The NHRA’s Top Fuel class pulled an end-around on the NHRA during Friday night qualifying for the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., deciding not to run the second session in the interest of safety and in the wake of what the teams determined was inaction by sanctioning-body officials.

Crew chiefs and team owners sacrificed the best qualifying conditions of the weekend at Brainerd International Raceway (BIR) and collectively decided not to run on the 1,000-foot course after a 50-minute oildown clean-up robbed them not only of daylight, but also a safe racing surface. BIR doesn’t have lighting along its dragstrip.

What triggered the situation was Blake Alexander’s oildown in the left lane at the start of the second session of Funny Car qualifying. A connecting rod on his Jim Head Racing/Pronto Ford uncharacteristically broke during his burnout and the containment pan dumped oil on the track when he launched. The resulting 50-minute clean-up robbed both nitro classes of precious daylight and the best racing surface. Seven more Funny Car pairs made runs, and most lost traction.

Josh Hart, owner-driver of the R+L Carriers Dragster, said, “It was a terrible situation for the Safety Safari. The clean-up effort unfortunately was not suitable for either Funny Car or Top Fuel. The action should have been stopped as soon as NHRA realized Funny Cars couldn't make it down [the track].

“Instead,” he said, “NHRA tried to rush the class and wasted money, effort, and almost cost a couple people their cars, because the sun was going down and the track was a Slip ’n’ Slide. Whatever the motivation was for this decision did not have our safety in mind at all.”

Hart said, “Most all crew chiefs and owners tried to call NHRA, and the phone was not answered. So we collaborated on the decision not to even start any Top Fuel car.”

Kyle Wurtzel, who was in the opposite lane from Hart on Friday night, poised to make his run, said, “I’m not sure whose idea it was. One of my crew guys told me, ‘We are pushing you back, and we are not running.’ So I hopped out of the car.”

Brittany Force had posted a No. 3 elapsed time in the Top Fuel’s first qualifying session and had hoped to improve on that in the second session. She lamented the turn of events, but took a pragmatic attitude about it.

“Unfortunately, because of uneven lanes and lack of light with the sun going down, we lost our second qualifying pass, which is really disappointing,” she said. “After that first solid run, we were really going to step it up and push this car in the best conditions we would have all weekend. That’s the way the game is played. Everyone else had to follow the same rules, so we’ll pick up where we left off.”

All classes received two more qualifying chances Saturday to set the field for Sunday eliminations.

The only racer not all that unhappy with the Friday night “Minnesota Mutiny” was Doug Kalitta, who had taken the provisional No. 1 position in the opening session.

NUMERO UNO - Despite six wins this season and a runaway lead in the Top Fuel standings, Justin Ashley found out Saturday that even he can still be surprised.

With the field seemingly set entering the final qualifying session Saturday and on a day when few improved at Brainerd International Raceway, Ashley hit a fastball right out of the park with a blistering 3.746-second lap at 328.14 mph in his Phillips Connect dragster to take a surprise No. 1 at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.

Ashley entered the third and final qualifying session sixth on the ladder. But while the five cars in front of him were unable to better their times from Q1, Ashley found enough speed to power to the top of the class and earn his second top qualifier award of the season.

“That’s a stout run with the conditions,” Ashley said. “Nothing necessarily surprises me with the team that we have with Mike Green and Tommy DeLago, but nonetheless it was going to be tough to go out there and run as well as we did. It really speaks volumes of our team. It is a unique situation because I’m not sure how much of that you can actually take and apply tomorrow because it’s going to be cooler, but nonetheless what we did was at least position ourselves the best that we can heading into race day.”

With Ashley taking over atop the field, Doug Kalitta dropped a notch to second with his 3.757 at 330.31 mph from Friday. Steve Torrence also slipped a spot to third with 3.758 at 328.54 mph, while Brittany Force (3.762) and Leah Pruett (3.777) made up the rest of the top five.

While Saturday’s powerhouse run was a surprise for the conditions, in the grand scheme of the season there was nothing surprising about Ashley’s continued success. Ashley is currently riding a two-race win streak and has six total wins on the season, though it is only his second No. 1 of the season and first since Pomona in April.

“I definitely feel like we’re in a really good place,” Ashley said. “I think the most important thing is that we’re staying on offense. We’re staying aggressive. We don’t want to become conservative at all. We want to continue to move forward and the best way that we can do that is to take each and every lap, whether it is good, bad or somewhere in between, and learn from that and continue to grow. Because once these points reset (for the Countdown to the Championship), we have people right now nipping at our heels.”

