THE TEN: CHARLOTTE CAROLINA NATIONALS EDITION
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The betway Carolina Nationals at zMAx Dragway at Concord, N.C.
1 – Top Fuel’s Salinas alone in “300 at the 1/8” Club - Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers have been chasing the milestone of clocking a 300-mph speed in the eighth-mile on the 1,000-foot course. At stake were prestige, history-making, and a $30,000 bonus check.
Thirty-one years after Kenny Bernstein broke the 300-mph barrier in the quarter-mile, Top Fuel owner-driver Mike Salinas hit the 300-mph plateau in half the distance Saturday during qualifying for the betway Carolina Nationals at Concord, N.C.
He clocked a 300.80-second elapsed time to the eighth-mile on his way to a 3.647-second, 338.00-mph performance that reset both ends of the zMAX Dragway track record and gave him the No. 1 qualifying position.
For becoming the first nitro-class driver to hit the magic number, Salinas earned the sought-after $30,000 bonus from Phillips Connect. The company offered the jackpot more than a year ago, last August 31 just before the 2022 U.S. Nationals. And he became the first member of the “300 at the 1/8” Club.
“This is awesome. This is what it’s all about,” Salinas said immediately after exiting his Valley Services Dragster. He credited crew chief Rob Flynn, assistant crew chief Aron Cave, and the Scrappers Racing team.
“We fired everything we had at it,” Flynn said, expressing joy that it stuck.
Salinas said he had come close to recording the 300 in the eighth-mile several times during test runs. And at Brainerd, according to announcer Alan Reinhart, Salinas vowed, “We’re going to do this.”
What’s more, Salinas shattered both ends of Brittany Force’s track records. She had set the E.T. mark earlier this year at 3.651 seconds and the speed mark last September at 336.91 mph.
Jim Epler, Phillips Connect executive vice-president, broke the Funny Car class’ 300-mph barrier in the quarter-mile at Topeka. He told nhra.com last August that that “was a major accomplishment. Now you see drivers reaching this speed at just half the distance. It’s a true testament to the technology and the incredible crew chiefs that have taken this sport to the next level.”
Phillips Connect is planning to honor the first 10 drivers in either the Top Fuel or Funny Car category with membership in the “300 in the eighth-mile” club. The second driver to accomplish the feat will receive a $13,000 payout, and the third will pocket $9,000. The fourth through 10th drivers will earn $3,000 apiece.
Antron Brown followed Salinas in qualifying, and he clocked a 299-mph speed at the eighth-mile. “That was a heck of a run by Salinas,” he said. "All these cars are flyin’ this weekend.”
2 – Stewart’s McPhillips Racing TAD team disqualified from event - The McPhillips Racing team explained Saturday in a prepared statement what happened to cause the NHRA to disqualify one of its two Top Alcohol Dragster teams, the one with high-profile driver Tony Stewart.
Stewart had qualified fourth in the provisional order Friday night. But early Saturday, the sanctioning body announced that during a post-run inspection that it determined Stewart’s car was using a purchased ignition part that did not meet Tech Department approval.
“McPhillips Racing prides itself in being honorable in all of our racing competition,” the Pennsylvania-based team said. “Prior to Tony (Stewart’s) Round 1 of eliminations at the Carolina Nationals, NHRA confiscated the magnetos on Tony’s Top Alcohol Dragster. It was brought to our attention that the magnetos, which we had purchased used from another team, were found to not be within NHRA’s tolerance. The part had been unknowingly modified prior to us purchasing it. The part is not required to be certified in our Top Alcohol category. We regret that Tony was unable to compete in the Carolina Nationals due to this violation. The team is solely owned by McPhillips, and Tony has no say in the purchase of parts. McPhillips Racing accepts full responsibility, and going forward, we will be more vigilant in inspecting and testing used parts that we purchase.”
Stewart received no points, but his appearance will be counted as one of his 10 events. The ruling did not affect Stewart’s McPhillips Racing teammate Matt Cummings or either of Tony Stewart Racing pro drivers, Leah Pruett and Matt Hagan.
The punishment marred an otherwise uplifting weekend for Stewart. His TSR nitro team announced Friday an extended partnership with Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage before Funny Car’s Matt Hagan zipped to the provisional No. 1 qualifying position and maintained that through Saturday’s early session. Pruett scored a race-day coup and helped scramble the points, eliminating Top Fuel ace Justin Ashley in the opening round.
3 – Hartford calls for four qualifying sessions, especially in Countdown - Pro Stock points leader Matt Hartford encouraged the sanctioning body to give racers four qualifying sessions, particularly at Countdown events.
“Yesterday [Friday] we should have had two qualifying sessions, not one,” Hartford, team owner-driver of the Total Seal Chevy Camaro, said. “A lot of people don’t like how outspoken I am about different subjects. But in the Countdown, NHRA, you got to have four. You got to have four qualifying runs in the Countdown.
