Bob Tasca III
Funny Car drivers Jeff Arend, Bob Tasca III, Matt Hagan, and Tim Wilkerson took part in a national teleconference Thursday to discuss their bids to make the Countdown to the Championship fields, which will be set next weekend at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus.
Arend, who wheels the DHL Toyota Camry, is in ninth place; Tasca, who drives the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby, is holding on to the 10th spot; Hagan, driver of the Aaron's/Mopar Dodge Charger, is in 11th; and Wilkerson, driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang, is in 12th place. All are separated by just 39 points, less than two rounds of racing.
Q: Jeff, does it speak to how competitive Funny Car is that a guy with a win can still be fighting to make it into the playoffs at the last regular-season race?
Arend: Yeah, no kidding. We had a really good year so far. And it was looking good there for a while, but I tell you, Tim and Matt really stepped up their game lately, and that's just the way things go. You can't think about the other guys who are going to race, and we had a couple chances to race Matt and slow him down a little bit. He's really stepped up, and that's the way things go. Certainly makes things exciting, that's for sure.
Q: How have you planned to handle the pressure of next weekend, trying to make it into the playoffs?
Arend: I'll tell you, we brought a new car out before bringing it, made one run on it before we went to Brainerd, and it showed a lot of promise. I'm really happy with the way the car is running, with the calls the guys are making on the car and the way everything is going. I'm not overly worried about it. It is pretty tight, obviously. We have basically two rounds on Matt and on Tim, and that's not really including qualifying points. But I would rather go in there with a two-round lead than two rounds behind obviously, but there's only four rounds left. I like our chances right now. Got a lot of confidence. Not overly worried, but we'll see how things go.
Q: Matt and his team got off to a very slow start this season but have really gained a bunch of points in the last three races with runner-up finishes in Sonoma and Seattle and a semifinal in Brainerd. Matt, it seems that your team has a ton of momentum going into Indy and you have found your stride.
Hagan: We've had a horrible year. Nobody expected us to come out and struggle the way we have. But that's life, and that's what you do, and that's what you have to deal with. It's just been nice that we have finally got combinations in the car that the car has responded and the car is finally coming around. We put a combo in there the last couple races, and we have been in two finals and a semi since we have had it in there. Why we didn't do that a long time ago, I don't know, but I'm just glad it's in there now and we still have a fighting chance to go out there and do this thing. We still have a big hill to climb. Bob Tasca is in front of us, and it's just a matter of getting out there and making big plays and stepping up to the plate and trying to knock it out of the park. But things have got to line up, too, and we have had that happen for us. If Tasca goes out and wins a race, we can't change that.
Obviously, our plan is to go out and win the race; you can't change what other people do, you can only control what you have available in front of you, and that's what we have tried to focus on, is going out there, digging deep, keep on time, keeping it in the groove, turning the win light on, and the rest will take care of itself.
Q: After the tough regular season that you've had, are you pleased to have a shot at it? Two years ago, you were runner-up, and last year you won the championship, so just now to be in it, you've seen somebody win it all from 10th place.
Hagan: Yeah, obviously you have to be pleased to have a shot at this deal. I mean, we won it from sixth place last year. You just have to be in it to win it. That's what our boss is about here. Don Schumacher Racing cares nothing about anything but championships and winning. And when you've got a guy that is that competitive, and he's knocking on a trailer door every weekend about what's going on and how are you guys going to get this done, it's pretty important for us to be in there to run for a championship. For our sponsors as well, they want to be on TV, and they want to do this deal. Sponsors are what keep us afloat out here; they need it just as much as we do.
Q: Wilkerson has a runner-up finish and two semi's on his scorecard for 2012. He’s a past winner of the U.S. Nationals and has been to the final two times. Tim, does that give you any confidence going into this race, knowing that you've done it before in Indy?
Wilkerson: To me, it's just another racetrack. We are just going to go there and do the best we can like Matt and Jeff already iterated for me, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. We have all had good luck and bad luck in the last few races. Jeff and I probably need to get together to get John Paul [DeJoria] to put up enough money that we can just have Matt and Bob kidnapped, and we don't worry about that. [Laughing] What do you think about that, Jeff?
