Mike Neff, who couldn’t win when his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang was the picture of performance consistency this season, found out at Sunday’s 25th anniversary running of the O’Reilly Spring Nationals that ugly isn’t that awful, especially if it ultimately lands you in the winners’ circle.
Neff, who was dominant at this race a year ago before fouling out in the final round, was anything but dominant this time around.
On a bizarre race day that saw teammate Robert Hight’s four-race win streak come to an end, the former off-road truck mechanic and two-time World Championship-winning crew chief was all over the performance landscape at Royal Purple Raceway.
Last year, he reached the Houston finals with times of 4.132, 4.122 and 4.133 seconds. This season, he had been almost monotonously consistent with an average time, coming in to the season’s sixth race, of 4.176 seconds. His nine of his 12 competitive 1,000 foot runs were completed in fewer than 4.100 seconds.
So much for consistency.
On Sunday, his quickest run was 4.176. He also won in 4.495 seconds, 4.199 seconds and 4.239 seconds, ultimately stopping Ron Capps to extend Ford Racing’s season-opening win streak to six.
“I think anyone will tell you there is a lot of luck involved in winning these races,” Neff said. “Sometimes it’s just your day and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes little things can derail you from winning. Anything can happen. That’s racing. That is what’s exciting about NHRA drag racing. You can’t make it up in the next turn. You get one shot at it. You either get it right or catch a break or it’s over with. You have to do it four times in one day
The win, Neff’s seventh as a driver, earned him a guaranteed starting spot in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, a Funny Car bonus race to be contested Sept. 2 at Indianapolis, Ind., for a $100,000 top prize. He is the third Funny Car driver to qualify, joining teammates Hight and John Force.
“The whole weekend was one-of-a-kind,” he said. “Not getting qualified until the last session was definitely a nail-biter and racing Jim Head in the first round, the(starting signal) seemed so long that my foot just went (down on the throttle).
“Fortunately, I never let go of the brake,” he said. “Also, I was staged so shallow that when (the car) lunged a little, it didn’t go red. I hit (the throttle) again and I looked down and I saw the green light. That was just a total mistake. I caught a break there.”
“Just going down the track was definitely what we were trying to do the next two runs,” said the man who as both the driver and crew chief on the Castrol Ford is trying to become the first in 38 years to win a Funny Car championship in that dual capacity.
“The track was hot, but in the final, I caught another break against Capps,” he continued. “He was out in front of me. He was on a good run (but) something happened to him. I don’t feel good about winning like that. I like to be able to run quick in all the sessions. Today, I definitely backed my way into it. It wasn’t the way we like to do it, but we’ll take it. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.”
Neff acknowledged that he felt the pressure once Hight was eliminated.
“The business we’re in is pressure,” he said. “There are a lot of high expectations, especially when you’re on a top team like John Force’s team. John Force Racing is built on winning. There is pressure there, but there is no pressure coming from John Force. He is our biggest cheerleader and supporter. Nobody beats anybody up if they make mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Hight’s bid for a record-tying fifth straight NHRA tour victory ended in the semifinals when his Auto Club Ford Mustang shook at spun the tires against Capps and the NAPA Dodge.
Despite the loss, the 42-year-old President of JFR, will move on to Atlanta Dragway for this week’s 32nd annual Summit Southern Nationals with a 108-point lead over Neff; a 218-point advantage over Capps.
“When you are on a streak like that you start to get superstitious,” Hight said. “You start thinking, ‘I have to do this because I did it last race.’ You get on an airplane and you think, ‘I have to sit on the right side because I did that last week and the week before.’
“The truth is, none of that really matters. It is all silly stuff. What really gets you here is hard work. The eight guys, plus (crew chief) Jimmy Prock and (assistant crew chief) Eric Lane, working on this team made this happen (and) I’m proud that I did my share along the way.
“It was quite a ride. To have the kind of success we had over those months is awesome. This is just the beginning of the season. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed (that) we didn’t tie the all-time record but it’s pretty cool having Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Force and even Cruz Pedregon, all those guys, say the nice things they did to the media leading up to this race.
“Those guys gave us all a lot of credit for what we did in this era. We’ll just move onto Atlanta and start another streak.
“It is huge that we won races in every condition,” said the former world class marksman. “Jimmy and Eric have been great. Eric Lane has stepped up to really help Jimmy. He has been giving Jimmy great support and firm answers. Lanny Miglizzi has been a big part, too.
“I have a lot of confidence since I feel we can go to any track under any conditions and go rounds,” Hight said. “I also got a lot of confidence from this streak, because getting wins like Charlotte and getting as far as we did here, that is a lot of pressure.
“People can say they don’t think about it, but you do. Every run you have to focus and do your job, but it is still in the back of your mind. It adds pressure and that is the kind of pressure you will have at the end of the season in the Countdown,” said the 27-time tour winner. “We all did our jobs under that pressure. That just gives you more confidence at the end.”
“It was a good run for us,” Prock said of the streak. “We’ve never won that many rounds in a row, so it was good. It is disappointing to see it end. We’ll have to try and start another streak.”
As for his decision to stay in the less preferred right lane against Capps, Prock said “our stuff looked good over there. We had just made a good run over there in the second round and I didn’t want to change it. I made a little adjustment and I didn’t make one other that I should have. That bit us. I kind of had a feeling about what happened before I got back to the pits.”
Hight topped fellow Ford driver Bob Tasca III and his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Funny Car in the second round. The top-qualifying Ford also ran well on the weekend.
"It was a good old drag race," Tasca said. "I had a couple on the tree, he had a couple on the track and that was the difference at the line. When you lose in the second round, and you would have beat every other driver, you just raced the wrong guy at the wrong time."
“Robert put together a heck of a string,” Neff said. “That was impressive for that Auto Club team. Winning four races and getting to the semis today is hard to do. It’s hard in the Funny Cars or in any of the classes. I give them a lot of credit. I’m just glad I could keep the streak going for Ford and John Force Racing.”
It also was a good day for Courtney Force who won her first head-to-head battle with fellow Funny Car rookie Alexis Dejoria before dropping a narrow decision to Capps, 4.175 to the Dodge drivers 4.165. That kept the 23-year-old in the Top 10 in points and in the unofficial lead in the 2012 Rookie of the Year competition.
“Today went really well,” Courtney said. “I’m proud of my team. We had a good car this weekend. Going up in the first round we knew we had a tough competitor in Alexis, (but) we pulled it together.
“We ended up running a 4.12 against her and getting that win light. (The second round) was a close race. We ran a 4.17 to a 4.16 for Ron Capps. I saw him right out my window. I was really holding on and hoping for that win light. We didn’t get it this time, but we’ll come after them again next weekend in Atlanta.” The only Ford that failed to advance Sunday was the Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Mustang driven by 15-time series champion John Force, which ran afoul of Bob Tasca III’s Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby Mustang in round one.
Nevertheless, Force immediately slid into his role as car owner and cheerleader.
“Mike Neff was overdue for a win,” Force said. “Robert? He won four straight (and) not too many have ever done that. That doesn’t mean he can’t come back and go for five straight. It happens. I’ve been there.
“It was exciting for the fans today,” Force continued, “especially with the two young girls going against each other. That was exciting for me to watch. It was cool because DeJoria’s dad (John Paul DeJoria) was out there rooting his kid on just like my wife and I were rooting our kid on.
“My car is struggling, but we’re still in the Top 10 and we’ll get better.”