“This is a professional class. This is a professional sport. If there’s ever a time to say, ‘We need four runs at every event,’ it should be for the six races of the Countdown,” he said.
Hartford spoke during a rain delay at zMAX Dragway: “Hypothetically, what if this rain wasn’t going to clear up today? That means you’re going into eliminations with one run. That’s not where any team – and I don’t care which class you’re in – no team should be in that position. It could happen. But if you have four, the chances of that happening are less, diminished.”
Of course, such a move would benefit ticket-buying fans, as well.
4 – Kalitta earns second Wally trophy in six days, takes points lead - A stunning Top Fuel first round saw Nos. 1- and 2-ranked drivers Steve Torrence and Justin Ashley lose, triggering Doug Kalitta’s march into the winners circle for the second time in six days and into the points lead for the first time since Sept. 6, 2020.
And it provided an in-your-face answer to those who wondered when the Alan Johnson-tuned, Brian Husen-directed team would restore its unbeatable reputation and set overdue Kalitta on a path to his first Top Fuel championship.
“We had to work hard to get here. Sometimes you’ve got to fail to learn how to be good at what you do,” Husen said after Kalitta beat the strong-performing top qualifier Mike Salinas in the final round. “We’re just kind of hitting it right at the right point.”
Kalitta, who won Monday’s rain-delayed Countdown opener at Reading, Pa., said of his back-to-back success, “It’s incredible, really. It’s hard to believe. We just wanted to go rounds, and we made it to the best one.”
The opening round took out five title contenders, including Tony Schumacher, Josh Hart, and Clay Millican. Countdown-qualified Leah Pruett, who’s fourth as the Camping World Drag Racing Series heads to St. Louis for this coming weekend’s Midwest Nationals, and Austin Prock finished in the semifinals.
The last time Kalitta was in the points lead marked the end of his six-race command of the 2020 standings. And he’s hoping he gets on another roll like that.
Kalitta defeated Torrence by one-thousandth of a second, then knocked out Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon and finally upset-minded Leah Pruett, the No. 4-ranked Top Fuel racer, before meeting Salinas in the final round. And he knew Salinas, the top qualifier, was no slouch. The day before, Salinas had become the first to collect $30,000 for his distinction as the first nitro-class racer to record a 300-mph elapsed time at the eighth-mile.
“We were getting [3.]74 times down the track, and we really had to tune the car up for the final. Mike [Salinas] was right there at the end – ‘Mr. 300’ I guess you could call him now. Overall, it was a great run today for my guys,” Kalitta said.
As for returning to the points lead, he said, “It's been a while, that’s for sure. With Alan Johnson, Brian Husen, and all those guys on the team, they’re used to winning championships. I’m glad I’ll be along for the ride with wherever we end up with. It’s a great start to the Countdown for us, and I just have a ton of support from everyone’s who been following me over the years. This should be a good run, and we’ll keep plugging away at it.”
Torrence said he’s looking ahead already to this coming week’s visit to World Wide Technology Raceway at Madison, Ill.: “We missed the tune-up and overpowered the track on Friday, and then we tried to rotate the Earth on Saturday, and I guess the Earth didn’t get the message. But that’s racing. These CAPCO boys had us back in the game on Sunday. That was a hell of a close drag race [against Kalitta]. It just didn’t go our way. We’re not out of this championship, though. It was a missed opportunity on a track that’s been good to us. Fortunately, we’re back racing this week at St. Louis, and that’s another opportunity.”
Torrence, back in second place, trails Kalitta by 63 points. Ashley dropped another spot in the standings, to third, after Leah Pruett beat him.
Ashley said, “We felt really good coming out of qualifying. We launched with a lot of power and were on a nice pass, but we came up short and Leah got the job done. This a part of racing, and we understand the strength of competition. We are a resilient group that thrives when the pressure mounts. We have four more races and plenty of time to continue progressing.”
5 – Funny Car winner Tasca keeps Hight in check, moves within 25 points - Matt Hagan, and Robert Hight dominated the first five races of this season. Ron Capps asserted himself at Bristol, Brainerd, and Indianapolis, with Tim Wilkerson, Blake Alexander, and J.R. Todd winning a race each. Hight, Hagan, and Capps all are competing for a fourth championship.
Meanwhile, Bob Tasca III steadily flexed his muscles with victories at Epping, N.H. (Bristol) and Topeka, a couple more No. 1 qualifying positions, and scattered low elapsed times and top speeds of the meet. Seeking his first series crown, the Ford Motor Company megadealer and evangelist has made his way back from seventh place following the season-opening Gatornationals to second place, just 25 points off Hight’s pace following their final-round faceoff Sunday.
