2014 NHRA Mello Yello Series Preview: Funny Car
The 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Series Funny Car field gave drag racing fans the old bait and switch. For most of the season, the odds-on favorite was 2011 class champion Matt Hagan. The Don Schumacher Racing driver was hot, earning five top qualifier awards and five victories, including the season-ending event at Pomona.
The problem was, someone forgot to tell John Force that he was too old to race at a championship level. The legendary flopper pilot had a stellar season late, winning three in a row in the Countdown, including the race at Las Vegas where he earned his 16th-career Funny Car title one race before the season finale in Pomona. Making the run all the more impressive is the fact he was told he would lose longtime sponsors Ford and Castrol at the end of the 2014 season.
Force, along with daughter Courtney, son-in-law Robert Hight, and daughter Brittany on the Top Fuel side, returns this season with all the pressure on them. While John Force Racing still has loyal sponsors such as Traxxas, Brand Source, and Auto Club, replacing Ford and Castrol is going to be tough. Obviously Force can handle the pressure. In addition to the stresses of being a owner/driver, he is one of the few team owners who has been able to make the type of crew changes mid-season he has in recent years and make them work. Having said that, the off-track issues coupled with a very competitive field will prevent Force from getting 17 in '14.
Courtney also had a tremendous 2013, kicking off with her season-opening Winter nationals victory. She became the face of the sport with her appearance in the ESPN Body issue and by being successful on the track and popular in the pits. While she will make the Countdown to the Championship this season and win at least two races, she isn't ready for a title run just yet.
Team Kalitta could be interesting with their lineup of former Top Fuel champion Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria. DeJoria is due for a win (possibly Houston) and Worsham has the experience and ability to race for a title if everything falls into place. Look for Johnny Gray, running races here and there, and Chad Head to also grab a win or two. Another couple of wins will fall in the direction of Bob Tasca III and Tim Wilkerson, who's always strong in Seattle. Along with Force, Tasca is going to be hurt by the departure of Ford from the sport, more so due to his family's generations-long association with the Blue Oval boys.
At the end of the day, though, the title is going to be DSR's to lose. Ron Capps, a fan favorite, very nearly won the title in 2012 and doesn't want to be the Dan Marino of drag racing. Jack Beckman, the winner of that championship in '12, has the team and talent to get his second title. Tommy Johnson, Jr., replacing Gray and running fulltime this season, wants to show that his last outing in a Funny Car with Kenny Bernstein was a fluke.
It's Hagan, though, who is going to win the title. Winning the final race at Pomona last fall, despite losing the title to Force, gives him momentum going into the season opener this weekend. As far as a dark horse, I'm going with Cruz Pedregon. Cruz is always fast and always a threat on Sundays; he just needs to work out the inconsistencies with his team, along with some of the off-the-track issues that plagued him last year, to win his third class title.
Check back here later as we look at the Pro Stock field for 2014.