Funny Car race provided long-lasting thrills

Originally Published: November 16, 2005
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

After the 2005 NHRA POWERade Funny Car championship was decided Nov. 6 in Pomona, Calif., one indisputable reality quickly set in.

Now, we're all spoiled.

The likelihood of another classic points chase coming down to the final event of the season among three veteran drivers is surely flimsy. And because of that, the 2005 Funny Car joy ride takes on an even greater magnitude and will continue to be a lasting source of conversation and debate throughout the current offseason and beyond.

Tommy Johnson Jr., Phil Burkart, Whit Bazemore, John Force, Robert Hight and Gary Scelzi all had their hands around the points lead at one time or another during this year's struggle. But as the familiar saying goes, the only time the points lead really matters is after the last race, and by that measure, Scelzi earned his landmark championship through sheer resilience and determination.

Although the season as a whole was a never-ending labyrinth of unpredictable turns of fortune (Hight leading the points through much of the first half of the schedule, Bazemore and talented tuner Lee Beard parting ways after a big slide in the points, and Force suffering a stretch of a half-dozen races with only a single round win), the series of events that ended the unprecedented multidriver brawl for the '05 crown was itself a microcosm of the entire season.

After such a spine-tingling 22-race squabble for the title, everyone knew that in race No. 23, there would have to be a touch of the unlikely to settle the matter.

There was.

Scelzi, Ron Capps and Force came to the final event at Pomona Raceway separated by only 28 points. When qualifying had ended, the spread was up to 32. As fate would have it, all three drivers advanced to the second round of eliminations, with Capps and Force needing Scelzi to lose no later than the semifinals to have any chance at overtaking him.

But Capps was the first to see his chances snuffed, when he lost to Cruz Pedregon. Two pairs later, it appeared as if Force again was going to play drag racing's equivalent of Harry Houdini when Scelzi lost by less than a car-length to Johnson. Scelzi and Capps had left the door wide open for Force, who was about to race his former teammate, Tony Pedregon, knowing he could win his 14th championship by winning the final two rounds. It was the kind of situation that has exemplified the Force legacy.

But in a shocking twist of fortune, Force lost to Pedregon on a holeshot, reversing the results of what happened in 2002, when Force beat Pedregon the same way in the semifinals of the same event to ice his 12th title. This time, it was Scelzi playing the role of the beneficiary.

And so the greatest NHRA Funny Car championship battle royal of all time ended with more emotion, irony and improbability than anyone could have imagined. If next year's Funny Car ride is half as entertaining as this year's, we should all consider ourselves very fortunate indeed.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.

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