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NHRA: Force building momentum heading into BIR

John Force roars off the start line in his funny car last year during the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

With 16 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships to his credit, it is safe to say reigning Funny Car world champion John Force knows how to peak for a championship run.

Further proof of that is Force's longtime dominance at Brainerd International Raceway, which plays host to the 33rd annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, Aug. 14-17. Force has an incredible 11 victories at the facility, the most for any driver in NHRA history at one particular track.

The race also serves as the 17th of 24 races during the 2014 season and is the penultimate stop in the regular season before the upcoming Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. That means doing well in Brainerd can go a long way toward getting the ball rolling for a strong start in the Countdown playoffs, something Force appears to have down to a science.

"You try and get on a roll with your teams going into Indy," Force said. "You are trying to get things figured out on the Western Swing and the bottom line is you want to have your cars at the head of the pack. Brainerd helps build on that because you get that mental motivation coming out of Brainerd with a good race and that takes you right into Indy and the Countdown."

Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) were last year's winners of the event in the land of 10,000 lakes that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2.

Force and his 10,000-horsepower Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang have built momentum at the perfect time heading into Brainerd. He has advanced to the final round in each of the past three events, winning in Norwalk before falling to teammates Robert Hight and Courtney Force in Denver and Sonoma, respectively.

It kept John Force firmly in second in points behind Hight and also furthered John Force Racing's dominance in Funny Car this season. Courtney Force's victory pushed her to fourth in the standings, giving JFR three spots in the top four. That performance has impressed John Force, who wants to build off of the team's strong showing in the NHRA Western Swing with a showcase outing in Brainerd.

"It is all a process and it keeps you mentally sharp," Force said. "Brainerd is the key. If you can dominate at Brainerd it gets you right mentally going into the biggest race of the year. I like the way my car is running and it has been pretty consistent."

After winning the first event of 2014 and making three final round appearances in the first five races, Force hit a rough patch, losing in the first round for five straight events. But Force has been increasingly consistent in the five races that have followed, advancing to at least the semifinals in all but one event.

As for what makes Brainerd special, Force, who last won at BIR in 2007, simply feels comfortable at the facility.

"It is the setting of the track and the fact that I match raced there for a lot of years," Force said. "You have good air there and it is a good race track. The fans are great and I have just been able to just get focused and do well there."

That focus is needed against an ultra-competitive Funny Car field that includes reigning event winner Capps, who has four wins at Brainerd. Other stalwarts include Tommy Johnson Jr., 1992 Brainerd winner Cruz Pedregon, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman, Tim Wilkerson, Del Worsham and two-time season winner Alexis DeJoria.

But by this point in the season Force is solely concerned with his car and his team's performance. That means focusing on how he wants to race in Brainerd and the upcoming Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, as well as the Countdown to the Championship.

"People will race Brainerd different than they race Indy," Force said. "You race Brainerd to make the Countdown. At Indy you are racing to win the biggest race of the year, the Traxxas Shootout and to make the Countdown. You run your race car in Brainerd just to win that race because it moves you up in the points. At Indy it is a whole different approach. It is two different animals."

In Top Fuel, Massey grabbed the Wally trophy last season in Brainerd and is after his third win this season. His Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Tony Schumacher, leads active Top Fuel drivers with three wins at Brainerd, while points leader Doug Kalitta has two. Other marquee challengers include Antron Brown, defending world champ Shawn Langdon, three time season runner-up Brittany Force, Englishtown winner Richie Crampton, Denver winner J.R. Todd, Khalid alBalooshi, who won last weekend in Sonoma, and category veteran Steve Torrence.

Reigning Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin has four wins in Brainerd and has two wins this season. Native Minnesotan Greg Anderson currently sits 11th in points and his fourth Brainerd victory could move him into the playoff mix. Pro Stock points leader Erica Enders-Stevens, who has four wins this season, has one career victory at the track, while other top contenders are Allen Johnson, Dave Connolly, Sonoma winner Jason Line, Vincent Nobile, Shane Gray, Jonathan Gray, V Gaines and Chris McGaha.

Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, Aug. 15, with sessions at 3 and 5:30 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Aug. 16, at 1 and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 17.