Funny Car up for grabs in 2010

The Funny Car division has developed into the NHRA's most intriguing category, with strong personalities, heated rivalries and a spirited battle between four manufacturers.

All are set to be on display when the 2010 NHRA season kicks off with the 50th Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Speedway at Pomona this weekend (Eliminations on ESPN2, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET).

John Force Racing's Robert Hight and Ashley Force-Hood finished 1-2 in the 2009 Funny Car standings, and a streamlined JFR team is sure to be at the center of the battle for this year's title.

After controversially landing four cars in the 2009 Countdown to 1, JFR has cut back to three entries as Mike Neff steps out of the cockpit to serve as a co-crew chief with Austin Coil on team boss John Force's car.

Hight won three of the five Countdown races in 2009 to claim his first NHRA title.

"It is a little like putting a target on my Auto Club Ford Mustang," he said. "I knew how I felt when I was chasing the car with the No. 1 on the side and now I am that car.

"People have said it's tougher to stay on top or to repeat as champion and I know this season will be tough, but I am looking forward to defending this championship and keeping this No. 1 for more than one season."

While Hight is the defending Funny Car champion and 14-time NHRA king Force is one of drag racing's all-time greats, the category's most popular star is Force-Hood, whose rapid improvement as a racer culminated with a win at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.

Although she has not achieved the kind of mainstream popularity as Indy car/NASCAR racer Danica Patrick, Force-Hood has become drag racing's biggest draw. She is cautiously optimistic that she can contend for the championship in her fourth year in the Funny Car category.

"We're going to take baby steps," she said. "Each year we've moved up the ranks, from 10th to sixth to second, and I'm really proud and excited about our season. Hopefully we can continue to take steps forward and not let the pressure from media or fans affect us.

"The competition has gotten so close," she added. "That's why the fans love the Funny Car category. Nobody is really dominating everything. That's why it's so neat to watch and to be a competitor. The excitement is that it's so equal across the board, but that's also the challenge. Every little detail counts and as Robert showed last year, you have to have your stuff together at the right time or you're out of the game."

With a helping hand from team boss (and father-in-law) Force, Hight squeaked into the Countdown to 1. But he peaked when it counted with a dominant performance in the Countdown.

Meanwhile, Force endured his first winless season since 1986 and a simmering rivalry with his former driver Tony Pedregon exploded to the surface when Pedregon accused Force of tanking a race at the U.S. Nationals so that Hight would qualify -- at the expense of Tony's brother, Cruz Pedregon -- for the Countdown to 1.

Force went 23-24 in 2009, marking the first time since 1984 that he lost more rounds than he won. Three years after a life-threatening accident, he pledges to return to championship form in 2010.

"I've really worked hard, being in the gym keeping my body fit all winter and I've got my fight weight back," Force said. "John Force is going after the 2010 championship, but so is Robert and so is Ashley.

"We've restructured the company, that's what winter was about, and testing was great," he added. "Out of the box our cars were fast, but let's all be fair, it was a real tricky race track. Only Pomona will tell, but I think we are ready to go."

Other key Ford runners include Tim Wilkerson and Bob Tasca III, each of whom won two events in 2009.

The loss of JFR's fourth car is offset by the return of former event winner Melanie Troxel, who sat out most of the 2009 season but will drive an In-N-Out Burger sponsored Dodge. Jack Beckman, with two event wins and three runner-up finishes on the way to fifth place in the 2009 standings, is among the top returning Mopar drivers.

Dodge's Funny Car attack is led by Don Schumacher Racing and driver Ron Capps, who took a category-leading five wins in 2009 but finished third in the standings. He's the defending Pomona Winternationals champion.

"All the NAPA guys had a great test in Florida in January, which reminded me a lot of last year, when we came out of the test feeling great and ended up winning in Pomona," Capps said. "I feel now like we have a more complete team that can contend for a win any weekend and a championship."

Del Worsham, coming off a three-win 2009 season, is Toyota's top runner, and Tony Pedregon is back in his Chevy Impala.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.