Ron Capps' title quest bittersweet

John Force is the reigning NHRA king, but Ron Capps and Jack Beckman have ruled the roost in 2012. Andrew Weber/US Presswire

The last time Ron Capps raced in Las Vegas was his worst weekend of the 2012 NHRA season, but a great deal of good arose from a bad situation.

Failing to qualify for the Las Vegas event in March led to a team swap at Don Schumacher Racing that has Capps in contention to win the Funny Car championship that has eluded him for many years.

There's only one catch: He has to beat the team he left in order to win the crown.

DSR teammate Jack Beckman, the man who swapped places with Capps seven months ago, is 23 points ahead of Capps (just over one round of racing) with two events remaining.

Capps had a 96-point lead in the standings on Sept. 23. Now he's hoping to overtake Beckman and hold off third-place Mike Neff, who is 31 behind Capps.

"We had a lot of people saying the championship was wrapped up going into St. Louis, [one month ago]," Capps said. "It almost irritated me, whether it was media or just fans, because I think they forget how quickly things can turn around, which they have."

No Funny Car driver in history has won as many NHRA events as Capps (37) without winning a championship. Now at age 47, he has another chance to change it. Capps has ranked in the top 10 in 15 of his 16 seasons as a full-time driver. Three times, he was the runner-up.

If Capps can finish strong in the final eight rounds of racing this year, he may finally claim the ultimate prize. But Capps admits he has some mixed feelings.

Of course he wants to win it. And other than NASCAR's Mark Martin, a five-time runner-up to the Cup title, maybe no one in racing deserves to win a title more than Capps. The Carlsbad, Calif., resident has paid his dues and will go in the books as one of the best drag racers ever, whether he gets that championship or not.

This year, however, is different. Capps still feels the sting of unfair criticism he took when Schumacher opted to swap teams between Capps and Beckman after the spring Las Vegas event.

"I took a lot of flak on the message boards," Capps said. "People thought I was stealing Jack's crew. It was unfortunate to read a lot of that stuff. It kind of hurt me personally when they didn't know what was going on inside the camp."

Capps was doing what he was told to do by Schumacher, who made a difficult business decision to help Capps' longtime sponsor, NAPA. So Beckman moved to the team that was struggling at the time and Capps moved to the team that was having more success.

"It was difficult for me because I felt like it was a no-win situation," Capps said. "If we went out and did what we did -- in fact, we went to six final rounds in a row -- I'm doing it in Jack's old car. I did it with Jack's old team. But it was part of the deal.

"I've always told Don, 'I'm going to do what you want to do with full support.' Jack is the same way. This is what we do for a living. With Don, you sometimes wonder what he's thinking, but everything usually turns out like gold."

And it has for both teams. Capps has won four times this season under the guidance of crew chief Rahn Tobler. Schumacher hired Todd Smith as crew chief for Beckman after the swap, and that pairing has won three events.

Beckman also set a national record three weeks ago at Reading, Pa., with a pass at 3.986 seconds (320.58 mph) to garner an additional 20 points. Now Beckman can do what no one thought possible months ago -- win the title over the team he lost.

"It's been awkward for Ron and I, because the teams stayed intact, just the drivers changed," Beckman said. "It's almost like we just switched classrooms at school and we were the new people.

"Even though we knew all the crew guys from being teammates, it's different. So after a few races, I sat down with the new team and we talked. I said, 'Guys, you realize now that we've got some momentum going again. We could be championship contenders.'"

Beckman said it wouldn't have happened without Tobler and John Collins (Tobler's assistant) helping Smith get acclimated when he first arrived at DSR in March.

"Rahn and John never let us go," Beckman said. "They always were there to offer advice and help us and support us. But I'm pretty sure they're not going to be offering us any advice for the next two races."

That team is guys I had for almost eight years. It's like they're still my family. But I have a whole new group of guys now that I'm friends and family with.

-- Ron Capps

Uh, no. There are no teammates now. And Tobler knows from experience that the leader can fall.

"Last year when I was Jack's crew chief, we left Phoenix with two races left as the points leader, and we didn't win it," Tobler said. "Anything can happen. We're still in the game. It was great for Jack and that team to get 20 points for a national record, but it was more important to us to get our car straightened out. And I think we have."

Former Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr. drove Capps' car in a test session two weeks ago in Indianapolis, which Capps feels helped sort things out.

"We hadn't tested all year, so we put our old stuff back in it and the car went right down the track," Capps said. "Tobler figured out what the problem was, which is a great sign. He also found a steering box that was going bad, which could have been disastrous the first qualifying run in Vegas. That test was huge for us."

So Capps starts this Las Vegas event filled with confidence. If he wins it, he could pass Beckman for the top spot at the place where Capps thought his season was unraveling earlier this year.

"I was shocked when it happened," Capps said about failing to qualify at the first Vegas event. "I came back from the last qualifying attempt and was about to do an ESPN interview in the pit area.

"One of my crew guys came up behind me right before we went on live and told me that [crew chief] Tim Richards was resigning and he was up packing his stuff up. That's how I found out. I was devastated. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Schumacher told Capps the next day they were making the swap. And now it has come down to this: two races to go and Capps will win or lose the title against a group of men with whom he has a deep bond.

"That team is guys I had for almost eight years," Capps said. "It's like they're still my family. But I have a whole new group of guys now that I'm friends and family with."

And there will be no team orders at DSR. May the best team win.

"You know, it's going to be better at the end of the year when we all sit down," Capps said. "Everybody will reflect and say, 'Look, we raced straight up, no matter what happened, and we did it the right way.'"