Early-season leaders surprise NHRA fields

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By Susan Wade

Cruz Pedregon missed the Countdown in both seasons after winning the 2008 National Hot Rod Association Funny Car championship. Even though it netted him nothing better than an 11th-place finish last year, the Toyota Solara driver started reversing his downward spiral at last September’s race at Charlotte.

He won two of the first four events in the six-race Countdown, at Charlotte and Reading, Pa., and has carried the momentum to the first two races of this season. He was top qualifier at Pomona, calif., with a track-record 4.015-second elapsed time. He followed that performance with a No. 5 start and runner-up finish to Mike Neff at Gainesville, Fla.

He’s off to his best start since the 2008 season, when he won his second series crown.

While he said he’s confident, he also said his promising start isn’t getting his mind too far ahead of the action. He never had championship vibes this early in 2008, either, he said.

In 2008, Pedregon said, “There was nothing sealed about it until — in fact, when they did all of the math, I wanted to make sure that there were no errors, because I didn’t want to be jumping up and down like a fool and have it not really be reality.

“This is a long, hard-fought– this is going to go down to the end,” the veteran said. “You have John Force back there. He’s one of those old, wily veterans that will be swinging here pretty quick.” He was quick to add “the cars that contend every year, Beckman and Hagan and some of those guys.”

His theory is simple. “I just want to be in the fight,” Pedregon said. “I just want to be in the mix. I hope that I can rely on my championship experience. It’s like the playoffs: you have to get in it and then hope you get hot at the end. But I think if we are in it, who knows? We might have something to say.”

What he had to say in Wednesday’s NHRA-sponsored teleconference was that while he had a positive weekend, he recognized he was not the frontrunner, not a dominator, at the recent Tire Kingdom Gatornationals. That driver, he indicated, was No. 3 qualifier and winner Mike Neff.

“I have to give credit to Mike. We have a pretty good car right now and we were just keeping up with those guys. The better car won in Gainesville. I want to make sure I say that, because I don’t know if we would have beat Mike with what we had pulling up there. So hat’s off to those guys,” Pedregon said.

Drawing on championship experience is one thing, but Pedregon said his mission is “to go out and just earn it now.”

Self-assurance and optimism are the underpinnings of his approach this year.

“We are confident, and I would say that carefully, because I don’t want to be overconfident,” he said. “But the battle continues every week. Every week we have a new set of conditions. Obviously Vegas coming up will be a different kind of challenge, because of altitude and we might get some heat on the track”

A rosier financial picture hasn’t hurt his attitude, but Pedregon said he isn’t going to obsess about money this season.

“Last year we were running on a pretty thin budget. This year, I think we can run as hard as we can without having the budget even being an issue,” he said. “So I’m not even going to bring up budget this year, because I feel like we have the adequate budget to go out and blow a body or two off and maybe blow a couple of motors up and not have to change the way we run the car.

“We are running the car the way we run it ,start to finish. When I’m at the track, I don’t consider the budget. I completely turn into a racer and we just try to run it the way we think we need to run it to maximize our performance,” he said.

“What I’ve learned to do is not worry about what we don’t have, [rather] just focus on our strengths — and that’s just be gritty and go out there. And, like I said, I like our chances. We have a good car. It will run with any car out there. In fact, you can look at the E.T. slips and figure that out,” he said.

Mike Neff figured out quickly, after a year’s absence from the cockpit, how to win a race and become the Funny Car points leader. Though no one doubted his driving abilities, no one much expected him to be winning this early in the season and leading the standings, either.

Much has been made about the fact he tunes the Funny Car he drives. But as the 11th-hour stand-in for pregnant Ashley Force Hood, he said being his own crew chief and directing the team keeps him from fretting too much about what to do behind the wheel.

Neff is carving his own drag-racing history with the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang that he tuned last year for boss John Force’s unprecedented 15th Funny Car championship.

With a victory at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals, the second of 22 stops on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule, Neff has a 26-point edge on second-place Matt Hagan going into the Las Vegas race.

“I believe that the worst thing a driver can do is start thinking,” Neff said. “When you get up there and psychologically [think], ‘I need to do this; I need do that,’ it seems like the more you think, the more trouble you get yourself into.

“When all I was doing was driving [in 2008 and 2009], you would have all of that time to sit around and think about it. So the one positive thing about now is that now I’ve got so much stuff going that I don’t have time to sit around and worry about the driving or my reaction times or anything like that,” he said.

“And I think that almost helps me, because when it’s time to finally get in there [in the seat], you just go and do it and doesn’t feel like I’m playing all of those mind games with myself like I used to the last time I drove,” he said. “So I think it’s helping.”

