Two weeks after failing to earn a chance at repeating as Funny Car champion, Cruz Pedregon has the proverbial “nothing left to lose.” So far at zMAX Dragway, he's driving like it.
Pedregon grabbed the Funny Car pole for the second annual Carolinas Nationals, the first race in the NHRA Full Throttle Series Countdown to 1 playoff. He's not in it, but he has a chance to make life difficult for some of the 10 drivers who are.
Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also earned top qualifying spots, a good start to their championship hopes. Edwards was the early winner in the new qualifying-points bonus format, picking up 10 markers for top-three qualifying efforts.
But the most intriguing story Saturday developed in Funny Car, with the four protagonists from the U.S. Nationals race-fixing flap claiming the top four spots in qualifying.
Two weeks ago at O'Reilly Raceway Park outside Indianapolis, John Force Racing's Robert Hight put himself in position to grab the final Countdown spot when the ladder perfectly broke his way. Don Schumacher Racing's Matt Hagan, 11th in points coming into the race, lost in the first round, then 10th-in-points Pedregon lost in the second round to Force. Hight, after winning his first two rounds, had to only win one more—a semifinal against his boss and father-in-law, Force.
Force left the starting line at a clip worthy of a junior dragster, smoked the tires and quickly got out of the racing groove in the iconic Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, handing the win to Hight even while he too smoked the tires.
“You're never going to see anything more blatant,” Tony Pedregon said Saturday.
Two weeks ago, Cruz's brother took it far more personally, shouting and nearly coming to blows with Force at the far end of the track. Back at the starting line, Cruz called Force a “cheater” on national television. Almost completely lost in all of it was Ashley Force Hood later winning the race, becoming the first female Funny Car champion at the Big Go.
The talk was the Force-Pedregon theatrics, which thrust the NHRA into the national limelight and initiated conversations across motorsports about so-called “team orders.”
After all that, would it be too much to ask for the Funny Car ladder to play out by seeds Sunday? If so, the winner of a Pedregon vs. Pedregon semifinal would take on the winner of Force-Hight. Cruz Pedregon took the pole in a run of 4.087 seconds at 303.91 mph to 1,000 feet, while Force, Hight and Tony Pedregon claimed the next three spots.
“I think they're a little more dangerous now because they've got nothing to lose,” said Tony Pedregon, first in points. “They'll go out and be more aggressive, fire some shots. We're going to have to reckon with them, especially because they're not in the Countdown. That might help him race a little better.”
“The Cruzer” hopes so after a season that never got on track from the start and couldn't rally enough late. In Pedregon's 2008 title season, he only lost three times in the first round. This year so far he has eight early exits, no wins or final-round appearances and an overall round record of 13-18.
What he'll hope to do now is catch fire like he did in last year's Countdown, when he won three times.
“We're going to just mind our own business and just try to find our way to get past the early rounds. Win as many rounds on Sunday, that's all we can ask at this point,” Cruz Pedregon said. “There's enough races, we are certainly trying to do everything we can to salvage our year.”
Since Indy, Cruz has cooled off from the red-hot Labor Day. Two days after the U.S. Nationals, he drove his dirt late model to a very respectable sixth place at Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream race at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, beating a number of NASCAR stars on a half-mile high-banked dirt oval.
He never talked to anyone from John Force Racing or the NHRA (which deemed the Force camp to have done nothing illegal in the race, but did fine Force $10,000 for shoving an official), and said he doesn't need to even though his brother and Force talked on the phone and smoothed things over.
“I haven't had any conversations with anybody, and I don't think I owe anybody any conversation,” Cruz Pedregon said. “Tony and John, my two cents is they'll agree to disagree. We can't be vindictive and be mean and mad at each other.”
Everyone will just race, and Sunday that could mean a very interesting start to the Countdown if some matchups come to fruition.
“Trust me, there's going to be people watching,” Cruz Pedregon said. “It's going to be under a magnifying glass, and it should be.”