Few would have wagered in February that John Force would contend for a record 16th Funny Car championship.
But the drag-racing legend tops the FC standings by 65 points as the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series arrives at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the penultimate round of the 2013 season.
Force arrives at the Toyota Nationals riding a two-race winning streak that propelled him to the top of the standings. It's a remarkable resurgence on the track for the 64-year-old drag-racing legend, who is chasing his first Funny Car crown since 2010, because Force has every reason in the world to be distracted off the track.
Not only is Force helping to manage the successful careers of his daughters -- Courtney is a winning Funny Car driver, Brittany is competing in her rookie season of Top Fuel, and Ashley is a former U.S. Nationals winner who now serves as an executive for John Force Racing -- but he's been out hunting sponsorship for seemingly the first time in decades.
Within the space of a couple weeks in August, Force learned that his longstanding relationships with Ford Motor Co. and Castrol will come to an end following the 2014 season. With four nitro drag teams, 115 employees and facilities in Yorba Linda, Calif., and Brownsburg, Ind., Force has a lot on his mind, yet he is producing some of the best on-track performances of his long career.
He's also not taking a 65-point championship lead over Matt Hagan of Don Schumacher Racing for granted. During his run to the 2010 Funny Car title, Force trailed Hagan by 64 points heading into Las Vegas. Force bested Hagan in the Vegas finals then went on to win the series finale at Pomona, Calif., to earn that 2010 crown.
"We got past him three years ago," Force said. "But at the end of the day, he could do the same thing to us this time. He's got a fast hot rod over there, he's a great young driver, and he's motivated. That's a dangerous combination.
"There are a lot of good cars out there, including two in my own camp," he added. "With all these young kids, I just have to stay up for the fight."
Hagan led the Funny Car standings since June, but he went out in the second round in the most recent NHRA event in Reading, Pa. Hagan has lost out to DSR teammates in three of the four Countdown events this year.
"We have a lot to get done in Vegas; it's a make-or-break race for us," Hagan said. "If we do really well there, then we're still in the fight and could possibly win a championship. We have to get focused and make sure we go some rounds on Sunday."
Force's lead over Hagan is approximately three round wins, but Hagan knows he can't focus on counting points. DSR's Jack Beckman (126 points behind Force) and JFR's Robert Hight (minus-134) still have a remote shot at the title.
"We can't really control what anyone else does," Hagan said. "We can only control what we do. We've got to have two good races, [Force] has just got to have one bad one, and it's got to play out that way.
"We just have to focus on what our car can do and not really who's beside us, as hard as that is to do with a 15-time champ out there."
Shawn Langdon's six race wins lead the Top Fuel category this year, and Langdon has an 83-point advantage over Doug Kalitta with two races to go.
Langdon is coming off a win at Reading, and he has also claimed six poles and made three other final-round appearances in his Al-Anabi Racing rail dragster this year.
"We have been fortunate to go some rounds at a lot of races this year and get into the semifinals," Langdon said. "We've had some bad races, but we've been able to bounce back quickly after them so it hasn't hurt us that much.
"We go to every race knowing we want to win and that we are capable of winning," he added. "We have been fortunate to have a good year this season, but in the Countdown, it's crunch time. You can't go out in the first round, and with only six races, there's no room for error."
The closest championship battle is in Pro Stock, where four former category champions are clustered within 73 points. Jeg Coughlin Jr. leads Mike Edwards by 45 points, with Jason Line (minus-50) and defending titlist Allen Johnson (minus-73) still very much in the hunt.
The parity is typical of the class this year. Edwards leads with six race wins. Coughlin won the opening race of the Countdown before adding another win at Reading, while Line, with a win and two other finals appearances, is also on a hot streak.
"I'm really excited about finishing the year in Las Vegas and Pomona because they are two of my all-time favorite racetracks," Coughlin said. "There's little question in my mind that the championship will come down to the last day of the year in Pomona. That seems to be the way they script it every season, and certainly that makes it exciting for all of us, fans and racers alike.
"Having said that, we can arrive in Pomona with some level of comfort if we can take care of business this weekend in Las Vegas. You have to remember the three guys behind in the points are former NHRA champions, so it's going to be a thrill ride."
The Pro Stock Motorcycle champion could be crowned at Las Vegas, as Matt Smith has a 125-point advantage over a tight battle for second place led by Hector Arana Jr. Smith will clinch in Vegas if he can build a 151-point lead.