Neff Defends Gatornationals Title as Points Leader
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Entering this week’s 43rd annual Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Auto Plus Raceway, Mike Neff likely is the most frustrated recent points leader in any motor racing discipline.
Twice in as many races this year, the 45-year-old driver/crew chief on the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang has rolled to the starting line for the final round with the quickest race car on the grounds. Twice he’s come away empty-handed, beaten both times by John Force Racing teammates.
“All in all, anytime you go to the final, it’s a good day,” said the defending Gatornationals Funny Car champion, “but still, I’m frustrated with letting two chances slip away.”
Neff first lost to his boss, John Force, at the season-opening O’Reilly Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., when he was momentarily distracted and therefore was late in reacting to the starting signal. That gave Force the edge he needed to win despite a slower track time (4.080 to a best-of-the-event 4.036).
A week later, at Phoenix, Neff’s 8,000 horsepower Ford stumbled at the start in a final round showdown with Robert Hight’s Auto Club Mustang. As a result, it crossed the finish line just .027 of a second behind the winner.
“Our car had been running great (quick time of the event at 4.070 seconds),” Neff said of the Phoenix result, “and then it just shook. I had to pedal it (feather the throttle to regain traction) and then, to just barely lose, it’s frustrating.
“We want to win every race and we work hard at it,” he said, “but, on the positive side, we’ve had two races with Force Mustangs in the finals. We’re definitely satisfied with that. We’ll just keep on keepin’ on.”
No one has been “keepin’ on” quite like Neff, who first distinguished himself as crew chief to 2005 NHRA Funny Car champion Gary Scelzi before, intrigued by Force’s promise of a driving job, moving to JFR in 2007. After earning Rookie-of-the-Year recognition in 2008, the former motocross racer found himself out of a ride, the victim of the economic downturn and lack of sponsorship.
Back in the more familiar role of crew chief, he directed Force to a category-best six wins and a record 15th career championship in 2010. He was preparing to settle in to that strictly mechanical role when fate once again intervened, this time in a positive way.
When two-time Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champion Ashley Force Hood revealed in January, 2011, that she was climbing out of the car to start a family, Neff was offered another chance behind the wheel. Needless to say, he’s made the most of it.
He’s made final round appearances a habit, especially since taking on the dual role of driver and crew chief.
As a driver, he’s taken a JFR Ford to the final round 12 times in his last 25 starts. As a crew chief, he’s done the same thing 22 times in 47 races. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that Neff has been at the starting line in one capacity or the other at virtually every-other-race over the past three seasons.
Moreover, while he was struggling with the dual role last year, even on the way to his Gatornationals win, he has settled into a comfortable routine this year thanks in no small measure to the rapid development of Jon Schaffer as his mechanical facilitator.
“I’ve got my man Little Jon and he can get in there and twist the knobs for me,” Neff said of the last minute adjustments to the tune-up that used to be a major concern when conditions changed significantly while he was helplessly strapped into the cockpit. “I can communicate with him. We’ve got a good situation.”
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