- Bill Stephens
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ENNIS, Texas -- It sometimes appears that John Force, the NHRA's 12-time Funny Car champion and all-time winningest driver, operates outside the established laws of nature.
For instance, his phenomenal string of championships dating back to his first in 1990 has been the cornerstone of the immense popularity that continues to follow him from coast to coast and beyond. For any motorsports personality to command such unshakable loyalty for such a long time is truly a rarity.
For a driver who owns three teams, is hounded by all manner of media outlets for interviews, heads up other demanding subsidiaries of his world famous racing operation, and guides the emerging career of his daughter, Ashley, a touring regular in the Lucas Oil sportsman series, it is virtually other-worldly to successfully accomplish those duties and still maintain dominance in the NHRA's Funny Car category. Force handles it all.
This year, as he closes on his record 13th POWERade title after qualifying No. 1 on Saturday at the 19th O'Reilly Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex outside Dallas, Force once again has risen above a host of daunting challenges since the 2004 season got underway last February to put himself in position to again make history.
Consider that at the end of last season, his former teammate Tony Pedregon left the team after winning the POWERade championship. There was a tangible feeling throughout the sport that Force would be vulnerable in '04 with drivers such as Whit Bazemore, Gary Scelzi, Tim Wilkerson, Del Worsham, and the Pedregon brothers -- Tony and Cruz -- ready to take Force down.
Also, Force replaced Pedregon in his team car with former mechanic Eric Medlen, who had never driven a nitro car previously. Add to that the uncertainty of the 2004 plans of his third driver, Gary Densham, during last off-season, and it became apparent that Force needed to fill some gaping holes in his championship depth chart.
"We haven't clinched the championship yet and I've learned not to talk yourself into believing it's over before it is," said Force on Saturday after he wrapped up his fifth low qualifier award of the year. "But to have the points lead with five races left and have this ol' Mustang making some good runs, we're just hoping we can stay ahead of Scelzi and Bazemore until this thing is a done deal.
"I've got to thank my team for us just being in this position. We had to deal with some changes on the team this year and all those changes that were thrown at us by the NHRA to make the sport safer and somehow we didn't screw it up-at least not yet. I'll be happy when we can put the championship away and stop having nightmares about someone catching us."
Are the odds on Force's side to close out his 13th POWERade championship? He's proven over and over again that the odds don't matter.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.