Previously, we took a look at the final standings of the Top Fuel category in 2023 and how the cars that finished second through 10th ended up in their respective positions. We keyed in on how improving specific elements can get those teams back into the championship discussion in 2024. Today, we do the same thing in the Funny Car category.
What’s going to be so interesting about this look is how the top few cars can improve as they were all in a virtual deadlock through the majority of the Countdown to the Championship. Was there really anything that differentiated the second- and third-place finishers? Fourth? Are we splitting hairs? Of course we are, because ultimately Matt Hagan and his team split them in a finer fashion than anyone else to win the title.
Speaking of Hagan, he and his team are the gold standard coming into 2024, so they escape our prying eyes … for now. Let’s dive in.
Robert Hight: Second Place
2023 Stumbling Block: A measly, single first-round loss in the Countdown
The Fix: Don’t change anything
It would be utterly ridiculous to suggest that this team, which has made back-to-back runner-up season finishes, needs to make some sort of fundamental change to their approach or program. Hight was virtually every bit the match for eventual champion Matt Hagan.
The team did have a bit of a stumbling period from Chicago to Topeka during the regular season, but when it really counted in the late-season charge, they were the operation they needed to be. Their first-round upset loss to Terry Haddock in Dallas ultimately placed them in the position to chase Matt Hagan, and their second-round loss in Pomona ended their season. Ranked in the top three of virtually every performance metric, this car just needs to keep on keeping on.
Bob Tasca III: Third Place
2023 Stumbling Block: The evolutionary process
The Fix: Trust the process
If the reasoning here sounds a lot like what we just said about Robert Hight, you’d be correct. When you are a premier contender to win a championship up until the second round of the last race of the season, it’s not exactly like there are foundational flaws to correct.
What we saw of the Ford Motorcraft team was a true study in evolution over the course of the season. The car was never a weakling, but a line of demarcation can be drawn at the Epping race (which was contested in Bristol). From that point forward, we saw the confidence and partnership of crew chiefs Aaron Brooks and Todd Okuhara rise like a wave and with it their team's fortunes.
Two second-round losses in the Countdown shunted them. They had eight second-round losses in the regular season, and four of them came before Epping. If this car comes out of the gate capable of running 3.80s like it should, they’ll be in it until the end again.
Ron Capps: Fourth Place
2023 Stumbling Block: The wrong streak at the wrong time
The Fix: Torture the data until it confesses
When Ron Capps rolled into zMax Dragway in the fall, he had suffered only two first-round losses over the scope of the entire season. He left there with a third but quickly rebounded to runner-up in St. Louis, seemingly calming the fears of his fans and supporters that he was going to lose pace with Hagan, Hight, and Tasca. By the time he stopped his car on Sunday at the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals, Capps had added three more first-round losses, all in succession to end his season.
One has to imagine that Dean Antonelli has been obsessed with looking over the data for the last three races, the only time they lost back-to-back in the first round all year. It was, unfortunately, at the most critical time. The car qualified in the top half at all three races but made a quick first-round run of 4.09 over that span.
Great teams (and this is a great team) take situations like this and find the root cause. The way the Capps team starts the 2024 season will show us very quickly how effective their fix is.
Chad Green: Fifth Place
The Stumbling Block: Finding power vs. managing power
The Fix: Avoid target fixation and stand on it when necessary
Chad Green’s fifth-place Funny Car points finish is one of the coolest stories of the 2023 season. It was a year that can really be split into two distinct halves for this team. Through the first 10 races of the season, the car was reeling off runs in the mid-3.90s and motoring to semifinal rounds with frequency; six semifinal finishes and only two first-round losses.
The back half of the season, the team, at least by the numbers, seemingly made a strategic shift in their approach. They really started to press the car harder on the performance side, and frankly, it worked, but it also cost them some consistency.
They qualified for every Countdown race with a run in the 3.80s. Every single one. The only other Countdown car that can say that belongs to Bob Tasca III. They had a runner-up finish in Reading and then the rough patch arrived. Four first-round losses followed. The team did cap the season with a wonderful victory in Pomona, and how did they do it? By running mid-3.90s all day on Sunday.
The team found and developed a 3.80s tune-up. It really aided them in qualifying, but in six races, they made only a single 3.80 run on Sunday. That came against Bob Tasca in the semifinals in Reading. If they can be choosy in when they try to employ their newfound beastly power and race the way they did in the front half of 2023, look for this to be another top five season or better for Chad Green.
Tim Wilkerson: Sixth Place
The Stumbling Block: Fighting a two-front Funny Car war
The Fix: Concentrate focus on one critical element of performance
When it comes to modern-day Funny Car heroes, few loom larger than Tim Wilkerson. His “driver/tuner/owner” concept is the only one that exists in the top 10, he won two races in 2023, and he landed a sixth-place finish in the points. As much as we admire his fanatical devotion to doing things his way and in such a streamlined fashion, there’s a reason the other cars ahead of him all have a small brain trust making their final calls.
The two things that hurt his final standings the most were qualifying position and average reaction time. His car’s average qualifying position was 7.43, so verging on that tough eighth spot. His reaction-time average on the year was .092. This is a really hard combination of factors to overcome on a regular basis.