Perhaps the only negative Ashley can take away from Saturday’s performance is a loss in the first round of the specialty Mission 2Fast2Tasty Challenge to eventual winner Antron Brown. Ashley, who has collected a number of bonus points in the Challenge this season, said that those points are crucial as the season shifts into the Countdown at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway one month from now.

“Those points are so important,” Ashley said. “Round points are obviously the most important, but these bonus points are just so critical and they’re really going to add up. With the Mission deal, and the fact that it’s after the points reset makes it that much more significant.”

Despite Saturday’s success, there is little the team can take away that can be applied on race day. With cooler conditions in the forecast, Ashley said that with what the team was able to do in the heat, he has high hopes that his team can swing for the fences and put down some mega numbers Sunday.

“If I had to guess, I’d imagine that there’s going to be 3.60s out there for sure,” Ashley said. “When the conditions are good here, the track itself is good, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see a bunch of 3.60s out there depending on which pair you are. With it being cooler, I think you’ll see a lot of really close racing and a lot of really fast racing.

“Either way, from a diver’s standpoint, the approach is pretty much the same no matter what the conditions are. We just let Mike and Tommy do their job and I do mine and hopefully it makes for the right combination.”

Ashley will face Terry Totten in round one Sunday, and the winner will receive a bye run into the semifinals.

“I feel like it’s hard to even win a bye run out there, so it’s going to be tough,” Ashley said. “I don’t care who we’re racing. Starting with our good friend Terry over there, you never take anyone lightly. We are looking forward to what will hopefully be a long and exciting race day.” - Larry Crum

STILL, THE ONE - Ron Capps secured the No. 1 qualifying position with a run of 3.894 seconds at 330.23 mph in his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra. The back-to-back Funny Car world champion achieved his second No. 1 qualifier of the season and the 38th of his illustrious career. 

“We’ve been chasing this all year and just haven’t been able to seal the deal and get the job done,” Hight said. “I do feel this Cornwell Tools Camaro has turned the corner, and we’re getting to where we need to be. Really want to thank Mission Foods for putting up the money and this challenge. It makes things exciting on Saturday and gives us some practice out there racing. You better be on your game.

“Throughout the year, people who win this thing seem to go out there and double up, so that’s our goal tomorrow. We need to go out there and get a win.”

Capps’ 3.894 at 330.23 in his 11,000-horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra held up from Friday, giving the back-to-back Funny Car world champ his second No. 1 qualifier this season and 38th in his career. He’ll look for his seventh win at Brainerd on Sunday, opening eliminations against Jim Campbell. J.R. Todd took second with a 3.907 at 327.98, and Hagan’s 3.910 at 328.06 put him third.

Capps, aiming for his seventh win at Brainerd, will commence eliminations against Jim Campbell. J.R. Todd secured the second spot with a time of 3.907 seconds at 327.98 mph, closely followed by Matt Hagan at 3.910 seconds and 328.06 mph.

“You never take anything for granted; the equalizer will be those cool conditions,” Capps said. “Tomorrow is going to be epic, some pretty incredible times and speeds. But the yellow hat is just such a tribute to how good our guys are. As a driver, you stage the car and keep it in the groove. But I look back at that first run we had to shut the car off, and I thought, man, that’s really unfortunate. We really don’t get very many races. We get two qualifying runs on Friday, but the fact they caught that, we didn’t get anything hurt, then we went back up and got the No. 1 spot, it sure felt a lot better.”
Greg Anderson will be the first person to admit that this season has been one for the young guns.

THOSE DANGED KIDS - Greg Anderson will be the first person to admit that this season has been one for the young guns.

With Anderson and Erica Enders -- winners of the last four championships in the Pro Stock category -- struggling during the early part of the schedule, names like Camrie Caruso, Troy Coughlin Jr., Dallas Glenn and Deric Kramer have filled the void, collecting Wallys and dominating the conversation.

But, as they say in life, you can’t keep a good man -- or woman -- down.

While it looked early on like this might be a year for a new face to rise to the top of the Pro Stock ranks, the last few races have proven that veterans like Anderson and Enders are not going to go down without a fight.

“When you have four or five races where you just can’t get it done and you keep getting beat by all of the young cats, you do think, ‘Will I ever win again? Can I still do this?’” Anderson said. “It’s great to get reassurance that I still can. (Enders) is absolutely back on top of her game. She’s going to be a hell of a challenge through the playoffs. But I expect to be, too.

