The 2009 NHRA Full Throttle season will be over after the next two races, in Las Vegas and the finale in Pomona, Calif. We're fourth in the Countdown to 1 playoffs point standings, and about three rounds out of first place. So, with eight rounds of competition remaining, as well as bonus qualifying points up for grabs and the possibility of setting a national elapsed-time record for 20 bonus points, the championship has definitely not been decided. We are not out of it, by any means.
Looking at the whole season, there's been a lot of controversy of how situations have been handled, how possibly results have been manipulated by the teams, plus a lot of discussion as to the value of the Countdown. But, based on all the controversy and talk, it is obvious that the Countdown is extremely important for a team owner, a driver, a crew chief, and everybody on a team.
We've seen what people and/or teams will do to get into the Countdown. It clearly means everything. Drivers and teams start to believe that all their efforts, plus the time and money spent, are a waste if they don't get into the Countdown. Even though we made it comfortably into the Countdown, if we had it to do over again, our NAPA Auto Parts Funny Car team would have made a car switch before the Countdown started in Charlotte, instead of after the Dallas race, which was the second event of the playoffs.
We learned a lesson that cars, even though they are built identically, don't always react the same. So we switched back to the car we started the season with, winning the first two events. Having a great season, winning the most races of anyone, and thinking you've earned it, doesn't guarantee you're going to be handed a trophy for a championship, especially now that the Countdown is in place.
To be honest with you, all I wanted all season was to make sure that our NAPA team had a legitimate chance at winning the championship. We had such a great year it would have been a travesty to not be one of the teams with a shot, with two races to go, at winning the championship. And the unfortunate product of the Countdown, and I've said it before, is if you have a bad race or even a couple of bad races during the playoffs you very well could lose your chance at a championship.
You hear me brag about the NAPA team a lot. You haven't seen me on fire, you haven't seen me in any wild crashes, you haven't seen me with anything flying off the car, and I've said it time and time again at the top end of the track that it makes me proud of my guys to put me in a car time and time again that is prepared like no other car.
I know when I go down the track everything is as good as it's going to be for Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch) to tune it. And not making those highlight reels tells you a lot of about a team. These guys deserve a championship.
It's good that we rebounded after Dallas with a semifinal finish in Memphis and Richmond, after finding our problem and getting back on track. Yeah, we're still in a hole, and it's going to be tough to fight back. But, it can be done and we've come close before. I talked to my old teammate Gary Scelzi the other day and he reminded me that we rolled into Las Vegas pretty far behind in points in 2005 and we went to the final round against Gary and ended up beating him. We then went into Pomona separated by single digits. Scelzi won the championship, but we ended up in second, just eight points back.
So, it's very possible, and looking at the record we had, especially winning the first Vegas race earlier this year, and having our NAPA hot rod back, I'm excited. It reminds me of when my teammate Tony Schumacher in the 2006 season finale in Pomona – in what has now gone down in history as “the run” – had to set the national elapsed-time record and win the final round in order to claim the crown, and he did exactly that. Those kinds of moments are something you dream about.
You don't want it to come down to that to win a championship, because the stress and the pressure is going to be unbelievable. But, we're behind, and we have a great chance of fighting our way back into this.
I tell you, there's nothing like the pressure of having two races left and being three rounds behind the leader. Ashley Force Hood, second in points, is having a great season right now, just like we did at the beginning of the year, and she and her team have earned the chance to vie for the title in Pomona.
That team, led by crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli – and you can ask anybody on our team – has raised our level every time we had to race them, and they have been consistently good. We're going to need some luck for them to be knocked out early.
Points leader Robert Hight's team is obviously one of the cars to beat now in the Countdown. You can debate whether or not that team deserves a chance at the championship, but the fact is that's one of the cars that you're going to have to definitely get around if you plan to win one of these races in the end. They're as good as any team right now.
When we beat them in Memphis in the second round, that was the biggest round that we had this year. That was huge.
We also can't count out (third in points) Tony Pedregon's team. That's a team that you know you're always going to have to battle for any chance at a championship.
You can't rely on somebody else doing your work for you to knock somebody out early to gain points. You want to qualify well, but it also means that if the other teams in front of you in points are running well, too, you're not going to see them until later in the day. So, you just have to hope that somebody can beat them early, and you have to concentrate on what's in front of you and not worry about all the drama that's going on around you.