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Fri, 28 Sep 2001, 02:58 PM

Championship Still in Doubt as Tour Returns to Chicago
Courtesy of Dave Densmore, DensWood Sports Marketing

JOLIET, Ill. -- Mathematically, John Force is weeks away from clinching his record-breaking 11th Winston Championship. Realistically, though, his performance in this week's inaugural NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway could all but seal the deal.

On the strength of a runner-up finish (to teammate Gary Densham) in last week's AutoZone Nationals at Memphis, Tenn., the 52-year-old drag racing icon extended his advantage over second place Whit Bazemore to 285 points 14 competitive rounds.

Over the last 12 seasons, with five races remaining, that's the third largest lead he's held behind only the 574-point margin he enjoyed in his Driver of the Year season (1996) and the 288 points by which he led in 1993.

If Force leaves Sunday night at least 349 points ahead of his closest Funny Car rival Bazemore, Del Worsham or Ron Capps, it would take a miracle to deny him a ninth straight Funny Car championship.

However, with national record implications (and the 20 points that accrue each time the record is set) and with the possibility, however remote, that Force might fail to qualify for one of the next five events (even though he's made the starting lineup at 272 consecutive races), neither of the three aforementioned challengers can yet be totally eliminated.

For instance, should Bazemore sweep at Route 66, qualifying No. 1, winning the race and setting the NHRA national record (earning the maximum 138 points), he could reduce Force's advantage by as much as 107 points depending upon the points leader's qualifying position and relative success in eliminations.

It doesn't take a mathematician to determine that a couple such reversals would make things very interesting. Of course, the 107-point figure depends upon Force (1) qualifying worse than 13th (he has done so only once in the last four years and that was the result of new car woes that left him 15th in the field for the 2000 Pontiac Excitement Nationals at Columbus Ohio); and (2) exiting in the first round.

Certainly, Force has proved this year that he is not invincible, losing four times in first round races, most recently at Sonoma, Calif., and at Indianapolis, Ind., in the sport's biggest event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.

On the other hand, Force has lost in the first round only 26 times in12 years, an average of one such loss in every 8.1 starts. More importantly, during the season's last five races, he has lost in the first round only twice in the last 11 years. That figures to one first round loss in every 27 starts.

"You can go nuts figuring all the angles," Force said. "And I don't need any help (going nuts). We're just going to go out and do what we do. It's like (Crew Chief Austin) Coil said, if somebody catches us, they deserve to win."

John Force in the Season's
Last Five Races (1990-2000)

Number races: 55
Record: 147-36
Final rounds: 32
Races won: 18
Semifinals: 45
First round losses: 2
Times qualified No. 1: 26
Times qualified Top 2: 36
Average starting position: 2.5

(John Force's Points Lead)

5 Races        4 Races
Left    Year    Left

101     1990     58
203     1991    207
 75     1992     41
288     1993    373
258     1994    284
107     1995    172
574     1996    628
194     1997    235
 89     1998    110
280     1999    319
226     2000    272
285     2001    ......

DID YOU KNOW: John Force has been the Winston Funny Car points leader after 194 of the 237 NHRA Winston Series races contested since the start of the 1990 season. During that span, only 11 other drivers have led the points and only three have led in more than one season. Number in parenthesis indicates the number of different seasons a driver has led the Funny Car points.

                                    Post Race
Funny Car Driver                 Points Leader

John Force (11)                     194
Jerry Toliver (1)                    11
Cruz Pedregon (4)                     9
Ron Capps (1)                         4
Al Hofmann (3)                        3
K.C. Spurlock (2)                     3
Ed McCulloch (1)                      3
Bruce Sarver (1)                      3
Bruce Larson (1)                      2
Jim Epler (1)                         2
Chuck Etchells (1)                    2
Tony Pedregon (1)                     1

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