John Force in big fight to overtake Matt Hagan for record 17th NHRA Funny Car championship

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Drag racing fans will be keyed in to the razor-thin Funny Car championship battle in this weekend’s season-ending and 50th anniversary AutoClub Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

John Force, 65, is going for a record 17th NHRA Funny Car championship, including defending his 2013 title.

Points leader Matt Hagan, meanwhile, is seeking his second Funny Car crown, having previously won the 2011 championship.

Hagan leads Force by a mere 21 points heading into this weekend’s racing action.

“Me and John have been battling it out four years out of the last five of my career, and John has won two, I’ve won one, and I’m planning on winning this one,” Hagan said in an NHRA media release. “I don’t plan on walking away with one championship, I plan on having multiple.

“So I have to dig deep and work hard and do whatever it takes to do that. John brings the best out of me. I’ve got a lot to show and a lot to give and a lot to prove.

“But I think it’s just good racing for the fans. It’s coming right down to Pomona. They’re getting what they paid for, and it’s going to be one hell of a show, and I’m excited to see it myself.”

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Force, who released crew chief Jimmy Prock three weeks ago, has relied on veteran tuner John Medlen to fill the void since Prock’s departure. Prock has since signed with Don Schumacher Racing.

The main thing, Force said, is to eliminate distractions and focus solely on the job at hand, winning one round after another.

“If you wrap your head up in it, all the things that could go wrong or go right will go through your head, none of that does any good,” said Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history. “I’ve got a good race car and we’re going to give the fans what they want, and that’s a race, and we’re going to entertain them, and at the end the champ will walk away.

“If I start thinking, ‘I’ve got to beat this kid,’ then it starts getting mental. I’ll wait until race morning, Sunday morning, and that’s when I’ll put on game face and I’ll go after Matt Hagan, because I am chasing him.”

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History at Pomona definitely favors Force, who has won 15 times at the Los Angeles County Fairplex facility.

But Hagan and Force have to worry about other drivers who are also within striking distance, including Force’s daughter Courtney, who is 121 points behind Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr. (148 back) and Force’s son-in-law Robert Hight (150 back).

“It ain’t a race just between me and Hagan,” Force said. “We’ve got to watch anybody he’s got to watch and I’ve got to watch who can take us out. This is going to pack the seats at the Auto Club Raceway for NHRA and Mello Yello. It’s going to be awesome, and that’s what we owe the fans.”

There’s also a personal reason for Force to win yet another championship. This weekend’s race will be the final event for longtime Force sponsors Castrol Oil and Ford Motor Company.

“I want to win this championship for my partner of 29 years, Castrol, and the Ford Motor Company, who’s been with me for 11 years,” Force said. “They’re moving on and I’d like to bring that title home like the others.”

Hagan is hoping to avoid a repeat performance of what happened to him in 2013. He led the points standings for much of the season before Force made an outstanding stretch run during the Countdown for the Championship to come away with his record 16th Funny Car championship.

“We’re driven to go out and get this thing done,” Hagan said. “It’s just kind of one of those deals everybody is kind of silently brewing, hungry, ready to go race this last race.

“I believe in my team and I know that we’ve got the stuff and what it takes to get it done,” Hagan said. “We’re going to have a battle on our hands with John, but we’re not racing John, we’re racing the racetrack and we’re racing our race car.

“As long as we go out there and race as hard as we can and get as much E.T. on that racetrack as we can, it’s going to take care of itself. Like I said, the calmness, it comes from confidence, and the confidence comes from (crew chief) Dickie Venables and knowing that he’s up there making the right calls.”

Because this is the 50th anniversary of what many fans still call the NHRA World Finals, a number of legendary racers will be on hand to meet fans and sign autographs, with several events scheduled for Saturday.

Among those are: Kenny Bernstein, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, “TV” Tommy Ivo, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski