- John Schwarb
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POMONA, Calif. -- Racing in the 44th Auto Club Finals with a title on the line, that's not pressure. Robert Hight is more worried about what would come next should Sunday play out perfectly for his Funny Car -- he would have to make a champion's speech at the NHRA awards banquet.
Hight is just a little different from his boss.
You know what you get with John Force, the 14-time Funny Car champion who has as many stories to tell as round wins -- and he has more than 1,000 round wins. The 59-year-old has built an empire out of clocking four-second elapsed times in his Ford Mustangs, but in interviews it's an upset if he answers the first question in four minutes.
He's an icon. He's also not the best driver on his team anymore.
That is now Hight, Force's son-in-law and former clutch specialist. In his fourth season the 39-year-old has supplanted the boss as the team's best shoe, with two runner-up finishes the past two seasons and a third-place points position going into Sunday's season finale.
The first runner-up, in 2006, was to Force, but the boss knows that the pupil is now better than the teacher.
"Robert's the best I got. If I had to go into a final, Robert would be the one that I'd want going in," said Force, who also fields cars for daughter Ashley Force and rookie Mike Neff. "I want to be as good, but I'm getting old. Robert, he always listened to me, and now he's taking the knowledge."
Hight will need help Sunday, trailing Tim Wilkerson by 27 points and Cruz Pedregon by 39 points prior to qualifying at Pomona. He'll need those two to falter at some point and must likely win the race himself to claim the title, but this is the place he could hold up his end of the deal. Hight has appeared in four consecutive final rounds at Pomona, scoring three wins, including this season's opener and last season's Auto Club Finals.
Auto Club Raceway is John Force Racing's home track and Hight races it that way, but he steadfastly refuses to believe he has any advantage. He also takes modesty a step further, declining any platitudes that he's the best JFR driver, refusing to entertain the notion that he's anything more than a decent driver in a great car.
"There's lots of guys that could easily jump in this car and do just as well, maybe better. Honestly. I was just chosen to do it," Hight said. "I have no God-given gift or anything else; it's just the desire to want to do it, want to get better, want to learn and keep continuing to learn. I won't ever think I've got this made or figured this out."
His competition's not buying that. Hight thinks the man or woman in the other lane sees a Jimmy Prock-tuned Ford as the formidable combination, but the rest of the class knows better.
"They say those quiet ones are the ones you have to watch for. He's a fierce competitor," Cruz Pedregon said. "When I pull up against him, I'm thinking I'm racing a tremendous car and a tremendous driver. I try not to leave any stone unturned.
"There's some cars that the driver, I don't want to say it's a weak link, but there's some cars that are stronger than the driver and there are some cars that have drivers stronger than the car. Robert is one of those guys, he matches the car and the potential. When we go up against those guys, it's going to be a battle. And he's the reason."
They say those quiet ones are the ones you have to watch for. He's a fierce competitor.
-- Cruz Pedregon
Pedregon finally got the best of Hight two weeks ago at Las Vegas after an 0-4 round record throughout the season. The two met in the final at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Pedregon got the win by .011 seconds, the round that vaulted Pedregon to the top of the Funny Car points and put Hight into a position where he needs help Sunday.
"These guys that are in the hunt, how they deal underneath that sort of pressure will definitely work to some people's advantage over others," Neff said. "Robert handles pressure really well, he's focused just like Jimmy is and the whole team. I expect them to not fold under the pressure, I think that they'll be as strong as anybody."
To take care of his business, Hight will step to the line with the same focus he relies on as a competitive trap shooter. Force asked him once how he did it and Hight explained there are training videos where you stare at the screen following a speck of light.
"When he looks at the Christmas Tree, nothing breaks his focus, ever," said Force, adding that he watched the videos and didn't learn a thing. "The guy in the next lane can go deep [stage], the guy can screw around, flicker the light. Robert focuses.
"He has good lights, except he's always shallow. He never goes in unless it's the final. Dead shallow he's a .070 [reaction time] guy, when I'm in deep I'm a .070 guy."
But Force has Hight beat like a drum in one area: the gift of gab.
"John's personality and the type of person he is, is what's made this organization and got it to the level it's at today," Hight said. "He's so good with people and so funny -- he's an entertainer. I'm not an entertainer. I could never be that guy.
If I tried to be it would be fake and phony, it's not me. I think that's what he's grooming Ashley for."
Given Ashley's ebullient personality and her dad being himself, Hight is a distant third in team popularity. That's fine by Hight as long as he's winning, even if winning leads to -- gasp -- speeches.
"It's kind of funny, I'm more nervous about if I win, going and giving a speech at the awards ceremony than I am going up and facing Cruz first round to win this championship," Hight said. "I'm pretty sure I can perform at my best and do what we need to do. John's the opposite. He would worry way more about facing Cruz, then he'd just shoot from the hip and give a big ol' speech and entertain.
"I look at things like, what could I honestly say to guys out there like Kenny Bernstein, [Don] Prudhomme, Force, all that they've done in the sport. What can I say to impress them?"
If Hight becomes a champion, that would say it all.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Hight is a man of few words. But winning a Funny Car title for John Force Racing would speak volumes, writes John Schwarb.