The last time Courtney Force celebrated in the winner’s circle at Virginia Motorsports Park it was on the coattails of her father, John Force, who won the title of the 1995 Virginia is for Lovers NHRA Nationals.

It was the weekend of her seventh birthday.

But when they faced each other Sunday for the Virginia NHRA Nationals title, it was Courtney who got to blow out the candles.

“All I wanted for my birthday was to come out to a race with just my dad and I, and it was this racetrack and we got to celebrate in the winner’s circle. That’s when I was wearing that ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ t-shirt and I’m excited to wear it in the winner’s circle today for my win here.

“I’m really excited. But Dad was talking about (me) dancing in a bar, well that’s because he took me to the bar after the race, after he won, and I was playing ‘Ace of Base’ on repeat on the jukebox and was dancing next to the jukebox. So that’s the real story, I don’t know what he told you guys.”

That day in 1995 was the first of four Virginia titles for the elder Force, and he nearly got his fifth but his daughter and the Advance Auto Parts Camaro with crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Dan Hood made certain the star of this year’s return to Virginia for the first time since 2009 would be their driver.

“I’m really excited that we had a great side-by-side race,” she said of racing her dad. But for Brian Corradi and Dan Hood tuning that thing down there all weekend long, it’s been real consistent.”

Courtney won a close race over her dad to post her fourth Mello Yello event title in 10 events this year and won the Wally Trophy from the No. 1 qualifying position. The last time a Funny Car driver accomplished that feat was 16 years ago when John did it.

She finished second in championship points last year with seven poles but did not win a title.

Courtney posted a time of 4.039 seconds at 321.96 mph to edge John’s 4.076 (307.65) in the final round. She eliminated Jeff Diehl, Jim Campbell and J.R. Todd en route to the 27th final round of her career.

Other Mello Yello event winners at Virginia were Steve Torrence in Top Fuel, Tanner Gray in Pro Stock and LE Tonglet in Pro Stock Motorcycle. The Mello Yello Series races next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway in Virginia for the 11th race of the season and third straight in June.

The combination of Courtney winning the 12th title of her career and the other four drivers in the top-five losing in the opening round allowed her to extend her points lead to 173 points over Don Schumacher Racing’s Jack Beckman, who was among those upset in the first round.

“It’s just the beginning of the season,” she said. “We just have to maintain our focus. I mean, so much goes to my team and the job that they have done. They have been incredible. I’m trying to keep up with them and perform well as a driver.

“We’re in the points lead right now, we’ve stretched it a little bit further with the win today. So right now it feels amazing, it’s great, but we really do have to keep it up all season long if we want to end up on top at the end.”

John has been much maligned for not having been to a final round in a two-car race since April of 2017 when he won the 148th title of his career. A few in the sport have questioned if a 69-year-old can still win races.

The haters shut up Sunday when Force showed the persistence and intestinal fortitude that took the California native from growing up in a small trailer to driving a truck to becoming the most famous drag racer in history.

His Peak Camaro showed the consistency crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Ronnie Thompson have been working toward. He qualified seventh and posted times of 4.141, 4.096 and 4.077 on an ever-changing racing surface to get to the final. Adding sweet icing to the day was when his 0.047 of a second reaction time the second round was one of the day’s best in Funny Car.

He moved up two spots to eighth in points.

“I have a real fast hot rod now,” Force said after the 250th final round of his career. “I have struggled but my boys with the Peak team are ready for the fight. We are running good today and we were ready for that final round against Courtney and that Advance Auto Parts team.”

“Any time you can win that is a good day. My team is coming around. I am really proud of this Peak team led by Jon Schaffer and Ronnie Thompson. We moved up to eighth in the points.

“I have been spending time with my team all day and they give me energy. We are battling and I am still in the fight.”