- Bill Stephens
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Every year, the NHRA presents the AAA Road to the Future award to the season's most outstanding rookie driver. Over the years, familiar names such as Del Worsham, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Ron Capps, Tony Pedregon, Ashley Force and Brandon Bernstein have graced the rookie trophy.
In 2008, it's almost a given that whatever driver claims that accolade will be among the 10 drivers in his or her respective category to advance to the Countdown to 1 -- the decisive stretch of six NHRA POWERade national events that will ultimately determine the four professional series' title winners.
Mike Neff, the driver of the Old Spice Ford Mustang owned by 14-time champion John Force, has now negotiated that critical hurdle in his pathway to 2008 Road to the Future plaudits. On Sunday, Neff clinched his Countdown spot at the Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., by advancing to the semifinals, and will now join his three teammates -- Force, his daughter Ashley and son-in-law Robert Hight -- in Charlotte, N.C., in September.
What makes Neff's Countdown eligibility so significant is that he became the only rookie driver in any professional class to make that step with one race remaining in the Countdown to 10.
"That was big for us," said Neff, who will be celebrating his 42nd birthday when the first race in the Countdown to 1 gets under way in Charlotte on Sept. 11-14.
"It felt good to go some rounds. We couldn't get the setup right going down [the] track. We spun the tires the first two rounds, and on the last run we thought we were going to fix that, but we put a cylinder out. That is what cost us that race. I really thought we were going to win and go to another final."
Neff's 2008 stat sheet already reflects a solid freshman season. He has advanced to three final rounds and has one F/C pole. He has yet to make it to a POWERade winner's circle, but he has the potential to take care of that piece of business as soon as the next race, the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.
"We'd like to get that first win this year, that's for sure," said Neff, who has already been a major part of a championship team, after tuning Gary Scelzi to the 2005 NHRA Funny Car crown. "Not too many drivers have won their first race at the U.S. Nationals, and I think we have a shot if the breaks go our way. But the main goal is to see the championship come back to John Force Racing, and if I can't be the one to win it, I definitely want to help John or Ashley or Robert win it."
Force is delighted to have all four of his cars in the Countdown to 1, especially with the level of competition coming from his archrival, Don Schumacher, who also fields four cars in the category. Tim Wilkerson's single-car success has been a remarkable story all year, while the Pedregon brothers -- Cruz and reigning POWERade champion Tony -- have shown serious strength. But Force feels he has the firepower necessary to challenge for the championship, and Neff is a sizable component in his team machinery.
"What really matters is putting four cars in the championship," said Force. "Robert has the best car to win a championship for us. I'd like to see Ashley or Robert win the championship, and even Neff has a chance. That's how competitive it is out there right now, and to have a team with four cars who could all possibly get the job done puts us where we need to be."
Neff is showing impressive levelheadedness in his rookie adventure, as the media glare becomes progressively brighter and the season moves into its climactic stages. Not one to get ahead of himself, his giant step into the Countdown to 1 has opened the door to the real prize that he and his John Force Racing teammates are collectively aiming at.
"Getting in the Countdown was definitely one of our goals at the beginning of the year," he said. "We really wanted to get in there this weekend solid so we didn't have to worry about that going into Indy. Indy is just such a high-pressure race. It feels good to get that monkey off our back."
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Mike Neff can cross one goal off his to-do list: advancing to the NHRA's Countdown to 1. Can his first victory -- and perhaps even a Funny Car title -- be too far behind?