Funny car playoff fight comes down to Indy

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Cruz Pedregon started this season in shiny new wheels, literally, figuring he would defend his Funny Car championship in style. He couldn't have imagined that seven months later, that new-car smell would be long gone and the chance to repeat could be in danger. Yet that's exactly what the veteran is facing this weekend at the 55th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the oldest and most prestigious event on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing season. The "Big Go" at O'Reilly Raceway Park is the last chance for drivers to qualify for the six-race Countdown to 1 playoffs, and Pedregon is clinging to the 10th and final spot. No other professional class has its defending champion in such peril: Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are all locked into the Countdown, with multiple event wins along the way. Funny Car has marquee names on the bubble, however, and Pedregon's not the only surprise.

Timing is everything

Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Race Schedule
  • Friday: 5:30 p.m. (qualifying 1)
  • Saturday: Noon (qualifying 2), 5:45 p.m. (qualifying 3)
  • Sunday: 11:30 a.m. (qualifying 4), 2:30 p.m. (qualifying 5)
  • Monday: 11 a.m. (race)

    All times ET
  • Thirty-one points behind in 11th place is Matt Hagan, a rookie in the powerful Don Schumacher Racing stable. That could be considered a mild surprise based on his team, but that's nothing compared to who sits seven points behind him and 38 behind Pedregon — Robert Hight, once the top shoe at John Force Racing. There are closer Countdown battles to watch this weekend — the other three classes' 10th-place drivers are clinging to leads of nine or fewer points — but none with as many plot twists as Funny Car. "What's racing without a little drama, without a little high stakes action?" Pedregon asks, though realizing it's much healthier for the championship drama to begin in two weeks at Charlotte, N.C. The 45-year-old California native now living just down the road from ORP in Brownsburg, Ind., put himself in trouble right from the start of the season in February, losing in the first round at Pomona, Calif. Then Phoenix. Then Gainesville, Fla. Only once all season has he been higher than 10th in the standings, a mid-June respite in ninth, with eight first-round losses and zero final-round showings. "The mindset is to always do better, always try to outdo what you did last year, when the reality is that same mindset can get you in trouble," Pedregon said. "We went out there with a brand new car, a car that wasn't the same car, literally and figuratively. We lost our consistency, got behind early and we just never seemed to recover from that. It was almost like things really had to go bad before putting a finger on things to make it better." That meant ditching the new car a third of the way into the season in favor of the car that closed last year's title run with three consecutive wins, then changing the fuel system and almost anything else tuner Rahn Tobler could get his hands on. The round wins haven't come flowing back (his last semifinal appearance was eight races ago at Chicago), but Pedregon swears his Advance Auto Parts Toyota is on the brink. At the very least it has handled its Countdown responsibilities in recent weeks, with two first-round wins over closest-pursuer Hagan. Hagan, a Virginia cattle rancher when not in the nitromethane world, has watched a playoff berth slip away over the second half of the season. He was a finalist earlier this year at Las Vegas, losing to second-in-points teammate Ron Capps, but not long after that began sliding down the standings. First-round losses in nine of the last 10 races will do that. "There's been a lot of races that have been frustrating, a lot of missed opportunities for us," said Hagan, 26. "You always forget the rounds you win, you never forget the rounds you lose." Hagan and crew chief Tommy DeLago are trying to take as much information from Capps' car for Indy, the frequent game plan for multi-car teams trying to pull a straggler through. That is, except for John Force Racing this season. Team owner and 14-time champion Force, already locked into the Countdown in eighth place, didn't give Hight data — he gave Hight his car. In a move that left competitors in various stages of disbelief, from scratching their heads to running for the rule books, Hight and Force swapped cars prior to the last race at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa. The drivers kept their respective fire suits and fiberglass, so as not to confuse fans used to seeing Hight in Auto Club Mustang colors and Force in his familiar Castrol GTX livery, but everything else was different including crew chiefs. "John gets in my car and goes down the track five runs in a row at Maple Grove (two in qualifying plus a semifinals appearance) and you get to wondering, is it me?" Hight said. "When you're struggling you end up looking and trying and creating things in your own head that aren't true." Regrouping with Force's longtime championship right-hand man Austin Coil, Hight saw a glimmer of hope at Reading, qualifying fourth and winning one round before losing to eventual winner Bob Tasca III. That's what has passed for a fair weekend this season, a far cry from 2007-08 when Hight was a championship contender and regular winner. This is the first year in his five-year career he has failed to lead the points at some time during the year. "He was my best car, I don't know what happened," Force said. "I had to make the swap, I had to do something." Force for a while considered putting Hight in the best JFR car this season — the Mustang driven by Ashley Force Hood, third in points. But he was talked out of tinkering with a title contender, and instead made the switch after he locked into the playoffs two races ago at Brainerd, Minn. And, Force laughs, it wasn't just a ploy to drive Hight's car this weekend, since Hight is the defending U.S. Nationals champion and Force failed to qualify last year. Other Funny Car teams didn't find the switch as amusing, taking exception with Hight using test time last week at ORP (alleging that the switch allowed a way for JFR to skirt NHRA testing limits; NHRA deemed Hight's additional time in another car legal) and just the principle of a driver getting to possibly ride a different horse into the season-ending rodeo. "It's one of those things where you go back through and say, 'should this really be happening?' I was a little upset, since we're fighting just as hard as anybody," Hagan said. "Unfortunately I'm a bigger guy, so I wouldn't have fit in Capps' car to do something like that. That's not how we interpreted the rules at the beginning of the year." Whether it's someone else's car, an old car, whatever — it's three drivers for one spot now, to be determined at the biggest race of the year.

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