Arend: Sounds good to me. [Laughing]
Wilkerson: We already got Bob. He's already out. Everyone thinks he's out there testing, but he's gone; we got rid of him. We are all in the same boat here. We all have good cars, and the beginning of the year, you knew there was going to be three or four good cars that would not make it to the top 10. I mean if you look at the big picture, John Force was lucky to not be one of the two, he was right there, and if it was not for a mishap that Alexis [DeJoria] had, he would be talking just like the rest of us. So Lady Luck plays a lot into what happens.
Q: You've been a part of the Countdown playoffs the last few years and finished a career-best second in 2008. I know you want to keep that streak going; what's your strategy going to be for the race next weekend?
Wilkerson: We had a good car the last three or four races, and we talked about this last weekend at Brainerd when we ran well there a couple times, got back to talk to the crew, and my wife and I are talking about it going down the road. It's like, how do we get in the better position like years ago? Well, it was let's stop being such a sissy, we've got to be more aggressive, and that's the way it goes. Showed that at Brainerd that we could be, and our car can run good if we can do that. That's our mind-set going in, and these guys know that. They are not fools. We know that each other's cars can run as well as the other at any given time, and we just have to be able to go in there and not make any mistakes.
Q: Bob, you've qualified for the playoffs the last three seasons; I know you want to also make it in this year. What are your thoughts on having this many quality drivers battling for a couple of spots?
Tasca: We have them right where we want 'em. [Laughing] I tell you, obviously, very disappointing season overall. I said to myself last year coming to this race, "Let's not put ourselves in this position." But we are where we are, and it's going to be a lot of drama. We are going to get a lot of TV time, me, Matt, Tim, and Jeff Arend, and the fans come to see an exciting conclusion, to this playoff berth anyway. But the bottom line is we are going to go out and run as hard as we can run, and it will be what it will be. You have some great cars with Hagan and Arend and Wilkerson; we are all basically four cars fighting for two spots. You know, end of the day, it's going to be what it's going to be, and we are out here testing here today just trying to give ourselves the best shot. We had a car that was more consistent on Friday than Saturday all season, and truthfully, the last three races, we have not been much consistent on Friday or Saturday. So we will put a little different setup on the car. Like what Matt said, when you get the right combination, things come together, and hopefully that happens for us at Indy.
Q: Over the years in the Countdown, we have seen quite a bit of drama in Indy, with battles coming down to the wire for different drivers to make it into the playoffs. Do you expect this one in Funny Car to be one of the most intense yet?
Tasca: I said at the start of the season, this will be most competitive season we have ever seen in Funny Car; just to make the top 10 is going to be a real challenge. And you know, obviously, it's all played out that way, very competitive season, and up and down, the teams here, and obviously, this is going to go down to the wire. It could go down to the final round, who gets in and doesn't get in. It's great for the fans; it's great for the sport. That's what it's all about, to really build some excitement going into the championship run. Truthfully, I would rather not be in this story line, but we are not going to go down without a fight, and like I said, you just have some tremendous teams out there that compete for these last two spots.
Q: Matt, we are talking about four guys going after two spots, but does that change your strategy and your preparation over had it been just two guys going for one spot?
Hagan: Not for us. You have to go out and run as hard as you can run every time you bring your car up to the line; that's the bottom line. You race the racetrack, and whatever is going to unfold is going to unfold. So I can tell you from our perspective, it's not going to change our philosophy.
Tasca: I don't think it really matters as far as whether it's two guys, one guy, four guys, whatever, trying to get in this deal. It's going to come down to one ultimate spot. Obviously makes it more competitive, but that's one of the things where your chances are just a little bit spread out a little bit more. Like the championship last year came down to three guys in the semifinals, instead of one guy or two guys you're trying to beat out. But the end result is the same; you have to go out and do your job and focus on the task at hand.
Q: Do you think that the fans are going to get a better show because of the situation?
Hagan: Well, I think that if the media plays it up the right way, they will. It's one of those things that you guys can make it as big as you want it. It's very competitive out there, and there are some great cars and great teams and great sponsors that are really trying to get this thing going. As far as the fans, it's just about the biggest show as we can make for them anyway. We are out here to win races and win championships.
Q: Matt, you've been in championship battles. Can you compare this? Is it like a championship battle?
