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By Team Ford Racing Correspondent

John Force's bid to become Ford Racing's biggest winner moves this week to Gateway Motorsports Park where the 65-year-old icon will defend his Funny Car championship in the 17th annual AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals.

With the drama of the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship as a backdrop, Force once more will try to break a deadlock with Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden. Both have won 78 times in Fords. No other Ford driver is close to having won as many races in a single series.

Nevertheless, while Force would love to add another milestone to an already remarkable resume, his priority at Gateway will be maintaining the point lead he currently enjoys in the race for the $500,000 Mello Yello Championship.

The Hall of Fame owner and driver will start Friday qualifying 45 points ahead of teammate Robert Hight. A third John Force Racing Ford, the Traxxas Mustang driven by third year pro Courtney Force, is in fourth place.

The only interloper at the top of the standings is 2011 champion Matt Hagan, who has the Mopar Express Dodge parked in the No. 3 position thanks to a victory last week in a Pep Boys Carolina Nationals event that was completed in Dallas after beginning in Charlotte.

Hagan's win was an early Christmas present from Force who fouled away a winning run at the wheel of his national record-holding Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford.

"I got all jacked up (for the final round)," Force said. "I wanted to win it so bad that I broke from my routine, and I got all screwed up and red lighted. I knew better and I let my team and sponsors down. My hot rod ran quicker and faster than his. We should've won that race, and it was all my fault. I was so embarrassed."

The 141-time tour winner hopes to put that embarrassment far behind him this week in a Midwest Nationals race he has won three times previously (1999, 2002 and 2013).

"I get a chance to make it up this week," Force said. "That's good. The worst is when you screw up and you have two or three weeks to think about it. We go right back to racing this week and that's what you want."

Another driver particularly anxious to get back into competition is Courtney Force, the youngest of the reigning champion's four daughters. Coming off a win last week in the AAA Texas Fall Nationals in Dallas, the 26-year-old is anything but intimidated by the company in which she finds herself.

The three drivers immediately ahead of her in points are past world champions who, between them, have almost three times as many victories (187) and she has tour starts (67). A graduate of Cal State-Fullerton, Courtney has won three times this season, each time from the No. 1 qualifying position.

"It's cool to think that we've been able to win every race this season from the No. 1 spot being that most people think it's a curse," said the six-time Funny Car winner. "I feel like starting No. 1 gives our team that extra boost of confidence we need going into race day and I hope we can get after it again in St Louis. We need start the weekend strong and keep our focus starting with Q1 (Friday's first qualifying session).

"We have been a little under the radar because dad is No. 1 in points, Robert is No. 2 and everyone is trying to catch up with them," said Courtney Force. "Obviously, they are our biggest competition even though they are my teammates.

"We're definitely going after the championship (and) we can't make any mistakes from here on out."

En route to her Texas win, Courtney took out Hight and the Auto Club Ford in Round 2. Hight will be looking for redemption this week in a Mike Neff-prepped Ford that has won five times, but hasn't been to the winners' circle since July.

"You hate to run teammates so early in the day," Hight said of the Dallas result, "but they made a good pass and since they went on to win the race, it all worked out for JFR. I'm just excited to be heading to St. Louis for another Auto Club-sponsored race.

"There are so many things that go into running a Funny Car at the championship level," said the 45-year-old who serves as president of John Force Racing, Inc. "You need a good driver, a good crew chief, a good crew and then, most importantly, you need consistency and confidence. We have all those elements. We just have to put them all together in the Countdown."

Although JFR is in prime position to win an 18th NHRA Funny Car title, Ford privateer Tim Wilkerson, owner, driver and tuner on the Levi, Ray and Shoup Shelby Mustang, is conceding nothing, at his home track.

"There's a lot going on, both personally and professionally," Wilkerson said of hectic weekend schedule, "and it can get to be a bit of a whirlwind. But it's a privilege to race on the NHRA tour and when Gateway wasn't on the schedule (in 2011), it honestly wasn't as fun. We have a lot to do in three days and a lot going on in our pit, in our hospitality center and in another auxiliary tent LRS rents trackside, so there's never a dull moment.

"It would be a huge weekend for us if it was in May, but with it right in the middle of the Countdown it's all at a different level, and we're competing hard at playoff time with a huge home crowd pulling for us," said the 17-time tour winner who starts the race in ninth place in points, 135 off Force's lead.

"We have great fans wherever we go and Joliet and Indy are certainly places where we can sense that a bigger portion of the crowd is pulling for us, but St. Louis is kind of off the charts," Wilkerson said. "For one weekend, I get to feel maybe a tiny percentage of what John Force feels every day, and it's pretty exhilarating.

"This weekend is the halfway point for the playoffs, so it would be great to give all our Warriors something to really go nuts about. I don't see why we can't. We have a good-running car and my guys are doing great work."

The joker in the mix, of course, is Bob Tasca III, whose Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby Mustang has been cast in the role of spoiler after failing to qualify for the Countdown. After making a crew chief and struggling mightily during the regular season, the 37-year-old Rhode Island Ford dealer showed at Dallas that he still has the firepower to run with the big dogs.

"We'll roll into St. Louis with as much confidence as we've had all year," he said. "I still intend to pick up a win or two before the end of the season. That's the goal at this point. Making the semi-finals (in the Pep Boys Nationals) was great. We came up a little short against Hagan, but it was a tight, tight race.

"Charlotte was a cool track and Dallas was a hot track so it was nice to see that we made the right adjustments," said the four-time pro winner. "The car went down the racetrack on every run and I haven't been able to say that in a long time. We made a lot of full pulls, which is great. We got a lot of data."

He'll try to use that data to knock off one or two of those drivers who beat him out for a Countdown spot.

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