Commentary

Hight steps up for John Force Racing during eliminations

Robert Hight may have given John Force Racing a big boost. Tony Schumacher pulled off what few before him have while Dave Connolly and Matt Guidera made the closing round of the Western Swing pay off big, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: July 28, 2008, 7:28 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

John Force Racing is supposed to win a lot of races.

Robert Hight
Courtesy NHRA Robert High got his second win of the season and moved up to second place in the Funny Car standings.

Not that it's preordained, handed down from biblical prophets, or a clause in the NHRA's charter which must be upheld. It's more a conclusion any reasonable drag racing enthusiast would come to after examining the evidence.

JFR is headed by the sport's winningest and most revered owner/driver, 14-time POWERade champion John Force. His tuning team of Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly is a pair of consensus first-ballot hall of famers and Force's entire operation is as well funded in both dollars and talent as any Funny Car team in drag racing history. There's a slew of additional evidence which could be submitted, but in the final analysis, JFR should have every expectation of winning regularly, decidedly and undeniably.

Which is why Robert Hight's victory on Sunday at the 21st FRAM-Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., is such an enigma. Force's son-in-law and fourth-year team driver got around former Force headliner Gary Densham in the final round, 4.163 seconds at 296.50 mph to 4.222/289.14, thus picking up only his second win of 2008 and giving JFR a grand total of just four event titles following 15 stops on this year's schedule.

Hight won the season-opening race in Pomona, Calif., in February. Force has a single win, as does his daughter, Ashley, while No. 4 driver, Mike Neff, remains winless in his rookie campaign.

Those four wins for Team Force match the total '08 victory output to date of points leader and single-car team owner Tim Wilkerson, who has thumbed his nose at conventional wisdom this season by maintaining his No. 1 spot in the standings with an operation far less affluent than the category's most visible multicar outfits.

"I've said it all along that the competition out there is tougher and more equal than it's ever been before," said Force, who hasn't won a national event since his victory in Topeka, Kan., at the beginning of June. "Wilkerson proves what I've always said and that is besides the budget you've got to have the talent and the breaks going your way to win championships. What you lack in money you can sometimes make up for with attitude and effort. But you can't do it with one and not the others. We could use a few more breaks going our way this year but Coil, Bernie, all my guys have been through a lot of championship races and nobody out there is just going to let you roll over them.

"Castrol, Ford, Old Spice, Triple-A all want to win the championship and we want to win it for them but it's not how many races you win with this Countdown but it's being consistent when it counts. Robert, Jimmy [tuner Jimmy Prock], and the team were consistent today and now we have to do the same thing with the other three cars."

Tony Schumacher is the epitome of consistency in Top Fuel.

The reigning and five-time champion completed a sweep of the Western Swing on Sunday, putting the lid on his Denver-Seattle-Sonoma three-bagger by defeating Northern California native Hillary Will in the final round, 3.886/307.93 to 3.988/306.19.

"What can I say? It's just another example of a total team effort," said Schumacher, who joins the likes of Force, Joe Amato, Greg Anderson, Cory McClenathan and Larry Dixon as the only drivers to win all three Western Swing events. "You don't come out here with the intention of winning all three races but when you have a team like this U.S. Army team and a tuner like Alan Johnson, you always think in the back of your mind that anything is possible."

Schumacher has now won five of the past six national events and is poised to enter the Countdown to 1 -- following the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend in Indianapolis -- with an enormous rush of momentum.

Which aptly describes Dave Connolly's recent successes in Pro Stock.

Not only did Connolly beat his Cagnazzi Racing teammate, defending POWERade champion Jeg Coughlin Jr., in the Sonoma final and on a holeshot, but he also pushed himself into the top 10 after a remarkable recovery from missing the first five races of 2008.

Connolly spotted the rest of the category a huge head start while team owner Vic Cagnazzi was lining up a primary sponsor for '08. Connolly made his first appearance of the year in Atlanta in April, and since then, has chipped away at the racers ahead of him in the Pro Stock standings.

It was Connolly's second win of the year, moving him into 10th place in the points and dropping Warren Johnson to 11th.

His 6.628/207.69 was enough to edge Coughlin's quicker 6.627/207.24 for the baby holeshot win.

"I definitely had my doubts about this weekend after our first-round loss last week in Seattle, but you can only beat this team down so much before we're going to bounce back," said Connolly. "I hadn't driven that well and today I told myself it's time to remove my head from my rear."

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Gainesville, Fla., winner and Sacramento, Calif., native Matt Guidera had his head where it belonged in the final round, shaving three-time POWERade champion Matt Hines with a timely holeshot.

Guidera served up a .018 reaction time (.000 is perfect) compared to Hines' .050 and that gave him a sufficient head start to the finish line, with his 7.054/185.74 clipping Hines' quicker and faster 7.026/187.34.

"This is the best win of my career by far," Guidera said. "It's any racer's dream to win in front of the home crowd and that's what we did today. I'm so glad my family could be here today and to have [team owner] Brian [Bozsum] and [wife] Linda here."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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