“It looked like, for the first three or four months of the year, that it was going to be the year for the young guns -- and it still may be. But we’re not going to lay down easily. We’ve got a little bit of experience at this and we’re not going to go down without a fight. We both seem to be working our way back to the top and peaking at the right time.”

One week after securing his highest starting position of the season and driving to his first final round of the year, Anderson drove his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro to his first No. 1 of the season Saturday at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.

Anderson was quickest in three of the four sessions covering the first two days of competition, with his 6.587-second pass at 205.79 mph from Friday proving enough to hold off Matt Hartford for his first pole position of the year.

In fact, with wild swings in temperatures from Friday to Saturday, Anderson was especially pleased to show so much consistency in picking up his 122nd career No. 1 heading into another weather change Sunday.

“It’s very gratifying to know that you can run in the heat, you can run in the cool, you can run in any conditions,” Anderson said. “I am very proud of the job the guys have done on my car this weekend. I’ve certainly got a great hot rod, no question about that. We’ll see if I can get up on the wheel and do a little better job than I did behind the wheel today. I got my butt spanked in the first round of the Mission Challenge today and I don’t want that to happen again.”

Hartford just missed out on the top spot on Friday, falling one-thousandth of a second behind Anderson in Q2 with a 6.598-second effort at 205.54 mph. Enders was third with a 6.603 at 207.27 mph, while Cristian Cuadra (6.606) and Kramer (6.606) rounded out the top five. All of those times carried over from the first day of competition, with no one able to get close to the numbers produced during a much cooler Friday. - Larry Crum 

THEY’RE IN – In addition to Pro Stock’s Dallas Glenn, Top Fuel points leader Justin Ashley and Funny Car leaders Matt Hagan, Ron Capps, and Robert Hight all secured spots in the 2023 Countdown to the Championship.

But Ashley isn’t letting up.

“We have to stay on the offense,” he said, “because there’s people – like Steve [relentless No. 2-ranked Torrence] – that wherever there’s a window of opportunity, they’re going to try and slide right in there. We’ll continue to work and learn from each and every run and apply it the best we can during this Countdown. We’re just grateful for the opportunity to be out here and clinch our spot.”

Hagan, who tops the Funny Car leaderboard, gave credit to his team that Dickie Venables, Mike Knudsen, and Alex Conaway lead and to the Tony Stewart Racing stable of sponsors for his success. “We’ve got a good group of people, good group of sponsors, and we’re doing big things out here.”

As for the 61-point lead he brought into Brainerd, Hagan said, “That’s nothin’ out here in Funny Car. It could go away in one weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging, keep working hard, and keep doing what we’re doing. A lot of tough cars out here. It’s going to be a dogfight, but that’s what these fans love to see.”

No. 2-ranked Capps, as always, expressed the utmost confidence in crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli after solidifying his berth in the six-race Countdown. Then he said, “Plus, I got all the mojo from The Zoo [Thursday night],” referring to Brainerd’s raucous campground at the racetrack. You put all that together, I’ve got a lot of confidence right now.”

Hight, the standard-bearer for starting the Countdown in last place and winning the title (which he did in 2009), once again is planning a comeback. The John Force Racing President said, “We’ve struggled. It’s not a secret. But we feel we’re getting a handle on it. And we’re going to do whatever it takes to get where we need to be for the Countdown. That’s testing – making another 20-30 runs ... We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do to get this car where it needs to be – competitive.” 

THREE NEW WINNERS IN #2FAST2TASTY CHALLENGE – Erica Enders started this weekend with three bonus points in her “Countdown bank account” through the previous seven Pro Stock cracks at the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge rewards. But she doubled her balance Saturday, finally winning the specialty race for her class. Enders defeated Deric Kramer in the final round.

“I unintentionally double-bulbed Deric Kramer, so that part sucks and overshadowed the excitement of winning for me,” she said of her starting-line miscue. “That’s not how I race. I make a living being an honest racer.” Still, she said she was especially happy for her sponsors “because coming into the year we thought we do were going to do some good – and we haven’t. So it’s very meaningful.”

Also winning the Mission Foods Challenge for the first time were Top Fuel’s Antron Brown and Funny Car’s Robert Hight.

Brown, who denied Brittany Force her first bonus-race victory, said afterward, “On that last run, we dropped a hole at half-track. [Crew chief Brian] Corradi had it reeled in there. But, hey, we got some Mission tortillas. I’m tellin’ you, we’re going to make some fried chicken tortillas with a little watermelon on the side. If you want some, come get some, baby!”

