To hear drivers and crew chiefs talk, the key to winning a Mello Yello Championship resembles boxing as much as it does racing. To alter the famous quote from legendary Raiders owner Al Davis: “just go rounds, baby.”
That worked out just fine for Ron Capps in the Countdown to the Championship in 2016. The Funny Car driver won the title without an event win in the final six races of the season. He started in pole position, posted a 13-6 round record, and won his first championship by earning 495 points (82.5 points per race).
If Capps goes back-to-back this season, he’ll do it with a victory. The NAPA Auto Parts driver beat Courtney Force at the Dodge NHRA Nationals, sending Force to her second-straight defeat. While Capps left Reading with the points lead back in his possession, Force is in prime position for a run at her first championship.
For that matter, both Courtney and her sister, Brittany, are in a great spot with four races to go in the Countdown. The Force sisters are in third place in their respective classes after starting the NHRA's postseason in sixth. They have accrued the most points in their classes since the playoffs began (196 for Brittany, 194 for Courtney), and have each moved up three spots.
That puts Brittany a mere 23 points behind Steve Torrence, and Courtney 39 points back of Capps. Brittany trails Doug Kalitta by a point, while Courtney needs 31 points to catch up with teammate Robert Hight. To make another cross-sports analogy: You can’t hit a seven-run homer. The Force sisters are steadily gaining ground, which is exactly what they need to do to win a title after starting the Countdown in the bottom half of the field. Here’s how they’re doing it.
Wrangling the Advance Auto Parts Camaro
There’s a crucial distinction between having a fast car and a good car. Here’s what I mean: Courtney Force has seven No. 1 qualifiers this season, and has yet to get into the winner’s circle. That’s a narrative that will unfortunately persist until Force parks the red Camaro under a mountain of confetti, but crew chief Dan Hood has made that story a very tired one lately.
Force’s flopper ran quicker than 4 seconds in each of its last eight elimination-round passes, averaging runs of 3.963. That's not going to set track records (and Force has done plenty of that this year, too), but passes of 3.968 (Reading) and 3.943 (Charlotte) won the last two races, so Force's car was certainly competitive enough to win on the last two Sundays. Besides, getting any Funny Car down the track with that kind of consistency is a tremendous achievement all by itself.
A distinct lack of consistency is what killed the team early in the season. Force has lost in the first round as the No. 1 qualifier three times this year thanks to a litany of problems. After getting the car down the strip quicker than 4.1 seconds in five of her first 13 elimination passes, Force has motored down the track successfully in all but one of her last 13. That’s a recipe for success in the Countdown. Check out the chart for a visualization of the Camaro’s recent consistency:
Those slower passes that knocked Force out early on Sundays at the beginning of the season are coming less often now. If co-crew chiefs Hood and Ronnie Thompson can keep the flopper going down the straight and narrow (and Force continues to leave on time, like she has in the Countdown), that first win is coming. Even without it, the team has made a big jump in the points. Force is a contender for a title, even without a Wally in 2017.
The Monster in the room
So, all that testing in a Funny Car hasn’t hurt Brittany Force’s driving one bit, has it? There was never any concern about Alan Johnson or Brian Husen’s tuning. The Monster Energy dragster looked like a bracket car nearly all weekend at Maple Grove, landing Force in the winner’s circle for the first time since her win in Epping 11 races ago. She’s going to miss racing in the Eastern time zone.
Force has had a very consistent dragster all season, but it really got dialed-in during Charlotte qualifying. Here’s how those four runs went down:
9/15 Q1: Force shuts it off at around 330 feet as the tires go up in smoke. She runs a 4.492.
9/15 Q2: A much better pass in cooler conditions. Force runs a 3.749. Alan Johnson felt they missed a little bit on the speed, as it ran 329 mph.
9/16 Q3: Tire smoke at 330 feet again for Force, who runs 4.849. Similar conditions to her Q1 pass (warm).
9/16 Q4: This run didn’t move her in qualifying, but her 3.777 pass provided a great baseline for the warmer conditions Sunday brought.
Since that fourth qualifying pass, Force has made 11 runs, and all but two of them have been in the 3.70s. Those two outlier runs were a 3.859 and a 3.905; the first resulted in a loss in the semifinals in Charlotte, and the second a victory in the semi's in Reading. Her last elimination run in the 4s or slower was in Seattle, five races ago, and her reaction times have steadily improved over the course of the season.
The combination of a dragster that qualifies well (she’s been in the quick half of the field in all but one race this season), and is consistent makes Force a threat to keep climbing the standings as the NHRA tour moves West. Force has picked up 37 points on Torrence since the Countdown began in Charlotte, and passed Antron Brown, Leah Pritchett, and Tony Schumacher over the last two races. That's very impressive.
Here’s one more thing that bodes well for Force going forward: She’s now won in two very different climates. The track temperature during her victory in Epping against Brown was 101 degrees, and the usually chilly Maple Grove Raceway boasted a track temperature of 119 degrees. She’s also taken down two of the biggest contenders for a title, Brown and Torrence, in final rounds this season. That’s a pretty good resume for the Monster team.
The Hold Steady
Eddie Krawiec is the only racer who still has a shot at winning all six races in the Countdown. For everyone else, the goal is a little less lofty: Just go rounds. Consistently getting down the track remains the best way to get that job done; don’t take my word for it though, go ask Rahn Tobler sometime.
That’s something both Courtney and Brittany have done remarkably well since the Countdown began in classes where “consistency” is incredibly difficult to master. There’s still a lot of racing to come, and as hard as it is to get a handle on a Nitro car it’s all too easy to lose it. But Thompson, Hood, Husen, and Johnson have put themselves in a solid position in a chase for a championship.
Now it’s up to the crews, and their drivers, to stay on the straight and narrow over the final four races of the season. If they can do that, consider the Force sisters contenders for championships.