By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
It’s not like Tim Wilkerson is a drama queen or anything. It’s simply that drama seems to seek out the 53-year-old Ford Funny Car racer.
For the third straight year, the owner, tuner and driver of the Levi, Ray and Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang finds himself in a make-or-break stretch run to claim one of the final positions in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Mello Yello Championship.
Coming into this week’s 33rd annual Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, a race in which Ford Racing teammate John Force has been dominant, Wilkerson is locked in an intense duel with former series champions “Fast Jack” Beckman, Cruz Pedregon, Del Worsham and Matt Hagan.
That’s five drivers vying for the final four transfer positions into the playoffs and although he is the only one of that quintet without a championship, Wilkerson likes his chances.
"Jack and I did a TV interview during the (Western) Swing and I think I surprised him a little when I didn't play along with the 'me against him' story," Wilkerson said. "I said I thought we could both make the playoffs and I still think that. We're both running pretty strong right now and, more importantly, we're at least winning the first round.
“So, we're heading into Brainerd with the mindset that the single most important round in any race is the first one,” said the 17-time pro tour winner. "We're running well enough for me to envision it and now we just have to make it happen.
"The best thing we have going for us is that it's up to us. If we win rounds, we'll be in good shape. If we have to start relying on other teams to lose, that means we're not in the driver's seat. I prefer to be in the driver's seat, so that's the focus -- just win rounds.”
It’s the same mantra that propelled the veteran into the playoffs the last two years.
"Frankly I'm not going to concern myself with how anyone else is doing,” Wilkerson said. “I can't control who wins or loses. I can't even control that in my own rounds and if you want some examples just look at my race against (Gary) Densham (a narrow loss at Seattle) or my race against Ron Capps in Epping (where he ran low ET of race day but was beaten by six-thousandths of a second).
“All you can do is focus on making good laps (and) not worry about who is racing who. It's a complicated sport, but that part of it is pretty simple."
Wilkerson comes into the race in 10th place in Mello Yello points with a 30-point advantage over Beckman. He trails Worsham by 25 points; Pedregon by almost 80 with just two races remaining before the 10-driver fields are set and the points are adjusted for the Countdown.
Realistically, Wilkerson is the last Ford driver with a chance to bump into the field. Two already are in -- former series champion Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang, and reigning and 16-time champ John Force, driver of the Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford. Another, Courtney Force, should win her spot this weekend in the Traxxas Ford Mustang.
The odd man out likely will be Bob Tasca III in the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby Mustang who, barring a minor miracle, will slide into the role of spoiler in which he has excelled previously including 2012 when he won the AAA Texas Nationals at Dallas even though he wasn’t a Countdown player.“I want a win so bad I can taste it,” Tasca said of a disappointing 2014 campaign. “We went into the season with a goal of winning Ford a couple of trophies, and that’s still the plan.”
Hight, who has led the points after the last 13 races, rolls into Brainerd International with a confidence that belies his past performance at the Minnesota track.
The winner of more Funny Car races over the last 10 years than any other driver, the 44-year-old Hight never has won at Brainerd. Not only that, he never has started from the front of the pack.
“Brainerd is a great race because you can put the finishing touches on your tune-up and get ready (for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and the Countdown, which follows immediately thereafter),” said the 44-year-old president of John Force Racing.
“I have always said the Funny Car competition continues to get tougher and tougher (and because of that) you have to have confidence in yourself and your team,” said the former JFR crew member. “I have so much confidence in (crew chief) Mike Neff and my guys I honestly think we can win every race.
“I know that’s not going to happen because the competition is so strong, but when you have that confidence, things fall your way.
“I think getting some traction in Brainerd could be the key (to a strong finish). Even though we haven’t been to the winners’ circle, we have always figured one or two things out,” said the 34-time tour winner.
“Even when we didn’t qualify in 2009, we learned some things at Brainerd that helped get us into the Countdown and once you’re in it you can win it. We proved that!”
Indeed, Hight got into the 2009 playoffs in the No. 10 position and became the only worst-to-first champion in the history of the Countdown. If he’s going to win a second title, though, it’s not going to require such a surge.
The former Rookie-of-the-Year and one-time world class marksman is likely to earn the No. 1 starting position and the 30-point lead that comes with it. Worst case scenario, he’ll start second behind Force who, with four straight final round appearances in the Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford, has closed the gap to just 47 points.
While Hight has never won at Brainerd, Force has won more often in the Lucas Oil Nationals than anyone. His 11 victories represent the most by any driver in any class in a single event. In 28 career appearances, he’s gone to the finals 14 times. Frankly, he expects success at BIR although it’s been seven years since he has celebrated a victory.
“It is the setting of the track and the fact that I match-raced there for a lot of years,” Force said of the secret to his Brainerd success. “You have good air and it’s a good race track. I’ve just been able to just get focused and do well.
“People will race Brainerd different that they race Indy (and the upcoming Labor Day U.S. Nationals),” Force said. “You race Brainerd to make the Countdown. At Indy, you’re racing to win the biggest race of the year and to win the Traxxas Shootout. You run your race car at Brainerd to win the race because it moves you up in points.”
Although Hight and Force are likely to be seeded No. 1 and No. 2 in the Countdown, Courtney Force still is racing for position in the playoffs and the position she is seeking is No. 3. She rolls into Brainerd just nine points back of Ron Capps, who presently occupies that spot.
“This race can be a game-changer for a lot of competitors, including myself,” said the 26-year-old who has won more NHRA Funny Car races than any other woman. “We haven’t had the best luck at this track in the past but we’re looking to turn that around.”
Courtney Force is youngest of Force’s four daughters and has won twice this year for Traxxas but it’s been something of a roller coaster ride.
“One weekend we’re on top and winning and the next we’re out in the first round,” lamented the five-time tour winner. “But that’s racing. That’s a great reminder for myself and my team that you have to keep your focus. (After a first round exit two weeks ago at Seattle), we’re looking to be back on top this weekend.”