Hight chased down Matt Hagan in their final-round match to keep the points leader from scoring consecutive bonus-race victories in the Funny Car version. Hight’s crew chief, Jimmy Prock, said that, like Brown’s dragster, Hight’s Camaro had a cylinder out downtrack.

“I really feel like we got away with one,” Hight said. “You don’t go up there and try to run 3.98 and beat Matt Hagan. You’re going to get beat most of the time. We got away with one there. We’ll take it.”  

‘SOBERING REMINDER’ – In a social-media post-Friday, Tony Stewart – who qualified sixth and bowed out in the quarterfinals of Top Alcohol Dragster eliminations Saturday – shared a personal remembrance after the loss of one of his TQ Midget drivers in an Indiana traffic accident,  and delivered a valuable public-service message.

Stewart mourned the passing of 24-year-old Greenfield, Ind., native Ashlea Albertson, who drove for Tony Stewart Racing. A passenger in an SUV that was involved in a road-rage incident, she died from injuries in a crash on Interstate 65 on Friday morning.

"Today, I lost a teammate," Stewart wrote. "@AshDogRacing had an infectious personality and could light up any room. She was a great race car driver that was involved in a road rage accident and lost her life. In the past, I’ve also gotten caught up in road rage. I hope that we can honor Ashlea by controlling what we can control on the highway. Losing her is a sobering reminder of how precious life is. Please join me in keeping her family and friends in your prayers."





FORTY YEARS AGO - Forty years ago this weekend, an incident transpired that would forever change the life of Pro Stock’s winningest driver Greg Anderson.

A 22-year-old Anderson stood on the starting line as his mentor, Mopar Pro Stock racer John Hagen, barrel-rolled his Dodge Charger at 170 miles per hour. He was the last to interact with Hagen before his death in that crash.

Anderson took note of Hagen’s pre-run rituals as he belted him in the car. 

“He’d kiss the picture of his two young kids in his helmet and then put his helmet on. I’d shake his hand, and away he’d go,” Anderson told CompetitionPlus.com in an exclusive interview. “I was definitely the last person to talk to him, see him, and touch him before it happened.”

The pain is still real for Anderson, who, after the fateful weekend, went to work for former Minnesotian Warren Johnson and later launched a driving career that would put him among the legends of Pro Stock drag racing. 

Sure, Anderson was a ball of raw talent waiting to happen when he started working for Johnson, but it was Hagen who had begun teaching his 18-year-old apprentice life’s lessons. 

“I learned a lot of family values from him,” Anderson said. “What I really learned was the value of hard work. We didn’t have the resources, so we worked very hard -- every night until about midnight in the shop, and then we’d drive all night long to get to the race track. We did it on a shoestring budget, and he taught me what it took to compete in a class and how hard you had to work, and how you had to treat people. 

“I learned back then to be good to the people that you race against, and you have to live with at the race track; that’s kind of like your second family. I think it’s paid a lot of benefits for me down the road and allowed me to get where I am today. Those values I learned from him, how to treat people right whether it’s at the race track or in the grocery store. Clearly, he was like a second father. He taught me a lot of values. I had it growing up with my father, but John reassured it.”

Anderson, born in Duluth, Minn., grew up going to the drag races and learning the ropes from his father, a hobbyist-type Modified Eliminator racer in NHRA’s Division 5. The father and son befriended the personable Hagen during their time at the track. When the elder Anderson parked his race car, it was only natural that his son would begin assisting Hagen as he made the move into Pro Stock. 

“That’s where I got my Pro Stock start,” Anderson recalled. “I had a blast, and we traveled a lot of races and had a lot of success and had a lot of fun. John was a great guy and -- I can’t emphasize this enough -- a super, super, super nice guy. I considered him like a second father to me. I spent a lot of time with him; I lived at his house when I went racing with him and stuff.”

“I ended up traveling the country with him and chasing this Pro Stock dream that they all talked about.”

Anderson quickly grasped the nuances of tuning a Pro Stocker, first on a pounds-per-cubic-inch and then later once the 500-inch format was adopted. For Anderson, the real lessons of racing with Hagen had nothing to do with four-link setting or setting the air gap on the clutch. These lessons had everything to do with becoming a champion without having to light the scoreboard with a low elapsed time.

Hagen never won an NHRA Winston national event, but he was clearly a threat every time his Minnesota-based Plymouth Arrow rolled through the gates. He qualified more times than not, but of special note is that Anderson tuned Hagen to a qualifying berth in the first-ever NHRA 500-inch Pro Stock event.

