NHRA Funny Car preview: Expect the Hight of drama in this shootout

Cruz Pedregon proved in 2008 that timing is everything. As two of the three North American racing series determine championships based on playoffs, the only thing that matters is making those playoffs.

That’s how Pedregon managed to win his first NHRA Powerade Funny Car title since 1992. He made the six-race playoffs, then won the last three races after winning only once in the previous 11 years.

The smart money in 2009 says the title will come down to a two-time champion and two-time runner-up, neither of whom finished in the Top 3 last season.

Tony Pedregon and Robert Hight.

Pedregon, who said early in ’08 that the championship “goes through the Pedregons” and then had the good fortune to prove it, comes into 2009 as the guy to beat. The younger brother of Cruz Pedregon, Tony has been fantastic on two counts since winning the title in 2003 while driving for John Force Racing.

On the first count, Pedregon parlayed a title for sponsor Castrol in 2003 into an ownership gig with oil brand rival Quaker State. In Year 3 of that deal, he showed he could win races. In Year 4, aka 2007, he showed he was consistent enough to win a championship.

Although Cruz won the championship in 2008, Tony was in second place when the playoff began. He had four wins, all before the playoffs, in five finals, and four other semifinal appearances.

And therein lies the second count: Tony Pedregon proved his championship in ’07 as an owner/driver was no accident and that we can expect him to be a relevant challenger in ’09. He finished fifth last year, but only 18 points out of second place, less than one round victory from making it a 1-2 finish for the Pedregon brothers.

The days of total Force domination are apparently over. Though that domination was good for branding the sport, the fact that Force is not winning everything in sight these days is good for the sport, too.

But Team Force is not about to be walked on, especially Robert Hight, the man Force himself calls the lead driver in his four-car Mustang stampede. That’s saying something, given that Force is still driving.

Hight, an Olympic-caliber shooter, has his crosshairs aimed on his first title after finishing fourth last season when he could have easily finished first. He had three victories and three runner-up finishes, and five semifinal appearances.

Now in his fourth season as a  pro, the timing just seems right for Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock. If ever a guy other than Ron Capps seems ready for the moment, Hight seems to be that guy.

Even in the finals at Pomona, it was Hight, who was in fourth place, who scared Cruz Pedregon the most, no offense intended to the division’s most successful driver, Tim Wilkerson, or Jack Beckman, who was a couple of points ahead of Hight.

Wilkerson had a storybook season and would have won the title if titles were still decided the old-fashioned way: By what a guy does from start to finish.

Was he a one-hit wonder whose performance on a shoestring budget put the big boys on notice? He might be even tougher now that he is aligned with Bob Tasca III after switching to Ford, but it will be difficult to match the career performance he crammed into 24 races: Six wins, a runner-up, five semifinals, after not doing anything like that in his career. He had won only five races in the previous 12 seasons.

Anyone looking for a longshot need not look in the direction of Wilkerson, Capps or even Force himself. They need to be looking at Del Worsham. He can deliver the goods if he has a car that can deliver the goods. With Alan Johnson — perhaps the best Top Fuel tuner in history — overseeing the operation and crew chief Aaron Brooks, it’s only a matter of time before he gets up to speed. And, as Cruz proved, the first 75% of the season is all about getting up to speed for the playoffs.

Still, the association’s Funny Car power brokers, Team Pedregon and Team Force, are the ones to beat from Day One. When the series returns to Pomona in the fall, Tony Pedregon or Robert Hight will have a target on his back, and the other one will probably have a bullet in the chamber.

Pedregon will relish the role, but in a shooting contest, don’t bet against Hight.

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