If you are an exceptional leaver, qualifying in the middle of the field can be overcome with stout reaction times early on a Sunday. If you are not a league-leading leaver, you need to find yourself closer to the front of the order to offset any human performance disadvantage you may be at when the Tree flashes. Effectively, you can make it up with the car.
If Wilkerson picks up one side of this equation, whether he improves his qualifying performance or whether he picks up a couple hundredths of reaction-time advantage, he will be perceived as a far larger threat and those compounding factors will see him closer to No. 1 at the end of 2024.
John Force: Seventh Place
The Stumbling Block: Incredible raw performance overcame consistency
The Fix: Keep the intimidating elapsed times, just make them stick
John Force and crew were confronted with the great duality of drag racing over the final 11 events of the 2023 NHRA Drag Racing season. All the power in the world and the inability to make it work in their own favor consistently. Six times they qualified fifth or better. They made the third quickest run of the season with an amazing 3.823 in Dallas, and yet, the car ended the season ranked 11th in average Sunday elapsed time.
There is little to criticize when it comes to the performance of the driver here. He did not yield holeshots, he did not make critical control errors, he frankly didn’t have much chance to do it as his car often smoked the tires in eliminations. Force was the runner-up in Dallas, running in the mid/low 3.80s for the first two rounds and then corralling a pair of tire-smoking efforts in the third and final rounds.
This team KNOWS how to run fast. They have access to the power. That part of the equation is solved. When they fully understand how to take just a little off of their tune-up fastball to gain some of the pinpoint control necessary to win, John Force will once again be holding Wallys on Sunday afternoons. Their seventh-place finish is a deceptively docile-looking thing coming into 2024. These guys can come out swinging.
J.R. Todd: Eighth Place
The Stumbling Block: An unplanned rebuilding year
The Fix: Recapture the performance of Norwalk through Indy
There was no team who’s well-laid-out plans were derailed harder than the DHL GR Supra team of J.R. Todd. After sorting out a brand-new chassis and taking a runner-up at the season opener in Gainesville, things went from bad to a complete nightmare when their car was wrecked during a bizarre crash that John Force instigated in Pomona. Blowing a backup car to smithereens that same weekend made things worse. Things bottomed out with a DNQ in Las Vegas and then the climb back to performance began. The team’s best stretch was the series of races starting in Norwalk and concluding in Indy. They managed a win, two runner-ups, and three semifinal finishes. As the Countdown was getting ready to start, they had their work cut out, but they were also on a heater.
They chilled rapidly. In the Countdown, they only managed two top-half qualifying positions, and those were an eighth and a sixth. Outside of Dallas, the car would struggle to complete runs when they tried to push it harder than the low 3.90s.
If the team is able to take the incredible consistency of their best run of the season and combine it with the very early season raw performance we saw in Gainesville, they’ll be a very formidable problem for everyone else.
Cruz Pedregon: Ninth Place
The Stumbling Block: Sometimes it just doesn’t work
The Fix: A fresh approach
There is not a lot to be said for the 2023 campaign of Cruz Pedregon. Racing of any type is one of the few places that some of the smartest people you’ve ever met can get into the same room and come up with the wrong idea. Simply put, this was a season that just did not work. To the credit of all involved, it never devolved into public finger pointing or the blame game.
In reality, Pedregon did the only thing he logically could have done here, which was to change personnel and make a fresh start. To be clear, this is not because his previous group lacked experience, competence, or the will to win, it’s because sometimes in sports things run their course and trying to force something that isn’t working doesn’t benefit anyone involved.
In theory, this car is a huge wildcard in 2024. It seems impossible that the number of round-wins won’t surpass the eight achieved in 2023.
Alexis DeJoria: 11th Place
The Stumbling Block: Putting the two halves together
The Fix: Retake the starting-line initiative
The last car we’ll look at here is the GR Supra of Alexis DeJoria. An 11th-place finish in the points is quizzical when you consider the car had the second most runner-up finishes of anyone in the class this year with three, and it also made two semifinals over the course of 2023 as well. The car was ranked fourth in both average Sunday elapsed time and average Sunday speed, so how does that equate to an 11th-place finish?
It comes down to two factors. The first is that the car and driver combo was far stronger in the first half of the season than they were during the last half. In fact, their three runner-ups and two semifinal finishes all came in the first 10 races. The car did not surpass the second round after Seattle. There were some holeshots and some tire smoke along with a few situations of being outrun. All that stuff is normal, but the underlying reason may not be mechanical.
As we talked about in Top Fuel, the sync of the driver to the car is integral in how the crew chief actually sets the machine up. Unfortunately, DeJoria had a .096 reaction-time average in 2023. The class average is a couple of hundredths better. This, on paper anyway, means that you need to outrun your opponents by that differential to win, right? The cascade starts there and ends with a car that needs to be constantly aggressive, and that can have its own negative consequences.
If DeJoria can give her team just a little more on the starting line, this car wins multiple races per year, no doubt.
Next up: Pro Stock car and Pro Stock Motorcycle!