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NHRA surprise: John Force swaps crew chiefs, teams with Robert Hight

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If there’s one thing that’s certain about 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, it’s that he never ceases to surprise fans and those in the sport.

Just two races into the 24-race 2017 season, Force unveiled his most recent surprise Thursday morning: he’s swapping teams with teammate, son-in-law and John Force Racing president Robert Hight.

Yep, that’s right, lock, stock and barrel – plus crew chiefs and team members – one week before next weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

While Force will continue driving the Peak Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car and Hight will remain behind the wheel of the Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro SS, everything else will change.

Crew chief Jimmy Prock, co-crew chief Chris Cunningham and the rest of the Peak team will now be Hight’s supporting cast.

Meanwhile, crew chief Mike Neff and co-crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch and the rest of the Auto Club team will essentially become Force’s backup band.

As for the other two JFR teams, Courtney Force and her Funny Car team and Brittany Force and her Top Fuel team will remain intact.

Schaffer was Force’s crew chief last season and now they’re reunited, just like Prock is reunited with Hight, a pairing that produced 27 wins, including the 2009 NHRA Funny Car championship.

Prock also has 14 wins during his previous tenure as Force’s crew chief.

This is also Neff’s second go-round as Force’s crew chief, which includes seven wins and the 2010 championship together.

Force is currently fifth in the Funny Car standings, 128 points behind series leader Matt Hagan. Hight, meanwhile, is ninth in the standings, 152 points behind Hagan.

Since Force began JFR more than 30 years ago, it has compiled 247 Funny Car wins, including 147 by Force himself and Hight 37. Force has 16 championships, while Hight has one championship.

“My race cars are moving ahead,” Force said in a media release. “They’re running big numbers; we’re still trying to find that consistency.

“I came into the shop in Brownsburg and met with the teams and all the guys in the machine shop, the fab shop and the paint shop. I looked at the pictures on the wall, looked at Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight in winner’s circle photos, I looked at pictures of me and Jimmy Prock, I looked at pictures of me and Neff, I looked at pictures of me and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCullough – and all of a sudden, it just felt right.

“I went home, slept on it, woke up the next morning, and it felt right. The cars are all doing good, but to put Robert Hight back with Jimmy Prock, who he won the championship with, and to put me back with Mike Neff, who I won the championship with – and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch, who I won four races last year with – it just made sense.

“Austin Coil (Force’s former longtime crew chief; they won 14 championships together) always told me change is good, even when things are going right. This will build us stronger in the long run.”

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”