The fight for NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship Funny Car title will, as is customary, go down to the final race of the year. Coming into the Auto Club NHRA Finals on Auto Club Raceway at Pomona’s dragstrip, John Force Racing’s (JFR) Robert Hight has a tenuous, 46-point lead over Jack Beckman and 56 points in hand over Matt Hagan, both racing for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR). Sixteen-time champion John Force is in fourth place, lagging his son-in-law and JFR company president Hight by 72 points.
That both of these teams would have players firmly in the hunt for this world championship should come as no surprise; after all, they’ve taken control of title chases for years. At this time, JFR is the leader with 19 Funny Car titles and a single Top Fuel championship for Brittany Force in 2017. Don Schumacher-owned teams have amassed 18 titles overall in both Top Fuel and Funny Car nitro classes and in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category.
“This year,” Hight acknowledged, “it’s a lot like 2017 and I’m going in as the leader.” He won a second world championship in Funny Car on the final race day of the 24-contest season. The driver of the Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS knows, “It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s exciting and I can’t wait. It doesn’t get better than a shot at winning a championship at your home track in front of your sponsors. This is what it’s all about and we’re not going to change how we race.”
Hight’s co-crew chiefs, Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham, have long been known for fence swings each time they enter a start-line’s water box. “We’ll go into Pomona swinging and be aggressive,” their driver confirmed.
In 2018, every single champion was crowned at the season finale and each of the titleholders won the race en route to gaining their titles (Steve Torrence in Top Fuel, J.R. Todd in Funny Car, Tanner Gray for Pro Stock and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle). Pomona marks the end of a six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff series that has seen race-by-race changes in all four categories.
At the close of the first race in Reading, PA, it was DSR’s Beckman atop the championship standings, having won for the first time since Brainerd a year earlier. While the driver of Doug Chandler’s Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat has been in contention for his second Funny Car championship throughout the year, it took Reading to bring him to the winner’s circle. Tuned by Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen, both former JFR stalwarts, Beckman has amassed a series of fine finishes in the Countdown – despite a first-round departure at the second, Gateway round – and this tuning duo looks ready to take that momentum to their driver’s home track in Pomona.
Beckman, a Super Comp champion in 2003 as well as 2012’s Flopper titleholder, knows the pressure can be pretty intense in the final race of the year. “When we get into Pomona,” he said, “we have to do our best to optimize points, starting with Q1” on Friday afternoon. “I think we’ve got a car that’s clearly capable of doing that. We’ve been No. 1 qualifier three times in the last six events. I think, right now, we’re clearly a front-runner to contend for the championship, not just in our points position but in our performance lately.”
He knows he has to do his job to make the championship a possibility. “If we get another opportunity like we had in Vegas, where we are paired up with (Robert) Hight early, we get a chance to control our own destiny. If we win the race and Robert is not in the final next to us, we win the championship,” helped by the points-and-a-half offered in this final race of the year. “I’m not looking at Matt (Hagan) or John Force behind us because we want to finish first; we’re not trying to defend the second-place position.”
Beckman may not be using his rearview mirror, but Matt Hagan, his teammate and the winner of the past two Countdown contests, definitely has his eyes squarely on Beckman and Hight ahead of him. Coming into the Countdown with No. 6 seeding, Hagan suffered a second-round loss in the opening race, followed by a first-round exit at Gateway two weeks later. While the Virginia cattle farmer and his team, led by Dickie Venables, knew they’d gotten into a bit of a rut, they responded in race No. 3 with a semifinal result in Charlotte and then won at Dallas and Las Vegas.
“Winning Dallas was definitely the shot in the arm we needed,” Hagan confirmed. “You have to have that ‘never give up’ mentality. We struggled at the beginning, but it’s one of those things where the points are so close once they’re reset that it really only takes a race or two go get back in there. The only thing we can do is control our own destiny: do the best job we can and let the points fall where they may.”
Hagan won the Funny Car title in 2011 and repeated, with Venables at the helm, in 2014. There are so many variables involved in taking a title that each one, Hagan says, is special. “For me, it’s important that I keep the team happy,” as they pursue a third title. “It’s just a cool thing when you have a group of 10 guys, and you all share one common goal. It takes everyone pulling their weight to achieve that goal. We’ve won four races so far this year, but winning a fifth race and the championship would be a great way to start us off next year.”
Hagan’s Mopar-sponsored team is acknowledged as the squad that introduces new technology to the four-member DSR Funny Car group (2016 champ Ron Capps is currently sixth and Tommy Johnson Jr. holds eighth-place points). They were the first to introduce the SRT Hellcat body and this year introduced the Hellcat Widebody to NHRA race fans. To take the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody to the title would be quite an accomplishment.
“When you go into Pomona in first, that’s a great feeling, but unless you have a huge points lead, you really can’t breathe easy until you’re standing on the stage holding the big trophy, especially now with it being points-and-a-half. I’m just happy we’re in the position where we’re still in the running and have a legitimate shot at coming out on top.”
It’s been a banner year for John Force, who earned his 150th and 151st victories in quick succession at Seattle and Indy this year. The 16-time champion, who went through a rough period the past few seasons, winning just one or two contests where he’s been accustomed to hoisting Wally winner’s trophies at a rapid clip, has been driving like a man half his 70-year age in the 24-race NHRA Funny Car season. As teams have been forced to revert back from the tough-to-handle laid-back headers of recent years, it’s been an adjustment for the Hall of Fame racer.
In a career that began in 1978, John Force has so many milestones they’re difficult to believe, much less count. And here he is, ready to take a 17th national title at his home track of Pomona and. perhaps, garner a 152nd victory in the race as he does so. Co-crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Daniel Hood have Force’s hot rod running as well as their driver can handle and, with their quiet confidence the antithesis of Force’s daily bluster, the duo has their driver and his PEAK Chevy Camaro SS ready to take on the challenge of No. 17.
“There’s points and a half at Pomona so we’ll see how that goes,” the legend said as he prepared for the upcoming contest. “This PEAK Chevy is a fast car. Robert is still in the points lead and we’ll all be ready for Pomona,” he confirmed.
It would take some big upsets for the four drivers at the top of the standings to falter, but there are six others waiting in the wings should that occur. Privateer Bob Tasca III is fifth in his Ford Shelby Mustang (-104), Capps holds 2334 sixth-place points (-160) with his DSR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, while 2018 champ J.R. Todd’s Toyota Camry from Kalitta Motorsports is seventh and 182 points behind Hight. DSR’s Johnson Jr. (188), Shawn Langdon from Kalitta Motorsports (-220) and privateer Tim Wilkerson, also driving a Ford Shelby Mustang, round out the top 10.
This weekend’s weather in Southern California won’t disappoint the Funny Car racers and fans who will gather to see who ends up atop the standings. Expect warm temps ranging from the mid-70s on Friday to the mid-80s through the weekend, accompanied by cool evenings. Qualifying on both Friday and Saturday take place at midday and mid-to-late afternoons, with final eliminations beginning Sunday morning at 11am.