So at zMAX Dragway this Sunday, it came down to Hight and Tasca in a day in which Capps faded farther into the background of the championship conversation with a Round 1 loss to Dave Richards.
Tasca said of his 15th career triumph, “That was huge win. We’re alive in this fight for the championship. I just wish all the fans got to see what my team did back in the pit, when the motor was half-together and they pulled a head stud and they had to put another motor in. What they did back there in 25 minutes – I don’t know how they did it. It was more nerve-wracking than any other final I’ve ever been in.”
To reach his 37th final-round appearance, Tasca eliminated Alexis De Joria, first-round upset winner Terry Haddock (who took out No. 5 racer Chad Green), Hagan, and finally No. 1 qualifier Hight.
"I think we're somewhat racing with a chip on our shoulder this year,” Tasca said. “How many people in this room would have thought Bob Tasca would be [25 points] out of first? Bottom line is, we've really come together as a team, probably more so than any point in my career, and the car really sees it. I'm so impressed with the car they've given me.”
The victory completed his checklist of winning at all Bruton Smith-designed dragstrips (including Bristol Dragway, Sonoma Raceway, and The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway). And it marked a sweep of sort for his sponsors – Tasca has won with Motorcraft/Quick Lane, PPG, and BG Products. “I've always wanted to win at all the Bruton Smith tracks,” he said. Bruton, I know you’re smiling down from above. I've thought the world of their family. Our families have been close, and it's really cool to have a trophy from every Bruton Smith track."
“We wanted to win this thing, to have back-to-back victories, but it just wasn’t in the cards today,” Hight said. “This Cornwell Tools team deserves all the credit still though, for the turnaround that they did from Friday into Saturday and then to come out here on race day in completely different conditions and make it to the finals. We’ve got everything we need to do the job. The guys do the hard work, and they perfect what they do. That’s how you win the close races. We were in another final, and that’s what you’ve got to do to win a championship, just keep going rounds. But it’s going to take wins, too.
“This Cornwell Tools team has to keep working hard. This is the toughest Funny Car has ever been, and it’s going to take major, major work to win this championship. I said it before, but I think we’ll need three or four wins to win the championship. We have one down, and I’d give us an A+ for last weekend. But we’ve got five to go, and we have to put last weekend behind us.”
6 – Pro Stock’s Anderson wins for 102d time, reminds class he’s in contention - It was like watching a vintage “I Love Lucy” program or a “Dick Van Dyke Show” episode. It was fun and entertaining, and the star of the show was one of the best in the business. And it brought back fond memories of when those actors were at the front of the everyday culture. That’s what watching Pro Stock five-time champion Greg Anderson win Sunday was like.
When he defeated KB Titan teammate Dallas Glenn in the final round at zMAX Dragway in the second straight all-KB showdown, Anderson extended his victories total to 102. However, it was his first of the year for the hometown hero who’s based at nearby Mooresville, N.C., in this heart of NASCAR country and sponsored by NASCAR kingpin Rick Hendrick.
Anderson has more victories than any other pro racer besides Funny Car’s John Force (155) and is the Pro Stock class’ all-time victories leader. And his last victory was just awhile – less than a year – ago, at the NHRA Final at Pomona last November.
“That was incredible. It was my day, and I haven't really had many 'my days' this year,” Anderson said. Anderson, who is now 61 points out of first, added "It's definitely sweet to do it here at Charlotte, my home track, with all my family, my friends, all the support, the Hendrick group. It's just perfect, absolutely perfect. I had a couple of storybook wins last year, and this one is right up there. It's been a long year for me, but my team has been doing a great job all year long. And I'm very proud of that.”
Anderson improved from eighth place to fourth with four more races before the champion is crowned in November at Pomona, Calif.
“We didn't back into a win today – we earned a win today. We absolutely went out and earned one,” he said. “We outran everybody and did a better job racing than everybody did. We're peaking at the right time, without a doubt. It’s going to be an exciting Countdown. I'm sure today scrambled the points up quite a bit, and it put a lot of people right back in the hunt, myself being one of them.”
Coincidentally, Anderson claimed his 100th victory At Glenn’s expense, at the 2022 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
7 – Deja-vu: Herrera wins Pro Stock Motorcycle trophy and regains lead - Gaige Herrera, whose rare mistakes allowed some of his Pro Stock Motorcycle colleagues to hope they could negate his year-long dominance, showed everyone who’s still boss in the bike class.
Herrera, on the Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki Hayabusa, got an automatic victory in the final round, as opponent Hector Arana Jr. red-lit on the GETTRX Suzuki.
Gripping his seventh Wally trophy of the season in 11 starts – his first from a Countdown victory – Herrera put his Reading misstep (which had allowed Matt Smith his second straight triumph and the points lead last weekend) behind him.
