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Routine Mistake Costs John Force A Countdown Victory

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 21 2014

John Force was seeing red at the Texas Motorplex on Saturday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

ENNIS, Texas – Funny Car icon John Force was foaming at the mouth Saturday after an uncharacteristic red-light cost him a victory against Matt Hagan during the delayed Race 1 final of the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship at the Texas Motorplex.

Force outran Hagan over the 1,000-foot distance of the Motorplex’s all-concrete surface with a pass in 4.140-seconds at 309.77 mph to his rival’s 4.212-second lap at 297.81 mph. But Force, the 16-time/reigning Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champion, jumped the starting line Christmas Tree lights by 0.053-seconds and was immediately disqualified. That handed Hagan victory in the re-routed running of the seventh annual Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals, which were moved from problem-plagued zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., to The Plex last Sunday.

“This was driver error!” said Force, who was appearing in his seventh consecutive final round. “My race car out-ran him; it whipped him unless he (Hagan) lifted early, but they said he was right down there with me. I got jacked-up. I heard them yelling, ‘They’re running Pro Stock.’ I knew I was late (to the staging lanes), I changed my routine. I know better than to change my routine!”

The winningest driver in NHRA history, Force was poised for what would have been his 142nd national event Wally trophy and 79th behind the wheel of a Ford hot rod. That scenario was scrapped by Force’s second red-light of the season.

“I’m so furious at myself – you don’t change your routine – and yet I changed it and I screwed-up all the work we did,” said Force, 65, driver of the Castrol High Mileage Mustang. “We’re going to try to win this race, we’re going to try to win this championship and you don’t to it by making those kinds of mistakes. I’m embarrassed.”

Force went into the match with a 3-3 record against Hagan, the 2011 world champion from Don Schumacher Racing. Hagan said he knew he had won the round as soon as Force blasted off the line.

“He was so, so early. I don’t even know if I ran it all the way because I didn’t want to do something stupid,” said Hagan, driver of the Rocky Boots/Mopar Dodge Charger. “It was one of those things where either I was dead-late or he was really early. I feel pretty confident about my lights out there so I don’t think I was dead-late.

“But John’s a great racer and I’m glad we got a little rivalry. We need that out here in this sport. It can’t be all kissy-kissy all the time. It’s nice to have a winning record again against John. He’s the man to beat and he’s proven it all year long. They’ve been very, very dominant, but with this Countdown it gives us another shot to come out here and really take this thing over.”

Round 2 of the six-event Countdown will be contested Sunday during the 29th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals here. Force, a three-time winner this season, has a 41-point lead over John Force Racing teammate Robert Hight, the 2009 world champ. Hagan is third, 52 points behind Brut Force.

Rookie of the Year contender Jonathan Gray earned his first Wally trophy Saturday by outrunning Pro Stock point-leader and two-time world champion Jason Line in the delayed Carolina Nationals final.

Appearing in his third professional final round, Gray covered the quarter-mile in 6.589-seconds at 209.10 mph in his Gray Motorsports Chevy Camaro. Line ran 6.605-seconds at 209.62 mph in his Summit Racing Equipment Camaro.

“This is huge,” said Gray, who moved from No. 9 to No. 4 in points after the first of six Countdown to the Championship events. “It’s big for everybody here and back at the shop. All the Gray Motorsports guys, they’re just doing a phenomenal job. The engine shop, the guys on my team, I mean, they’re just awesome. I have to thank my wife and kids for putting up with this, and of course my mom and dad for being extremely supportive. This is just a really cool deal.”

Ironically, Gray’s path to victory included a semifinals victory against older brother Shane, who nevertheless qualified on-pole for Sunday’s FallNats. “You don’t want to have to run him,” said Jonathan, a 33-year-old resident of Mooresville, N.C. “But when you run in the same class a win’s a win. We were 2-2 going into that round so I’m one-up on him again.

“When I started this deal at the first of the year, I really didn’t have any intention of running all the races. I’m enjoying it probably more than anything that I’ve ever done. Aside from having my kids, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. This is really neat.”

Jonathan’s Pro Stock career now spans 16 races. His father, veteran drag racer Johnny Gray, also has a direct connection to the Motorplex, the track where he earned his Nitro Funny Car license. And in 2009, Shane won the divisional title in Competition Eliminator at former Funny Car driver Billy Meyer’s facility.

“We have a lot of history here, and this is just really a neat deal for all of us,” said Jonathan, whose Chevy is tuned by crew chiefs Justin Elkes and Tommy Utt. “Going up there I had the utmost confidence in my equipment and my guys. I knew that unless I did something stupid we had a really good shot of winning. We were able to get it done and I’m really excited. The momentum is just huge. Our whole team is just on ‘kill’ right now. We’ve got all three Gray Motorsports cars really running good, and we couldn’t have peaked at a better time.”

Line _ another resident of Mooresville _ has fashioned a 56-point lead over native Texan Erica Enders-Stevens heading into Sunday’s FallNats. Jonathan Gray is fourth, 91 points behind Line but only two markers behind five-time/reigning world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. and hisJEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Dart in third. Shane Gray, driver of the Gray Manufacturing Camaro, sits fifth, two points behind his brother.

Additionally, teammate Dave Connolly, driver of the Charter Camaro, is sixth, three points behind Shane Gray. All three Gray Motorsports drivers now have scored a national event victory this season.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 21 2014
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  • Wayne Reed says:

    What was John thinking taking the right lane on that run against Hagan, who’s decision was that.if he wasn’t rushed would he have chosen the left lane ?