LAS VEGAS — One of the most intriguing battles for an NHRA world championship title this season is unfolding in the Funny Car division.
Three drivers head to the penultimate race of the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with a first world championship trophy up for grabs. For each of them, this finally could be the year.
One driver finished second last season, just missing the opportunity by the narrowest of margins.
Another has come agonizingly close on three separate occasions, finishing second each time.
A third driver has won multiple championships as a crew chief, but none from behind the wheel.
Series point leader Jack Beckman, second place Ron Capps and third place Mike Neff head to the Big O Tires NHRA Nationals, Oct. 25-28, each with an excellent opportunity to become a part of NHRA history and to lift the season champion Wally trophy that only 13 drivers have claimed since NHRA started crowning Funny Car world champs in 1974.
“You know, it’s an exciting time right now,” said Neff, who guided Gary Scelzi and John Force to separate series titles as a crew chief, but has never claimed one as a driver.
Neff, who serves as both crew chief and driver of his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, won the circuit’s most recent event in Reading, Pa., and is riding a bit of momentum, but sits in third place in the standings and trails Beckman by 54 points. He is 31 back of Capps.
“This is why you put all that work in over the last winter and go through this whole season to come to the very end here, and you just want to have a shot,” Neff said. “We’ve been running better here lately and I’m just happy to be in contention, and definitely these last two races out west are going to be exciting for everyone.”
Capps, who got hot after an early season crew change and raced to six consecutive final rounds in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger, was the top seed heading into the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. He and tuner Rahn Tobler built a sizeable lead after winning the first playoff race in Charlotte, N.C. and advancing to the semifinals in round two at Dallas. However, the veteran driver has seen leads come and go, especially at crunch time over the years. With 37 career victories and three second place points finishes, Capps is one of the winningest drivers in the sport not to own a championship ring. He hopes to change that stat this season.
“I’ve said this before, we had a lot of people talking about the championship was going to be wrapped up by us when we had that 100-something points lead going into St. Louis, and it almost irritated me every time somebody would say something, whether it was media or just fans, because I think they forget how quickly things can turn around,” said Capps, the defending winner of this event who heads to Vegas 23 points behind Beckman. “I just had a hunch that was the way it was going to go. It wasn’t going to be an easy championship run for anybody. There are just too many good cars.”
Beckman emerged into the title conversation with a victory at St. Louis and a national record performance and semifinal finish at Maple Grove Raceway two weeks ago. The driver of the Valvoline/NextGen Dodge Charger pushed Matt Hagan to the wire last season in an incredibly close championship battle, so this is certainly not new territory for him.
He says nothing short of perfection over the next two events will get the job done.
“With only eight rounds left and in a sport where when you lose you don’t get those next few rounds, if somebody goes out second round at Vegas, they lose out on three rounds,” Beckman said. “I think we all want to be able to contest all eight rounds to have a legitimate shot for the championship, so you can’t have any screw-ups, mechanical issues, or tune-up question marks.”