“We bounced back as a whole team. This Suzuki is flyin’,” Herrera said.
“It was a good Sunday. I'm glad my bike was consistent again today,” he said. “It came off the trailer running strong, and I’m glad we came home with the win. This is definitely one of my favorite tracks.
“Andrew [crew chief Hines] and those guys [his crew], they don't quit. I'm with one of the best teams with Vance & Hines. It's pretty cool, racing Matt second round. The ladder couldn't have worked out any better for me today. I regained the points lead and definitely have a lot of momentum going into St. Louis.”
Hines deflected any credit, saying, “Gaige was rock-solid. I didn’t give him the best confidence in his motorcycle coming into today.”
The sophomore Pro Stock Motorcycle racer might not agree. After all, Herrera secured his 10th top-qualifier position in 11 races Saturday and said, “I’ve got the motorcycle to beat.”
His race-day record stretched to 34-4.
8 – Capps, Hight overcome massive engine explosions - Following his Reading triumph that allowed him to replace Ron Capps as the Funny Car leader, Robert Hight said, “We’re on a good roll right now. But we have to stay humble.”
The massive engine concussion inside his Cornwell Tools Chevy Camaro kept him humble Friday night. It happened even before he passed the Christmas Tree in the only qualifying chance of opening day on the Concord, N.C., 1,000-foot course.
Hight said he was uninjured, but “my feelings are hurt a little bit. After we did the burnout and we were just getting ready to put the body down, I heard it. And it sounded like a hot cylinder, like it needed more fuel,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’ll drive it, and down-track if it isn’t right, I’ll lift.’ That way it [wouldn’t] throw the rods out. I didn’t think it was something like this. It had to be a valvetrain failure or something to blow up like that that fast.”
It was Capps’ turn Saturday. Capps experienced a strong engine detonation in his final qualifying chance as his NAPA Toyota Supra approached the finish line.
Afterward, he said, “I think that was my fault. It was running good, and I didn’t want to shut it off. I’m very disappointed in myself. I think I just overdrove the thing. It’s a bummer. Runnin’ good. I was having to really drive it. At certain times you just say, ‘All right, maybe shut it off,' but it’s running so good you don’t want to shut it off and find out it was going to run better.”
9 – TSR / JHG extend partnership in multiyear deal - Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) and Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage (JHG) have formed an NHRA alliance that benefits the Funny Car team of three-time champion Mat Hagan. Tennessee-based JHG has pledged to sponsor Hagan’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat for a minimum of six events in a multi-year agreement that will start in 2024.
JHG already had been on board with TSR as primary sponsor for two events in 2023 – this event and the July Sonoma, Calif., race.
Next year, JHG will serve as Hagan’s primary sponsor at the Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.; the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn.; the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn.; the betway Carolina Nationals; and the Texas FallNationals at Ennis, Texas. The red car design will feature JHG on the hood and side panels of Hagan’s 11,000-horsepower car. For all other races, JHG will be featured in an associate partner position.
JHG Owner and President Jason Johnson said, “We are very excited to be sponsoring Matt Hagan’s TSR Funny Car and continue our growing relationship in the upcoming seasons. Our continued sponsorship with Elite Motorsports, and now the new Mountain Motor program only add to that. Tony [Stewart] and Richard [Elite Motorsports owner Freeman] both have great race programs and are the future of this sport.”
Formed in 2021, JHG brings a passion and flare to the automotive industry. They aim to inspire, drive, and celebrate progress, the company said. JHG includes Jason Johnson’s car collection, which features more than 200 sought-after vehicles, from classics to hot rods and supercars. The vehicles are driven to and displayed at events by Johnson and his team with the goal of growing interest and keeping car culture thriving. Johnson’s history in the industry began with Mather Auto Dismantler, Mather Mini Trucks and U-Pull It in Northern California. He later played an instrumental role in the growth and success of Copart, Inc., a global provider of online vehicle auction and remarketing services. JHG also serves as a primary sponsor of Elite Motorsports in the Pro Stock class.
Stewart said, “We’re excited to have Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage expand their partnership with our race team. 2023 has been a great season with them, and we’re looking forward to all we can accomplish together in the years to come. We share the goal of wanting to keep the car culture thriving for generations.”
Hagan was equally supercharged: “It’s so exciting to have Jason Johnson come over to TSR as a multi-year partner. It speaks volumes on what he’s wanting to accomplish out here in the motorsports world. He’s changing the sport by making it a full event to come to by bringing bands out to the track and bringing out new people. Jason’s car collection is unbelievable, and it’s really fun watching his desire to grow the sport. He’s heavily involved in Pro Stock, and we’ve been able to develop a close relationship over the last few years. He’s a great guy, and his family is great. I love their energy and want to get them a lot of wins in the years to come.”