- Bill Stephens
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JOLIET, Ill. -- The expectations for huge qualifying performances were sky high on Saturday at the 4th Carquest Auto Parts Nationals at Route 66 Raceway on the outskirts of Chicago.
After all, thanks to seasonably cool air and outstanding bite on the famously fast Route 66 quarter-mile, Pro Stock qualifying had yielded national records for elapsed time and top speed twice in the same day, by two different drivers: reigning and newly crowned POWERade champion Greg Anderson and rising star Dave Connolly.
But nobody -- even the most optimistic or naive -- would have predicted what 12-time Funny Car champion John Force pulled off in the day's final qualifying round. The sport's winningest driver with 113 national event victories shredded the record books with Funny Car's all-time quickest elapsed time, 4.697 seconds and the second-fastest speed in class history, 332.75 mph.
What made Force's run so monumentally significant is that it was Funny Car's first 4.60's pass and it was achieved under the relatively new 85% rule which went into effect two months ago in Seattle. The run gave Force his 123rd low qualifier award and a stunning psychological boost as he and his team close on their 13th POWERade title.
"It's all Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly's doing," said Force as he climbed from his Castrol Mustang amid cheers from the Route 66 Raceway grandstands. "They're the ones who come up with the tune-up to take advantage of these conditions.
"I'm happy for Ford as they celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Mustang and this is why they give us what we need to go out there and win championships. If I can stop redlighting and making any more dumb mistakes tomorrow, maybe we can go out and win this race and wrap up that championship. I'd like to be able to relax and stop having those nightmares about (Gary) Scelzi catching me in the points."
Force's reference to "mistakes" relates to his recent redlight in Dallas a week ago in the semifinals -- his third foul of 2004 -- which had become the main topic of conversation in the F/C pits as action opened up this weekend. But those mistakes have suddenly lost much of their dimension following his qualifying rifle shot on Saturday.
The stupendous 4.697 et could become an official national record should Force back it up on race day with a run of 4.743 seconds. Conditions are expected to be slightly less favorable in Joliet on Sunday with temperatures about 15 degrees milder than the 55-degree temperatures racers saw on Saturday. Force would earn an additional 20 points should he end the weekend with the national elapsed time record.
It was unquestionably the run of the season, regardless of class, and essentially locked up the last Funny Car performance milestone still to be earned during this generation, since a 4.50's pass or a speed of 340 mph in that category may be years away -- especially with the recent efforts of the NHRA to curb the speeds of the two nitro-fueled classes.
But for now, who better than Force to be the one to shatter that milestone in a career in which there have been too many milestones to count?
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.