Last year, Mike Neff inexplicably “lost the handle” on the tune-up that had carried his Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang to the regular season championship in the NHRA’s Full Throttle Series.
Unfortunately, the timing of such a stumble could not have been any worse. After piling up a 215-point lead in the first 16 races and winning five times, the 45-year-old with the quiet demeanor and the Hollywood good looks saw everything slip away in the six-race Countdown to 1 NHRA playoffs.
As a result, this year has been all about getting ready for “crunch time,” determining what works and what doesn’t, analyzing graphs and charts and stockpiling enough proven parts to get through as many as 48 rounds of playoff racing.
Drag racing is all about making adjustments,” Neff said as he prepared for this week’s 31st annual Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, the next-to-last race before the points are adjusted in a system designed to add more drama to the championship chase.
“Whether it’s Brainerd or Charlotte or Vegas, the track may be the same but the conditions that you have to deal with are never the same,” said the man who, as the driver and crew chief on the Castrol Ford, is trying this year to become the first in 37 seasons to win an NHRA Funny Car title in that dual capacity.
“We’ve had a good car all year and I feel good about our chances this week,” said the former motocross racer and off-road truck mechanic, “but I really feel a lot better about the Countdown. We learned from what happened last year (when he slipped from first to fifth in the final order) and we made a new plan.
“We’ve been kinda racing under the radar, trying different things,” he said. “Some of them have worked and some of them haven’t. Like everybody, we’ve been fighting some clutch issues but when they reshuffle the points after Indy (and the Labor Day Mac Tools U.S. Nationals), I think we’ll be ready to go.”
Instead of pushing himself and his resources to the absolute limit every week, Neff has opted this year for a more measured approach to winning his first driving championship and John Force Racing’s 18th in the last 23 years.
“We’re just trying to improve in areas where we might have been a little weaker last year,” said the two-time championship-winning Funny Car crew chief (2005 with Gary Scelzi and 2010 with John Force). “Nobody accumulated more points than we did last year but, like it or not, (the championship is) just based off six races and you have to try and plan so your program is strongest in those last six races.”
Although he hasn’t been as dominant as he was a year ago when he went to nine final rounds, Neff has kept himself very much in the middle of the championship conversation with wins at Houston, Texas, and Norwalk, Ohio.
As a result, even though he suffered a rare qualifying failure at Atlanta, he will clinch a playoff spot simply by making a qualifying attempt this weekend. His goal was to finish the regular season somewhere among the Top 5, which now is virtually certain.
That means that he would start the playoffs no more than three rounds (60 points) behind teammate Robert “Top Gun” Hight or whomever winds up No. 1. Regardless, he will be far better prepared for the blitz that is the playoffs than he was a year ago.
“The tricky thing about racing is sometimes it just doesn’t work the way you want it to,” Neff observed. “The thing is, if it was easy, everybody’d be winning.”