew chief.

"I can deal with not going to the finals," Neff said after claiming the $100,000 winner's share of the $1.1 million-plus event purse. "It's not necessarily about that. We weren't performing well [enough] to win the last four races. That's what bothers me. As long as we're competitive and we have a legitimate chance to win, I'm OK with that.

"But it's when you just can't get it to go down the track and you're not even competitive and these guys are whipping all over you. It's not about the final round. It's about being competitive. And you don't want to do good all the way up to the Countdown and then suck. You just hope that this Countdown that you peak at the right time."

He said boss Force most likely is "relieved" with the Indianapolis triumph. Said Neff, "All three of us [himself, Hight, Force], we haven't been looking too good, any of us. Then to qualify 7-8-9, it wasn't looking real promising for us. So for one of us to get out of here with a win, I'm sure he was as relieved as I was."

This marked the first time Neff has won as a driver and as a crew chief. He was a crew member for Cory McClenathan and Cruz Pedregon when they each won one of their multiple U.S. Nationals Wally trophies. And it was the 15th time in 16 races this season that a Ford Mustang Funny Car has appeared in the final round.


In addition to Force Hood's 2009-2010 U.S. Nationals victories and Hight's in 2008, Gary Densham gave the team the 2004 victory. John Force was the 2002 winner, with the most recent of his four victroies here. (Mike Ashley interrupted the JFR streak in 2007. Del Worsham, Monday's Top Fuel runner-up, won in 2005, and Tim Wilkerson was the 2003 winner.)

For the record, Neff used a 4.068-second, 314.61-mph performance on the 1,000-foot course to outshine Tasca's engine-wrecking 4.147, 278.00 run. But the numbers aren't what made the real difference. It was that professional pride in preparing the car.

Whether he's driver-crew chef or crew chief-driver -- and he said, "If I could only do one, it would be crew chief" -- Neff more than ever showed his skill Monday. While Labor Day found many people barbecuing and tending back-to-school chores, Neff skewered and grilled his opponents and took the Funny Car class to school once again.

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