Mike Neff dominated in the NHRA’s Funny Car class last year during the so-called “regular season.” However, his championship efforts imploded once the six-race Countdown to the Championship started.
If the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driver can get everything lined up correctly, he could become the first in 38 years to win an NHRA Funny Car title as both driver and crew chief.
Maybe his plan was to pour on the coals once the playoff starts, sort of take the reverse approach.
But that’s not really the case. Neff has set three goals for himself as the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour moves this weekend to Royal Purple Raceway Park at Baytown, Texas, for the O’Reilly Auto Parts Spring Nationals. And they involve winning races right now.
Neff reached the finals at the first two races this season and lost first to boss John Force at Pomona, Calif., then to John Force Racing President Robert Hight at Phoenix. His reward was to lead the standings after Phoenix and Race No. 3, at Gainesville, Fla.
One thing he wants to do is atone for his mistake in the final round last year at the Houston-area racetrack. But in the bigger scope of his plans, Neff — who slipped only to No. 2 in points — wants to win for several reasons.
First of all, he has said for weeks that he wants to earn a berth in the inaugural Traxxas Nitro Shootout. The bonus race, sponsored by JFR colleague Courtney Force’s Mustang sponsor, will be part of the Labor Day weekend’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. So far the only two qualifiers for the $100,000 top prize are Robert Hight, who has won the past four events, and John Force.
Neff said he would love to keep it “all-John Force Racing, all-Castrol, all-Ford, all the time.” But the team has “only” four cars eligible. Actually, he was being a bit silly there, for he simply wants to qualify for it.
To do that he must win, be the points leader after the Brainerd, Minn., event, and he knows it likely will take a victory or two for that to happen — or be voted in by fans. And as both crew chief and driver, he enjoys taking matters into his hands, literally and figuratively.
Second, he just wants to win at least once before the Countdown. What racer wouldn’t?
Thirdly, not to win at least once early in the season would be to waste the most consistent car in the class. With statistics in his favor, he knows he could.
His Mustang has made just one uncharacteristic pass down the 1,000-foot course in 12 competitive tries this year. His average for those 12 runs, even with a 4.959 two weeks ago at the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte, is 4.176 seconds. No one else comes close, not even points leader Hight, who has averaged 4.369 seconds in 16 race-day runs.
To do that and fulfill his fourth reason for wanting to win soon, Neff wants to remember to stay healthy physically during race day.
Last year, he got over-eager at the starting line and disqualified himself with a red-light foul. Looking back, he realized he let the notorious Houston humidity and his own inattention to his body’s needs decide his results.
“I just didn’t take care of my physical self. I got to the final, and my brain was just not all there. I just wore down and made a mistake. That’s the long and short of it,” Neff said. “I asked myself, ‘Why did I do that?’ I realized I hadn’t eaten anything, and then I got dehydrated and chugged some water. Then I popped some aspirin.”
This time Mike doesn’t want to be like Mike — not the Mike of the 2011 Houston final, anyway.
This year he’s wiser and even more focused.
So far no one — though Jack Beckman, Johnny Gray, and Cruz Pedregon have taken decent stabs at it — has broken the JFR chokehold on the Funny Car class. So far — with Hight No. 1 in the standings and Neff No. 2 and John Force No. 5 — Neff has gotten his “all-John Force Racing, all-Castrol, all-Ford, all the time” wish.
Now Neff wants to be a bigger part of that equation.