Top Fuel leader Del Worsham said he owes his early success this season to his Al-Anabi / Toyota Dragster’s track record and team manager Alan Johnson’s selection of Brian Husen as crew chief.

Worsham said he had no clue he could win his first NHRA Top Fuel race so quickly, although he had won an IHRA race at Norwalk, Ohio (the 1995 Ethanol Performs! World Nationals, beating Doug Herbert in the final round).

“The one thing I did know is that I was going to be driving a very good race car,” Worsham said of the dragster in which Larry Dixon was unbeaten in 12 final rounds on the way to his third championship. “The entire Al-Anabi team and especially Alan Johnson and hiring Brian to take over the lead of this new Top Fuel team — nothing but good things could really come out of it. And for it to happen this fast, I didn’t expect it to happen this fast, but I knew it was going to be a great team.”

Another major element in his winning equation has been Dixon.

“He’s kind of like a go-to guy for any questions I have,” Worsham said, revealing that he didn’t pepper Dixon with questions right away.

“I didn’t know what to expect; so I really didn’t ask a whole lot of questions until after I drove the car and I just got to kind of feel for myself and see what it does and what I need,” he said. “And any time I have a question, whether it’s steering related or parachute related or whatever it is, I go to Larry and he’s right there,” Worsham said, marveling at “the amount of Top Fuel experience he has, compared to me.”

Data sharing with the dragster is a developing concept for Worsham right now.

“We’re just getting started with that. This is our first season as a multi-car team in the same class,” Worsham said. “I have often asked myself, ‘What can I or what can this team bring to the Al-Anabi Top Fuel team?’ With Larry Dixon winning 12 races in the championship last season, you would think not a whole lot.”

He proved himself wrong at Gainesville.

“Hopefully, as competition gets stiffer and there are more of these teams out there, hopefully just the additional information will also help Larry’s team, along with ours, so that we can compete for a championship,” he said.

In Pro Stock, Jason Line is the early leader — just like he was through the first four races of the 2009 season — and the NHRA’s only two-time winner so far.

He and KB Racing / Summit Racing Pontiac GXP teammate Greg Anderson have combined to win five of the past eight class championships. So asked what is the key element to keeping that edge, Line replied, “I think it’s fear!”

Line’s comedic timing is a bang-on as his answer. He meant it. He didn’t ponder the merits of driver psychology versus technological advantages. He went by his instincts Wednesday during an NHRA-generated teleconference.

“You know, everybody is work being hard to win. For me, it’s nothing personal — at the end of the race, whoever wins, basically shake hands you’re done with it. But that’s what keeps us in business, winning races. That’s what we are supposed to do. That’s what we are getting paid to do,” he said. “Honestly, fear of not winning is definitely a good motivator.

“Definitely fear motivates me to keep going to work every day and do what I do. Right now, I’m dyno-ing an engine as we speak. We want to find more power and do a better job of getting up and down the racetrack.

The season is way too young to draw too many conclusions, and Line said he isn’t counting points at the moment.

“Honestly, with the way the points format is now, I don’t really give the points a lot of thought at this time of year,” he said. “Of course, you have to qualify for the Countdown, but right now it’s just about winning races and obviously every time you win, you make money, and we make Ken

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happy and make the sponsors happy and that’s what we are paid to do.

“It’s great and it feels really good,” Line said. “I’ve never done this before in my career, so it’s kind of exciting and usually I play kind of second fiddle to Greg because he’s kind of hoggish. He wins more than his share of races. So for me to do it is kind of fun.”

At the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., Line said, his goal this year is to win all the races, something he has accomplished to this point. So who’s being piggish now?

“You know, I’ve got a feeling it’s going to get a little bit tougher,” he said, recognizing reality. “But it’s still fun to be off to such a good start.

“It’s definitely a nice thing for sure. And we have always felt like we have had the team to do this, but sometimes aligning all of those things together and actually putting it together on the racetrack and talking about it are two very different things. But either way, a nice way to start the year, and hopefully we can carry that through,” Line said.

He said he and Anderson don’t take their on-track rivalry too seriously.

“It’s a tough thing, because obviously we both have egos and we both want to win,” Line said. He said that desire is “not just for ourselves, but we owe it to the rest of the team to do the best job we can, because these guys are working hard to give us good hot rods.

“It’s kind of fun, but at the same time we take it serious. As soon as it’s over, within two minutes, then it’s back to joking about it,” he said, “because whoever wins, either way, at that point, like after Gainesville, either way the team won and that’s really what’s important and that’s what keeps us going.”

That and fear.

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