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Hight’s On A Lot Of Minds As Nationals Begin

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, September 3 2010

John Force and Robert Hight are on top of the Funny Car standings as the U.S. Nationals get under way today. (File photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Clermont, Ind. – Robert Hight arrived at drag racing’s biggest event on Friday as a whole lot more than just the defending Funny Car champion and the owner of the No. 2 spot in this year’s point standings.

He arrived as a symbol of hope for that large handful of drivers and teams who staggered their way into the NHRA Full Throttle series’ 2010 Countdown to 1 – the six-race, season-ending playoff – which starts this weekend with the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O’Reilly Raceway Park.

Many who have more hopes than chances, have talked Hight’s incredible run from last to first in last year’s Countdown and those who have not, are surely thinking about it.

“Once you get into the Countdown,” Funny Car driver Del Worsham, who has gone winless to this point of the season but who will start today’s qualifications in ninth place, said, “anybody has a chance to win a Full Throttle championship.  Last year, we all saw Robert Hight start as the 10th seed, win some races and cruise to the championship so if things go our way, the Al-Anabi team can definitely win a Full Throttle championship from the ninth seed.”

Said fourth-place Matt Hagan, “You have to be in it to win it – sorry for the cliché. And I think that all of us on the DieHard team have put ourselves in the position to have that chance to win the championship. But, like (crew chief) Tommy DeLago said, we’re just going to play it race by race, lap by lap and not get too far ahead of ourselves, because it’s so easy to put pressure on yourself and get caught up in all the hoopla. I’m super-excited but not overly confident.”

Hight’s late-season ramble last season made for one of those great and greatly entertaining stories which gets young athletes involved in sports and turns fans into rabid fans.

Hight was having a horrible and horribly disappointing season when he and his John Force Racing team rolled into Indy last season for the U.S. Nationals – which, last year, was final pre-Countdown event instead of the Countdown-kickoff event it is this season.

Hight was not only not winning events, he was having trouble just qualifying.

Things were going so badly for him that boss John Force started shifting crews and crew chiefs and cars around in his four-car organization.

People inside JFR were more hopeful than confident that the moves would push Hight into the playoffs. He needed nothing less than to get to the finals at the Nationals to become a Countdowner.

At Indy, Hight, aided – unfairly some contended – by a loss by Force in eliminations, made it to the finals and got the final Countdown berth, even though he lost to teammate Ashley Force Hood in the Indy finals.

Once in the finals – and quite obviously aided by momentum earned at the Nationals – Hight started winning races in the Countdown. He won three of the six, in fact – and left Pomona in the fall with his first world championship trophy stashed away in his luggage.

Hight’s story was the kind that’s keeping dreams alive this weekend.

“Whether you are first or 10th, it is irrelevant,” Funny Car hopeful Bob Tasca III, seventh in points, said this week. “Robert (Hight) won from the 10th spot; Cruz Pedregon won from the seventh spot.”

Hight won’t have to use himself as motivation this season. Unlike 2009, 2010 has been a good one for him as he has battled boss and point-leader Force for the top spot in the standings for most of the pre-Countdown part of the schedule. The left Brainerd, Minn. last month for Indy with just one point separating them.

Hight is 29-13 in eliminations, was No. 1 qualifier six times and won four events.

“I’m definitely excited about going into the Countdown this year,” Hight said. “Last year, I just barely made it and I still really believe we owe that to John Force and his making a lot of changes with our team right at the end before the regular season was over. He shuffled things around, it got the crew chiefs’ minds right and we went back to basics. We used the ‘One Ford’ approach and got all the cars on the same page and working together and we carried that philosophy into this year.”

Hight will start 30 points behind Force. But, he will start just 80 points ahead of 10th-place Tony Pedregon.

All thanks to the resetting of points for the Countdown.

“The Al-Anabi Toyota team starts the Countdown in ninth place, but the only disadvantage is that we’re a half a round behind eighth place,” Worsham said. “That’s what’s so cool about this format.”

Point standings (top 10) for NHRA professional categories following the 29th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, the 17th of 23 events in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.

Top Fuel

1. Larry Dixon, 1,639; 2. Cory McClenathan, 1,359; 3. Tony Schumacher, 1,346; 4. Doug Kalitta, 1,243; 5. Antron Brown, 1,180; 6. Brandon Bernstein, 1,109; 7. Shawn Langdon, 815; 8. Morgan Lucas, 758; 9. Steve Torrence, 704; 10. David Grubnic, 682.

Funny Car

1. John Force, 1,250; 2. Robert Hight, 1,249; 3. Jack Beckman, 1,155; 4. Matt Hagan, 1,136; 5. Ron Capps, 1,048; 6. Tim Wilkerson, 1,035; 7. Bob Tasca III, 1,016; 8. Ashley Force Hood, 984; 9. Del Worsham, 929; 10. Tony Pedregon, 764.

Pro Stock

1. Mike Edwards, 1,631; 2. Allen Johnson, 1,303; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 1,227; 4. Greg Anderson, 1,095; 5. Jason Line, 931; 6. Shane Gray, 857; 7. Ron Krisher, 847; 8. Greg Stanfield, 804; 9.

Johnny Gray, 792; 10. Rodger Brogdon, 728.

Pro Stock Motorcycle

1. Andrew Hines, 903; 2. Hector Arana, 890; 3. Michael Phillips, 778; 4. Matt Smith, 759; 5. Steve Johnson, 699; 6. Eddie Krawiec, 597; 7. LE Tonglet, 584; 8. David Hope, 574; 9. Karen Stoffer, 543; 10. Craig Treble, 508.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, September 3 2010
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