TOP FUEL DRIVER JUSTIN ASHLEY TALKS ABOUT LESSONS LEARNED FROM HIS 2023 SEASON
Top Fuel driver Justin Ashley had an NHRA regular season to remember in 2023.
Ashley won six races and was the points leader heading into the final six-race Countdown to the Championship.
Unfortunately, Ashley’s momentum didn’t continue in the Countdown, which is something he reflected on with CompetitionPlus.com. He finished fourth in the points standings – 136 behind first-time world champion Doug Kalitta.
“I think we didn't capitalize on some of the opportunities that we had. We lost some close races in the Countdown,” Ashley said. “Even maybe more important than winning races, you have to find a way to stagger round wins. We just had too many first and second round losses. Sometimes we beat ourselves. Sometimes we were just on the other side of a really close race that we might've won in the regular season. So, we took a lot from it. A lot that we can learn and apply in 2024.”
Ashley’s best finish in the Countdown was a runner-up outing in Las Vegas. He had a semifinal effort at the season-ending race in Pomona, Calif. He finished the season with an impressive 40-15 elimination-round record.
“I think when you look at it as a whole, winning six races today, in my opinion, is almost the equivalent of winning 10 or 12 races years ago because the competition is so good,” Ashley said. “Years ago, it was really good, but I think now... it's the best Top Fuel field NHRA has ever seen. So being able to win six races and then being able to win six Mission Foods Challenges is a big deal during this specific period of time. Because the competition goes out rounds one through four, the margin for error is extraordinarily small.
“So, I'm just proud of the team's consistency. I'm proud of their ability to work day in, day out and not only win, but once you win, it becomes harder to stack those wins. I think the team as a whole did a really, really good job of that throughout the entire year.”
Ashley said getting to work with world championship crew chiefs – Mike Green and Tommy DeLago – has been a thrill.
“We work very well together. Really grateful for Mike and Tommy. I'm grateful for our relationship professionally, but our relationship personally as well,” Ashley said. “They're really good at working with me to find ways that I can improve as a driver, and I think that's really important. Everything matters and everything counts, and I'm open to learning and they've done a really good job of working with me each and every race, even between races on things that I can improve on that'll help improve our opportunity to win. So, we just work really well together collectively. There's open and honest communication with each other and there's never any pressure from either side, which I think is a beautiful thing.
“Mike and Tommy tune the car; I drive the car. We adapt and we do work together collectively to find ways to improve as a group. So, the open and honest communication is really good. I think we fit well together. Our personalities go well together. So as long as I'm racing, as far as I'm concerned, those two are the guys that I want to be racing with.”
In Ashley’s relatively short Top Fuel career – he made his debut in the class in 2019 – he has won 11 races and 116 elimination rounds.
However, he knows there’s areas where he can get better.
“I think probably overall consistency in how I drive the race car,” Ashley said about an aspect he wants to improve. “The best drivers in the world are robots that do the same thing each and every time going up and down the racetrack. And I think I do a relatively good job of that, but you can always get better. I need to do a better job of probably maybe putting less inputs into the steering wheel. Sometimes I need to do a better job of finding ways to keep the car in the groove, maybe 700 feet and beyond. Little things like that, that stand out to me, that could be the difference between winning and losing.”
Ashley was quick to point out he has to get ready off the racetrack to be ready when he starts driving again at the racetrack in 2024.
“I think it's a combination of few things and it's so important to be able to stay sharp during spring, but I think obviously physical exercise, mental exercise, diet and nutrition all plays a role in making sure that you're ready to go when the season starts again,” Ashley said. “But we're working on putting together a simulator that has a seat, with the chassis and the cockpit compartment that I can use. Hopefully maybe by Jan.1, 2024, we'll have something like that in place just to try and mimic the tree as best as we can.”
“Everything matters. I think aerodynamically, the lighter you are, the better, especially with Top Fuel cars because you're sitting in the middle. So, the weight is an important factor, but also in addition to that, energy levels, I think now more so than ever is a business first, and that requires a lot of travel, a lot of events and activities, not only at the racetrack, but off the racetrack too. And it's a long season and there's a lot of it, though I think the better shape you're in, the more you concentrate on eating well and focus on your nutrition, it'll help you to maintain those energy levels from start to finish throughout the season and when your energy levels are high and what they should, it really should give you a better opportunity to perform at a lead level.”
Not many people get to say their career is a Top Fuel driver like Ashley does and it is something he relishes.
“I think I enjoy the team. I enjoy just the idea of 10 to 12 guys and girls on the car and then the support staff off the car, just working collectively to put together a championship team,” Ashley said. “I enjoy the process. I enjoy working hard. I enjoy working with them to accomplish one singular goal and it takes so much energy, time, and effort. That's what makes it also rewarding is kind of that process that chase to be the best in the world. So, every day I wake up, there's that sense of motivation and there's that will and want for myself, for our whole team to win a championship.”
Ashley acknowledged he’s trying to find a way to not think about drag racing – and driving 24/7.
“I'm not so great at disconnecting, trying figure out a little bit how to do that and be better at that. I am in the offseason, it's really important for me to spend time with my family. That comes first,” Ashley said. “So that's something that I'm going to be focused on, is spending time with my family. We are going on the holiday, we're taking a family trip to Florida, so that'll be enjoyable. But on a day-to-day basis, it's mostly preparing for next season physically, but really on the business side, we have a lot of moving parts and pieces on the business side that need to be taken care of on a daily basis. So really just about putting the program in a good position.”