Hagan: Absolutely. Without getting into this deal, there is no championship, so you feel the pressure there. I think that anybody who said there's no pressure, it's no big deal, would be lying. It's just a matter of dealing with the pressure. You know what I did in the championship deal is basically minimize what you have control over. You focus on what you can change out there. You know, if you worry about the guy beside you or who is bolting the heads on or what this guy in the next lane is doing, you get overwhelmed with the situation. For me, it's no different than going up there and doing the same thing I'm used to doing, and that's all I can control out there. So the pressure is there. There's no doubt about it. But it's just a matter of really dealing with the pressure and making sure that you're doing the right things and that you're not a weak link in the chain.
Q: With all of the success that you've had the last couple of years, to go through the struggles of this season, what have you learned from that? How has that made you better?
Hagan: It's obviously been a very humbling year, and you have to learn to deal with that. Obviously, we all have egos out here, and we all have pride, and we all want to beat on our chests and say, "Look what I did." In drag racing, you have 10 guys that are wrenching on the car and two crew chiefs and assistant crew chief, and everybody has to do their job. This year, sometimes it's a helpless feeling, and you just have to sit back and let it unfold. There are some things that you just can't change that are out of your control. You know, that's what I've had to learn to deal with this year is just feeling kind of helpless, and no matter what you say or want to do, it doesn't really change a lot of things. So being a driver for an organization and not having a lot of say in the deal, it's not really up to me. So I just kind of have to sit back and watch a lot of things unfold and know that in the back of your mind that you've got good quality people around you, and you've had good guys that are doing their job and showing up and really caring about what they are doing, and they all have one common goal.
Still, when you don't run well, it's still hard to keep that in the foresight of everything. It's been tough for me to deal with it a little bit, but on the flipside, you know, we have won world championships, three world records in the last two years, and a handful of races. I know that our team is capable of doing this and getting it done. I really believe in them, and I believe in my crew chief, and I believe in everybody. That's why we are all still together and nobody has jumped ship. We are just ready to go out and hunt this thing down, and we are really making sure we are doing everything we can to give ourselves a chance in the Countdown to run for the championship.
Wilkerson: That's why it's going to be so much fun making sure you don't get that done. [Laughter] Matt forgot to mention his other four crew chiefs, too.
Hagan: There's a big brain trust over there. So it's our own fault if we don't get it done.
Q: Tim, with the crew chief also being the driver, how do you feel you are going to step it up? Stand on it a little harder and see if you can't work yourself into some of the bonus points that will make it a little bit easier should you go some rounds?
Wilkerson: Yeah, that's kind of what I was talking about earlier. We did that at Brainerd a little bit. I picked up a half a round there on Matt doing that. If I can get that done, then I'll be within one round of him, and that's kind of the show that we are trying to put on, there's no doubt about it.
But let's face facts. If we don't pick up those points, we are handicapping ourselves in the first place. So getting in the show is not even going to be a thought in my mind. Getting in the show as deep as I can and hoping that as the tree falls down, like last weekend, it really did not work out well for any of us. All of the Schumacher cars were on one side of the ladder, and that didn't work out well for any of us because none of us could beat him and get out of Matt's way, so that doesn't work out well. To me, if it all falls better, like Jeff said, he had a chance to race Matt a couple of times and get him out of there, and he didn't get it done. So that's his fault. Not that I'm just picking on Matt. It's just obviously he's what we would all expect to be the toughest guy to deal with because he has the most behind him. Anyhow, that's the way I look at it. We'll be swinging for the fence every run, and if we come down to the fifth qualifying pass and we are not in, we might slide her down there then. But you're right; until then, we are looking for every point we can get.
Q: Jeff and Matt and Bob, are you going to be talking to the crew chiefs about the same thing?
Arend: We want to get in good, obviously, and then after that, on some of those rounds, you don't have to run all that quick, like the lightning-fast runs will be during the day. The bonus points are going to make a little bit of a difference, I don't think quite as much with us; with Matt being 30 behind and Timmy being 39 behind, I guess we can maybe make Tim one more round behind us. But 21 points or 39 points is the same thing. But, yeah, you're definitely looking for the bonus points, and anything that you can do is going to make it better. Just have to be with a good car down there, and hopefully don't have to run Matt again for like the fourth or fifth time in five races, and we'll be all right.
Wilkerson: We just want you to beat him, dang it.
Arend: It's all about the timing, buddy.
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