Hagen trusted Anderson immensely, and the confidence was mutual. This bond is the primary reason Anderson chokes up when talking about the day Hagen lost his life.

Seeing Hagen’s car careen out of control and barrel roll was a life-changing experience for the aspiring champion.

“That experience absolutely knocked the wind out of me,” Anderson confided. “I got to see it first hand. I went running down the race track and got to the wreckage right away. It was the most gruesome scene that you’d ever seen in your life. It was a horrific scene. There were no guard rails. We were at Brainerd, and there were no guard walls at the time.”

Anderson walked away from the sport with no intention of ever returning. In fact, he went to work for his dad at the family dealership. The accident caught him and others completely off guard.

“I had gotten the bug, and I knew I loved racing and drag racing and racing Pro Stock. But when you lose somebody close like that, it just kind of knocks the wind out of your sails,” Anderson explained. “I gave it up for a couple of years, and didn’t even hardly think about racing in that time until I went down to the Brainerd national event two years later just as a spectator.”

At that race, a friendly exchange with Kurt Johnson and an invitation to come on the road with the team was enough to get him thinking.

“I thought back to the years when I raced with John, and as under-financed as we were, we could hold our own against the guys like Warren Johnson, Lee Shepherd, and Bob Glidden – they were the heavily sponsored teams of that era.

“I always thought in the back of my mind if I ever decided to come back, it would only be to race with one of those kinds of teams," he said. "We weren’t heavily sponsored, and I learned right then what it took to be Pro Stock. You needed to be heavily sponsored, and you needed to have resources. We did a great job with what we had, but we didn’t have those resources, so I kind of learned right then that if I was ever going to race again, it was going to be with one of those top-tier teams that had the resources. That’s why when Warren offered me the opportunity, I jumped at it.” 

Anderson has been knee-deep in Pro Stock ever since. He also took note of the advancements in Pro Stock safety following Hagen’s death. 

“His death led to the implementation of the Funny Car roll cage in the Pro Stockers,” Anderson said. “They also put guard walls up at these things. Never again have they run at a national event without guard walls. Some good things came of it, but it sucks that we were all kind of asleep at the switch at the time. That’s the way it works: You kind of have to have tragedy to learn and go forward. That’s the main thing that he did right there, that’s what he’s responsible for.” 

Anderson maintains contact with Hagen’s family after all these years, and every time he starts his Pro Stock entry, he envisions a part of John riding along with him.

“I miss him every day,” Anderson said. “He was such a great guy, and he has a great family. I still talk to his family all the time and they still come to the Brainerd race. The kids grew up to be great people. They’re married and have children now, so it turned out great. I was scared because they were 9 and 12 years old then. They were at that age where they really needed their dad. He was just such a great guy that they lived in his memory and lived like he lived the rest of their lives, and they turned out to be great, so I’m very proud of them.”

And somewhere, looking down, Hagen is proud of his apprentice. - Bobby Bennett Jr.

THE APPRENTICE IS THE MASTER OF DAY ONE -  Anderson led both qualifying sessions and ended the day with a best 6.597 seconds at 205.79 mph in his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro. Anderson will secure his first No. 1 spot this season and the 122nd of his illustrious career if his position holds. 

“Being back home is cool,” Anderson said. “This is where I grew up, where it all started for me. It’s pretty darn cool to come back after a long four years. The facility is wonderful, the racetrack is great, the weather is great – it’s just like I remember it. It’s been a really good Friday, and we got all the points that they had to give today with two pretty much flawless runs.
“They were absolutely right on par, and I couldn’t be prouder of the guys that work on these KB Titan Chevys back here. They’re impressive. It’s time to win a race before we get into the Countdown. You have to peak at the right time, and it’s the right time going into Indy and the playoffs and here at my home track.”



THAT WOULD BE A NO-GO - Following a nearly one-hour oildown delay as the sun was setting on Brainerd Motorsports Park, one by one, Top Fuel drivers in line for the Q-2 session pulled out of line and returned to the pits. The second session, according to NHRA, was canceled due to a lack of daylight since the Minnesota-based facility doesn’t have adequate lighting for nighttime competition. It must be noted not one Funny Car made it to the finish line in the left lane following the mishap.


HAPPY, BUT NOT PLEASED - When Doug Kalitta crossed the finish line first in the opening round of qualifying Friday at Brainerd International Raceway, he was pleased, but not satisfied.

This rocket still had more in the tank.

