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

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds