Photos courtesy NHRA

NHRA: John Force has one last chance to earn 150th career win in season finale

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When Sunday’s season-ending Auto Club Finals concludes, John Force will have gone through his fifth season since his record-extending 16th NHRA Funny Car championship in 2013.

Nor will the 69-year-old greatest driver in NHRA history finish runner-up in the standings, like he did for the last time in 2014.

But if you think the Yorba Linda, California resident lays down and merely goes through the motions in Sunday’s final rounds of eliminations, you’re sadly mistaken.

Force knows what his role is: to play spoiler and to help teammates Robert Hight and Courtney Force, to do well.

Force’s only win thus far in 2018 came at Denver near mid-season. Winners of that event were, from left, Leah Pritchett, Greg Anderson, Force and Hector Arana Jr.

Force comes into Sunday’s finals in ninth place in the Funny Car standings, 276 points behind series leader JR Todd.

Hight, who is John Force Racing president, is the defending Funny Car champion and the team’s only hope of winning either a Funny Car or Top Fuel championship in 2018.

“My job now is to take out as many as I can and help Robert get the championship for John Force Racing, Auto Club, PEAK, Advance Auto, Chevrolet and the rest of our sponsors,” John Force said.

That’s unlike 2017, when Hight won the Funny Car crown and Brittany Force, John’s daughter, earned her first career NHRA Funny Car championship.

Because a maximum of 191 points are available to be earned by any driver in Sunday’s eliminations, John Force mathematically could finish as high as third or fourth place – especially if he wins the season finale.

What’s more, a Force win could steal some thunder from either Todd’s or Hight’s championship celebration, as it would mark something Force has chased much of this season: his 150th career Funny Car win.

“I live for winning,” Force said. “I’m up against all these young guns, but so far I’m holding my own.”

Force has just one win thus far in 2018, capturing the Dodge Mile-High Nationals to kick off the annual West Coast Swing during the middle part of the season.

That win marked 31 consecutive seasons that Force has won at least one NHRA national tour event.

Plus, heading to Pomona, is an ace in the hole for Force. He’s had more success at the suburban Los Angeles facility than anyone else in NHRA history.

He’s made 75 career starts at Pomona, which he’s considered his home track since 1984. During that 34-year span, Force has won 16 national events – including eight triumphs in the season-ending Finals – and 128 round wins overall.

Force is long overdue to win at Pomona: he hasn’t reached the winner’s circle since the 2010 season finale. Conversely, though, he’s finished runner-up three times in the last five years.

“We’ve got a pretty good hot rod right now,” Force said. “It’s not the quickest but it’ll go down through there and, early in the year, it wouldn’t do that but we battled back.

“These kids, my crew, led by Jon Schaffer, Ronnie Thompson and Joe Veyette, they’ve worked hard to get it right.”

Qualifying begins Friday at 1:30 p.m. PT and 3:45 p.m. PT. Two more runs will be at 12:30 p.m. PT and 3:30 p.m. PT Saturday, and Sunday’s 16-car eliminations begin at 11 a.m. PT (2 p.m. ET).

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Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”