At a time when the chance to gain ground is a precious commodity in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Full Throttle Funny Car Championship, Neff failed for the second straight week to take advantage of points leader Ron Capps’ early exit and, as a result, still trails the Dodge driver by five racing rounds.
With only three races remaining, it is an imposing, although not unmanageable, deficit for the man who both tunes and drives the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang for John Force Racing, Inc.
“We just got behind and never really got into a rhythm,” Neff said of last week’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals. “You hate to miss those chances, especially with Capps going out in the second round.
“We’re really not any further behind than before, points-wise,” said the two-time former world championship-winning crew chief (with Gary Scelzi in 2005 and Force in 2010), “but now we’re third instead of second, behind Capps and (Jack) Beckman, and that makes it that much harder.”
Still, Neff knows that things can happen, especially at Maple Grove. And, after testing Monday at Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis, he also knows that his hybrid race car is ready for the challenge.
“We figured a few things out,” acknowledged the 46-year-old with the Hollywood good looks. “We ran a couple of 4.0s, which is what it’s going to take. There are a lot of good cars out there right now and we need to show that we’re still one of them.”
Neff will roll to the starting line for Friday’s first qualifying session 99 points behind Capps, 69 back of Beckman. He knows he can’t make that up in one race. Instead, the goal this week is to reduce the deficit with an eye toward overcoming it entirely in season-ending events at Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.
Although he didn’t drive competitively until he was in his 40s, Neff proved to be a natural. The 2008 NHRA Rookie of the Year, he has taken a JFR Ford to the final round in 21 of his 90 career starts and has won nine tour events, three so far this year.
Nevertheless, the former off-road truck mechanic admits that handling both jobs has proven to be more difficult than he expected. Doing one full-time job is demanding enough, but doing two is, well, maybe kind of crazy, especially in this, The Age of Specialization.
“It’s not an exact science,” Neff said of preparing an 8,000 horsepower race car for a zero-to-320 mile-an-hour trip down a 1,000 foot, straight line race course. “There are always challenges you have to deal with. Anything can happen.
“(But) that’s what’s so exciting about NHRA drag racing. You can’t make it up in the next turn,” said the one-time motocross rider. “You get one shot at it. You either get it right, you catch a break or it’s over with – and you have to do that four times in one day.”
Still, there’s that left brain-right brain conflict; the creative versus the pragmatic.
“You can’t go up there thinking about the tuning part because you won’t drive as well as you should,” he explained, “and, in the end, if you don’t perform as a driver, it doesn’t really matter what you did as a tuner.”
If, in fact, the two Mike Neffs can operate cooperatively for just four qualifying rounds and four racing rounds this week, then the singular Mike Neff will be one step closer to making history as the first Funny Car racer in 38 years to win the championship in the dual role of driver/crew chief.