As fate would have it, however, Kalitta and his Mac Tools team would not find out just how much more it had left as an oildown, a quickly setting sun and a facility sans stadium lighting added up to a canceled second session and a largely unexpected No. 1 for Kalitta at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.

“I didn’t think that was going to hold up at all,” Kalitta said. “You never can tell really, but this track is usually really good. I was hopeful that we could get down it and it was unfortunate that we didn’t get that second run. We ran out of daylight. But I’m really proud of my guys. We’ll just see how it holds up for tomorrow.”

Kalitta ran a 3.757-second lap at 330.31 mph in his Mac Tools dragster during his one and only look at the track on Friday, edging out Steve Torrence and the Capco Contractors team by one-thousandth of a second.

Brittany Force slotted in third with a 3.762 at 331.45 mph, while Leah Pruett (3.777) and Antron Brown (3.780) rounded out the top five. - Larry Crum

THE CAPPS FACTOR - Ron Capps came ready to race this weekend.

So when an issue with the wheelie bar on his 11,000-horsepower nitro-powered machine forced him to abort his first round of qualifying Friday at Brainerd International Raceway, he was far from happy.

But instead of allowing a poor start to derail the weekend before it ever began, Capps rallied the troops, sat down with crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli and decided this was no time to play it safe.

Instead, Capps’ call and his team’s preparations helped propel Capps from off the qualifying sheet to the provisional No. 1 qualifier at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.

“We had to shut the car off the first run and I sat there on the starting line and watched (Matt) Hagan go low e.t., and the conditions were pretty good,” Capps said. “Guido was going to throw down, so it is hard to say what it was going to run, but thankfully a crew guy caught what he caught because that could have been pretty dangerous.

“Guido and I had a talk (after the round) and he’s like, ‘It’s going to be hot tomorrow and I don’t want to not be in the top half. I don’t want to throw down and miss it and smoke the tires. There are 17 cars.’ So after the conversation, I just looked at him and said, ‘Dude, go for it. It’s like most races, we have three qualifying runs anyway. Approach it like it’s a Friday night at Indy in two weeks and throw down.’ He just smiled and, while he didn’t throw down as much, it turned out to be enough.”

Capps ran a stout 3.894-second pass at 330.23 mph in his NAPA Toyota Supra, holding off a hard-charging J.R. Todd who drove his DHL Supra to a 3.907 at 327.98 mph.

Hagan’s 3.910 at 328.06 mph from earlier in the day slipped to third, while Bob Tasca (3.915) and Cruz Pedregon (3.934) rounded out the top five.

KALITTA, ENDERS, PRUETT EYE MILESTONES – Doug Kalitta kicked off his 59th birthday weekend by rocketing to the head of the Top Fuel order in the first Friday qualifying session. By one-thousandth of a second, the Mac Tools Dragster driver edged Steve Torrence (3.757-3.758) for the early lead and a flicker of hope that his fortunes might be about to improve.

Kalitta, whose birthday is Sunday, is sixth among his class leaders in Top Fuel history, Mac Tools Dragster driver Doug Kalitta needs that 50th and two more to tie retired five-time champion Joe Amato for fifth place. He trails Tony Schumacher (86), Larry Dixon (62), Antron Brown (56), Steve Torrence (54), and Amato.

Kalitta’s most recent triumph came in the fall of 2020, at St. Louis, where he won for the fourth time.

“We’ve definitely had our highs and lows this season,” Kalitta said. “We’ve had some really good races that made all our partners proud, and we’ve had some that weren’t as good. I know Alan, Brian [co-crew chiefs Alan Johnson and Brian Husen] and all my guys are doing everything they can every day to keep us moving in the right direction, and I’m super proud of them. We just need to get back to winning rounds so the race wins can follow. This Mac Tools team is an awesome group of guys with a great work ethic. That 50th win is out there. We just have to go get it.”

If Kalitta were to pull off the feat this Sunday, he would become the only the 16th pro racer in the sport’s history to win 50 or more races. He’s hoping it would be a fitting 59th birthday present to himself Sunday. This Brainerd race is Kalitta’s 580th, most in the Top Fuel category.

However, Kalitta isn’t the only one who’s prepared to reach a personal plateau in his career – and he isn’t the only one waiting to claim his 50th victory. Four-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Eddie Krawiec has been stuck at 49 since the 2021 U.S. Nationals. The bike class isn’t competing here this weekend but will return to action Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.

Erica Enders’ 45th Pro Stock victory last weekend at Topeka put her on the brink of drag racing history.

