Cruz Pedregon sets track record in FC

MORRISON, Colo. -- As his own crew chief and driver, Mike Neff is in a novel position every time he floors the gas pedal in the Funny Car dragster he races under the John Force team banner.

"It's a little unique, but I can only be mad at myself if it doesn't go right," Neff said Friday.

There's been no need, especially lately, for Neff -- the crew chief -- to chew out Neff -- the driver. A little more than midway through the NHRA season, Neff has racked up a commanding lead in the division, reaching seven final rounds with four wins, including the last two events at Joliet, Ill., and Norwalk, Ohio.

His 172-point margin, over Jack Beckman in second, is the biggest among the four racing categories in the NHRA's Full Throttle Drag Racing series.

On Friday, in provisional qualifying at the NHRA Mopar Mile High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, Neff was the fourth-fastest over the 1,000-foot course, covering the distance in 4.204 seconds and reaching a top speed of 302.21 mph in his Ford Mustang.

Cruz Pedregon of Brownsburg, Ind., was the top provisional qualifier, covering the distance in 4.095 seconds and reaching a speed of 307.51 mph in his Toyota Camry in his second run, a Bandimere track record for the Funny Car division.

"That is definitely the run of my career, bar none," said Pedregon, a 20-year race veteran. "But our main objective is to win Sunday."

The top 16 from qualifying rounds Friday and Saturday for the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle divisions advance to Sunday's elimination rounds.

Neff remains on course this season to become the first in the modern era to win a Funny Car title as both his own crew chief and driver. The last to do so was Shirl Greer in 1974 under a points system that included both NHRA national and regional races. The current format, tabulating points only from national events, was implemented in 1984.

"It would be amazing if somehow we were able to accomplish that, but that's a long ways away and I don't even think about it at this point," Neff said. "We've got 11 more races to go and we'll see where we're at when it's all over."

Eddie Krawiec of Brownsburg, Ind., was the top provisional qualifier Friday in the Pro Stock motorcycle category, covering the straight-line, quarter-mile course in 7.311 seconds and reaching a top speed of 181.96 mph on a Harley-Davidson. Mike Edwards of Coweta, Okla., finished first in Pro Stock qualifying, going 196.50 mph and covering the quarter-mile in 6.989 seconds in a Pontiac GXP.

Among Top Fuel dragsters, Del Worsham of Chino Hills finished as the top provisional qualifier, hitting 314.53 mph and covering the 1,000-foot course in 3.933 seconds in his Hadman engine.

After a long climb to the top as a crew chief, Neff, 44, of Indianapolis, helped driver Gary Scelzi win the 2005 Funny Car championship for the Don Schumacher team. Scelzi's win ended a 12-year run by Force, who soon found himself offering Neff the chance to join his team as a driver and as a chief mechanic.

Force said Neff had proven he was a championship-caliber crew chief and he had a feeling that his intimacy with the pits as well as his competitive history as a motocross racer in high school would help him make the transition to the speedway.

Besides, Force added, "I thought he was going to be a pain in my side for years."

Better that they were on the same team, Force said with a smile.

Neff said he had thought about driving before but never really considered it realistic until Force gave him the chance to do it.

"I never thought it would be a possibility," Neff said. "I wasn't running around every day fantasizing about it."

Yet, he jumped at the opportunity to race.

"It was just the chance of a lifetime," Neff said. "After working on 'em for all those years and doing everything on them, the only thing I hadn't done pretty much was driving. To have that opportunity was kind of the last piece of the puzzle and something I just couldn't pass up."

The transition has gone remarkably well. Neff, a native of Hemet, Calif., was the NHRA's Rookie of the Year in 2008 and the following year, he became the seventh different driver to win a Funny Car race in a Force racing team Ford Mustang.

When tough economic times and a reduction in sponsorship money led Force to cut his racing fleet from four to three cars, Neff returned to serve as a crew chief for Force, who went on to win the 2010 championship.

He resumed driving this season when Force's Funny Car-driving daughter, Ashley Force Hood, had to take this season off because of her pregnancy.

Force moved to his daughter's car and Neff took over the highly charged, modified Mustang that Force drove to his last title last season. The dragsters are powered by Ford Boss 500 cubic inch engines generating between 8,000 and 9,000 horsepower.

"He knows that car better than anybody," Force said.

There's no arguing with the results so far from Neff, the crew chief or driver, either.