Despite 'different' feeling, Capps again on top as Countdown begins

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Despite 'different' feeling, Capps again on top as Countdown begins

NHRA

Despite 'different' feeling, Capps again on top as Countdown begins

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Ron Capps’s crew was already celebrating something Saturday in the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.

Capps ran 328.86 mph (3.896 seconds) in his second qualifying run. It was the quickest for Funny Car and gave the NAPA team from Don Schumacher Racing three points. Points they essentially got back from Robert Hight, who ran the fastest time in Friday’s qualifying session.

“The crew, they were pumped,” Capps told RACER. “We’ve got seven races to go, and everybody’s already excited about three points, but that’s what they mean. Yeah, I’m very excited about having the points lead by whatever the margin is.”

Capps is the No. 1 seed in Funny Car as the Countdown to the NHRA Championship kicks off Sunday. In 2016 and ’17, Capps was also seeded at the top, and he went on to win the 2016 championship.

“The extra points are nice, but I’ve seen them evaporate by the end of this race before,” Capps said. “I’ve come in number 10 and been that far behind; I’ve been pretty much everywhere. NHRA added the extra bonus to the 10 points for being the regular-season points leader, so that certainly will help. Before I won my first championship, I was runner-up like six times, but three of four of those were minus 10 points. It came down to the last race, the last day, and by a few points, and you look back at where could I have gotten those little small points when we’ve needed them; I’ve been there when those 10 points mean so much.”

As the points leader at the end of the regular season, Capps was seeded first with a cushion of 20 points on John Force. The remaining drivers qualified for the championship are separated in 10-point increments, so third place Bob Tasca III is 30 points behind Capps, fourth place J.R. Todd is 40 points behind, and so forth.

Competing with a new team this year, Capps is having fun and feeling a bit younger because the team is younger. When crew chief Rahn Tobler unexpectedly retired in January, it resulted in a significant change for Capps. Not only is he working with a new crew chief, Dean Antonelli, but the team is new. Teammate Jack Beckman could not find a sponsor, so his team was put with Capps.

“You get this comfort zone – a lot of the NASCAR guys will tell you like Chad [Knaus] and Jimmie [Johnson] – you can’t explain it, but you get that sort of comfort then it’s just gone,” Capps said. “Obviously, I went, ‘Oh my God, it’s January. Now, what’s going to happen?’ And it just worked out perfectly. It kind of seems like it was meant to be; we just hit the ground running together.

“That part’s been fun. It’s so different this year in a lot of aspects. More than anything, it just feels different.”

Different but good. The team was quick right off the bat in pre-season testing, and Capps said he’s had more pole positions this year than the last few. All of this as he continues to adjust to a new car. Capps described it as a “state of the art” chassis built by the Schumacher organization, driven last year by Matt Hagan.

For Capps, the new team and car mean he’s had to change some of what he was doing the last 26 years. Instead of a pull brake, now Capps is working with a push brake.

“The big change was how much better it drove and how much better (it is) when it makes a really quick fast run,” Capps said. “How much less I have to concentrate on input.”

As the Countdown kicks off at Maple Grove, Capps might be seeded first, but the Funny Car field is as tight as ever. There were four different point leaders over the last five races, and Capps expects the championship fight to be just as tight.

“It’s the tightest it’s been with this many cars and so many good cars,” said Capps. “Robert Hight’s car is always good. J.R. Todd. Matt Hagan. There are always these cars that you know you’ll have to race for the championship, but now you double that. There is legitimately, right up the top 10, (seeds) nine and 10 have a chance at winning any race now. It’s weird because it used to be six, seven, or eight cars that you could really count on with a chance.”

The Countdown has been around since 2007. Capps has been on both sides of the fence where he’s had a big point lead wiped away, “and it’s like, oh (expletive),” as well as being near the bottom of the standings and needing a reset. Capps made a connection to NASCAR by NHRA going to a playoff format, but he finds it hilarious NHRA used to eliminations after a few races, to now not eliminating anyone. NASCAR started their playoffs in 2004 without eliminations and then adapted to that format later.

“So, it was funny because I thought that was pretty cool,” Capps said. “It’s fun to look at NASCAR now and what they’re doing.”

But make no mistake, eliminations or not, a playoff format adds to the stress and anxiety of racing. The environment in the pits at Maple Grove is different because it’s clear the playoffs have started.

“We had our first team meeting between the crew – we never have a team meeting before a race, and our crew chief is going over stuff and reminding them that now things are heightened,” Capps said. “We’ve never done that all season long. I bet every team out here has done that.”

Capps also feels a little bit of a parallel to his ’16 championship season. Capps never won a race in the Countdown that year after doing so in the regular season. Instead, he grabbed the title with multiple appearances in the semi-final and final rounds. A winner at the pandemic-delayed Winternationals (Pomona) a few weeks ago, Capps is confident the team can win again, but if not, they can succeed on consistency.

The Countdown this year is also a bit different, with the final seven races making up the championship instead of six. Having one extra race will give teams some wiggle room if they have a bad weekend.

“Six was tough,” Capps said. “I’m glad to see Bristol – it’s always been Father’s Day, and I’ve won it probably the most of any track I’ve been to – so super happy to see them move Bristol (into the Countdown). Hopefully, I’ll have the same mojo in October that I always have in June.”

As for Maple Grove, it’s a place Capps likes to see. In 2019, he started the Countdown by setting a new track record of 339.28mph.

“I’ve always had decent success, but this race is always, not strange stuff, but big stuff happens here,” Capps said. “It’s because it’s fast, first of all. I’ve seen and been a part of two of the quickest side-by-side runs in history, and everything seems to happen here. We went 339 two years ago here. It all comes together; it’s the first race of the playoffs, and it’s here where the track is super-fast, and the fans are rabid.”

Capps starts Sunday eliminations as the fifth qualifier.

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