Idle Pro Stock Motorcycle star Angelle Sampey, the three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, has more national-event pro victories than any woman, with 46. Counting her 2004 sportsman-level Super Gas victory, Enders could be considered tied with Sampey. Enders, already a two-time winner at Brainerd (2012, 2015), would tie Sampey for the distinction if she scored back-to-back victories in her Melling/Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/SCAG Chevy Camaro.

Passing Sampey with two more victories would make Enders the leader among women not just in drag racing but in all of motorsports.

Another woman is celebrating a significant point in her career.

Fifth-ranked Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett is focusing on these Lucas Oil Nationals. It’s one of four NHRA events she has won twice. And she’s the current track recordholder for elapsed time (3.640 seconds at 1,000 feet). And not even her 200th start has distracted her from her goal.

She said, “I’ve had great history at Brainerd, but right now, our focus is on swinging the power pendulum the opposite direction than we did last year at this race. This race is huge, because last year was the beginning of us .74-ing them to death [in elapsed times], no matter what we did, while the rest of the field picked up. We’ve shown we can pick up and be a top-tier qualifying car, and that’s what we intend to do this weekend.”

Just the same, hitting the 200-race plateau is a source of pride for the Dodge Direct Connection dragster driver.

“It is wild to think I’m making my 200th start,” Pruett said. “I’m thankful to every team and crew chief I’ve gotten to drive for. It all started with just wanting to go fast and compete at national events with the big dogs. From my start with Dote Racing, brief stint but win with BVR (Bob Vandergriff Racing), [the] Laganas’ Nitro Ninja, DSR’s [Don Schumacher Racing’s] professional presence delivering wins with driver and personal growth, to being fully immersed in a team co-built from the inside out, every dynamic of my Top Fuel start has changed from 199 races ago, except my gratitude and will to win. Those things remain the same, but the enjoyment factor of who and how I do it with continues to skyrocket.”

GLADSTONE FAMILY GRIEVING – Pro Stock points leader Dallas Glenn became the first to clinch a berth in the 2023 Countdown to the Championship on Friday.

And the RAD Torque Systems Camaro driver for KB Titan Racing knew the moment wasn’t just about him on the opening day of the Lucas Oil Nationals. With a heartfelt message on the back window of his race car, Glenn reached out to one of the team’s colleagues – and a Pro Stock Motorcycle standout – who, along with his family, is hurting.

Written on Glenn’s back windshield were the words “Racing for Carson Cole Gladstone ... We love you, Nicole, Joey, & Olivia.”

Nicole Gladstone, wife of the racer, posted on her Facebook account this week:

“Carson Cole Gladstone
‘Son of the Champion’
Born to life August 4, 2023
Born to eternity August 14, 2023

"Our precious son was taken from us too soon but he will be remembered forever and loved for eternity, always a part of our family. Carson has left an indelible mark on our hearts. He brought moments of tenderness and unity to our family, reminding us of the fragility and beauty of life. His memory will forever remain etched in our souls. We take solace in knowing that Carson is now cradled in the arms of God, free from pain and surrounded by boundless love. May our child rest peacefully, forever surrounded by the love he brought into this world.
“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ - Matthew 19:14”

The Competition Plus family sends its sincere condolences to the Gladstone family.

‘HEY, IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK HOME AGAIN’ – Three-time Pro Stock champion Jason Line has been joining son Jack in helping with Bo Butner’s Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage Camaro.

“He’s like a big, goofy brother,” Butner said of the retired Line, who grew up nearby in Wright, Minn., and went on to be a decorated pro drag racer and a more versatile competitor than many might know. “But everybody loves him.”

Line won 51 events, 49 in Pro Stock and two in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. He was the 1993 NHRA Stock Eliminator champion and Region 5 champion.

What’s more, he set the A/Modified Production speed record of 191 mph with a 225.246-mph speed at Bonneville Flats in 2012 as part of the Jesel Land Speed/Summit Racing Team.

COUNTDOWN QUIRK – The Countdown to the Championship is supposed to be reserved for the top 10 drivers in each of the four pro classes. But revised NHRA rules allow any racer outside the top 10 to enter the Countdown if he or she competes at every event on the schedule and makes at least two passes.

This year, in the Funny Car class, current No. 11 placeholder and Norwalk winner Blake Alexander won’t be among the Countdown qualifiers. He and his Jim Head Racing team skipped the Bristol and  Denver events.

However, No. 12 Alex Laughlin, of Jim Dunn Racing, will make the Countdown field, because of the show-up-and-you're-in rule.

Meanwhile, Alexis De Joria, John Force, Chad Green, and Cruz Pedregon all will make the top 10 and the playoffs, and none of them yet has won a race this year.

HOW IT STACKS UP – Greg Anderson, Pro Stock’s 101-time winner and Duluth, Minn., native, said, “It’s really important to peak at the right time.” And Justin Ashley and Matt Hagan, the respective Top Fuel and Funny Car points leaders, want to do the same as the NHRA’s “regular season” dashes toward a close with this weekend’s Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., and Labor Day weekend’s U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. 

Fields for the 17th Countdown to the Championship will be set at Indianapolis, making the Brainerd International Raceway event even more critical for challengers. Gathering qualifying bonus points and, for some, playoff points from Saturday’s Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenges across the pro classes will be critical to Countdown seeding.

Steve Torrence, Brittany Force, and Antron Brown will jockey for the best position in the Top Fuel standings after six-time victor Ashley, who has an 83-point advantage. In Funny Car, it’s Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Chad Green, and most recent winner Bob Tasca III chasing Hagan, whose 61-point edge isn’t all that safe. Dallas Glenn leads the Pro Stock class, trying to hold off Matt Hartford, Troy Coughlin Jr., Deric Kramer, and Anderson.

(The Pro Stock Motorcycle class is idle this weekend, but Gaige Herrera knows much of his commanding lead – 359 markers over No. 2 Hector Arana Jr. – will vanish when the NHRA manipulates the points and bunches up the line-ups for the start of the six-race playoff.)

CHAMPIONS AMONG THE STRUGGLING – Chad Green, a relative newcomer to the NHRA Funny Car class, has woven one of the best stories in drag racing this season. He was runner-up to J.R. Todd at Sonoma, won the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge at Pomona and qualified for five others, qualified No. 1 at Epping, and has been ranked in the top five in the standings after 11 of 13 races.

Bob Tasca III, likewise, has been a bright star in the Funny Car constellation, particularly after most of his crew defected to Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel team after last season. Tasca is a two-time event winner (Epping, Topeka) and winner of the Mission Foods Challenge at Bristol. Moreover, he has had four No. 1 starts (Phoenix, Charlotte, Norwalk, Sonoma).

By contrast, the surprising strugglers include reigning and two-time Top Fuel champion Brittany Force and her 155-time winner dad, John Force.

It might sound odd to say they’re struggling. Brittany Force has led her field four times, set top speed at 11 of the 13 completed events, and recorded low elapsed time of the race five times, leaving track records in her wake across the country. John Force was Funny Car runner-up to Tasca in the Epping race and No. 1 qualifier at Seattle—and the 16-time champion will make the Countdown again. But neither Force has found the right combination yet in 13 races to win.

Both eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony and two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon clearly have the tools – proven crew chiefs, generous budgets, lots of experience, and no shortage of confidence in their respective teams.

Both also are winless in 2023.

“We’re working hard to get it right, with the challenges the heat has thrown at us,” Pedregon said. “We’re going to be calling on the energy we have from four competitive runs at Night Under Fire [the popular specialty/independent event at Norwalk, Ohio] a few weeks ago to fuel our hopes for a better performance this weekend.” He hasn’t advanced past the second round all year.

Pedregon’s show car will be on display at Indianapolis International Airport for the next three weeks, promoting the U.S. Nationals. However, the Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered driver would be even more pleased if he could park his current race car in the winners circle at Brainerd International Raceway this weekend, for the first time since his first championship march in 1992.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher has marked a year with new team principal Joe Maynard and said his team, with championship-material tuners Mike Neff, Jon Schaffer and Phil Shuler. And Schumacher said he thinks it takes time as much as it takes capital equipment to build a winning team.

“There's not a magic potion,” Schumacher said. “And if you know that, get in and hit the gas, let the guys do their job. They'll figure it out. I know that we'll be champs again. And I know that we'll win races.”

Like Doug Kalitta, Mike Salinas -- winless since Oct. 4, 2020, at St. Louis -- is due for a turnaround and is eighth in the Top Fuel standings at the start of this weekend.

Salinas himself expected more impressive results this year after he finished fifth in the championship last year with four victories. Salinas was third in the final standings in 2021, as well. He did win the Gatornationals to open the season, but now sits eighth place in the standings. He does have a pair of No. 1 qualifiers but otherwise has been silent since March. He brings a 12-12 race-day record in eliminations into Brainerd—and “mediocre” isn’t a word normally associated with Salinas.