2023 NHRA NEVADA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S THE TEN MOST COMPELLING STORIES FROM SUNDAY
1 – Mike Salinas’ victory scrambles Top Fuel standings - The NHRA Top Fuel class has a new points leader with Leah Pruett’s first-round loss Sunday at the Nevada Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And it has a rejuvenated contender with Sunday winner Mike Salinas, who scored a runaway final-round victory in the Valley Services dragster for Scrappers Racing over traction-troubled Justin Ashley.
In successive rounds, the top-three-ranked drivers lost, and the scramble left Steve Torrence at the top of the leaderboard with a 15-point advantage over No. 2 Doug Kalitta.
Torrence was disappointed with his semifinal finish and defeat by Ashley, but he knows the points structure at Southern California’s Auto Club Finals at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip could help him.
“Obviously, we’ve got some work to do at Pomona, but it ain’t over yet,” he said. “The good thing is that there are points-and-a-half [available].”
While that might help, it also might help those chasing him.
Kalitta, winner of the first two Countdown races, lost to Josh Hart in the second round Sunday, but left Las Vegas without too much damage to his best shot in awhile for that elusive first championship. He leads third-place Leah Pruett by 19 points.
“Josh had a better light [reaction time] than I had. It’s unfortunate and obviously bad timing,” Kalitta said. “We’ll lick our wounds for a couple of weeks and get back at it. That’s all we can do. We knew it was going down to Pomona, that’s for sure.”
For his part, Ashley said, “I feel really good about the way the day went today. It was critical for us to be in the championship hunt and give ourselves a realistic chance going into Pomona by the time this race was over. I think that we did a good job of accomplishing that. One more round would have made a big difference and we would have loved to have come away with the win. Anytime you go to a final round in a race like this, at such a crucial point in the season that is super important. We feel good and I am just looking forward to trying to take those next steps.”
Salinas improved from sixth place to fourth, just 76 points off Torrence’s pace heading into the Nov. 10-13 Finals.
The victory was Salinas’ second of the year, and his first since the season opener at Gainesville, Fla.
“We’ve been working on this car since Gainesville. We have some real special things it's been doing. And it has showed signs of greatness, but the consistency has been a little evading us. So trying to get more consistent running these [3.]60 numbers and doing it today is the best day we've had all year. The car is showing amazing signs. If we can continue to do what we're doing here, it'll be a great weekend in Pomona, and that's what we're looking at.”
He said the grind of competing takes a lot of starch out of a team owner/driver and a success is overwhelmingly satisfying.
“You get beat down. You lose, you lose, you lose, you lose. And then one day everything falls in place and you need to pinch yourself. Stay humble, relaxed and look at it and like, ‘Wow. It is possible again.’ Look, we've been trying. It's not like we haven't been trying all year and stuff doesn't work. It's just, you get these moments and look, this stuff is hard. It's really hard to do. I mean, to be honest with,” Salinas said to reporters, “if you guys weren't up there, I'd be crying my eyes out, because I'm like, ‘It worked again.’ It's just ... you have these little battles with yourself.”
And he has battles with several others on the horizon.
2 – Funny Car winner Robert Hight puts pressure on leader Matt Hagan, No. 2 Bob Tasca III = Matt Hagan managed to hang onto the Funny Car points lead despite missing his chance for another final-round berth by nine-thousandths of a second. But event winner Robert Hight tightened the screws on him and No. 2 Bob Tasca III.
Hagan and his Tony Stewart Racing Direct Connection Dodge have a 15-points edge on No. 2 Tasca. Hight is two points behind Tasca, with points-and-a-half structure an added incentive at the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., in two weeks.
The Funny Car final came down to the top two qualifiers who for a time late Saturday night took turns being No. 1. Tasca was originally the top starter and Hight was second, but the NHRA Technical Department ruled that the headers on Tasca’s PPG Ford Mustang were out of compliance and granted Hight the No. 1 berth. That moved Tasca to second, and added some friction to a rivalry that was already simmering.
In the end, Hight won handily Sunday. Tasca ran into tire shake and ultimately was no threat.
But Tasca is a big threat – one of several – to Hight’s quest for a fourth Funny Car championship. So is fellow three-time champ Matt Hagan, who fell against Tasca in the semifinals.
Three-time and reigning champion Ron Capps saw his chance to break into the title mix at the season finale virtually vanish with a first-round loss Sunday, and is now a distant fourth in the standings.
“We dug ourselves a hole in Dallas [at the previous race]. It was almost a must-win situation,” Hight said after claiming the victory in his Cornwell Tools Chevy Camaro for John Force Racing. “These other guys are running right with us. We’re not running away with this thing.”
As for his rivalry with Tasca, Hight was diplomatic, saying, “Some guys you want to beat more than others. That’s a good car. He’s driving good. We have our hands full.”
He only half-joked that “I’d rather be in Gaige Herrera’s spot. If I had to trade that’s what I’d do.” He was referring to the Pro Stock Motorcycle sensation’s much easier path to a title at Pomona.
“We’re here. We’ve got to make the best of it. We’ve got to perform, and those guys are going to be right there," Hight said. "More than likely, it’s going to go down to the final round at Pomona to win the championship, and it doesn’t get more dramatic than that. It’s cool, and to look back on it and you get the job done, boy, there’s not going to be anything more rewarding than that.”
Hagan said, “We have a big road ahead of us to try and win this championship in Pomona. That close loss is a tough one to swallow. We will get back to work this week, and I’ll keep working on my lights. We are still holding the points lead headed to Pomona.”
3 – Erica Enders gets 10th Las Vegas victory, 47th win in Pro Stock - In another classic showdown with 103-time winner Greg Anderson, Erica Enders won easily to remain perfect in four final-round appearances this season.
That prompted her colorful and often-unfiltered team owner Richard Freeman to point to her and declare, “That’s the baddest bitch on the planet.”
The No. 1 qualifier said what she has figured out is “that you can’t do it alone. No matter how much negativity is around you, as long as you don’t let it in your boat, it can’t sink you. That’s the biggest lesson from this weekend, with all the adversity we had to get through.” That included having one of her early qualifying rounds being disqualified on a technicality.
“When our backs are against the wall, our boys perform flawlessly,” Enders said of her Elite Motorsports crew on her Melling/SCAG Chevrolet Camaro. "We came in here with the lead, and Greg is on my heels. I’m just really proud.
“I give God all the glory,” Enders said. “When you dig deep and play with all the heart that you have, they can’t get you.”
In spite of all her success this season, Enders said she doesn’t feel like the championship is hers yet.
“We have to go out there and continue to earn it. Had you asked me that 12 races ago, I’d say you’re nuts if you told me we’d be contending for a sixth championship this year, because we were absolutely horrible," she said. "I don’t think that way at all. Sure, it’s 114 points, but Pomona is points-and-a-half. A lot can happen. A lot can change. So I just try to put that out of my mind. I know it sounds silly and cliché, but I just try to focus on what’s right in front of me. I don’t want to get the bigger picture in my mind too far ahead, but at the same time believe we can do it.
Anderson had wanted to produce a victory for sponsor Rick Hendrick. For the longtime NASCAR team owner Hendrick, this is a sadly memorable weekend. The Cup Series tour competed at Martinsville, Va. It was 19 years ago on Oct. 24 that Hendrick Motorsports’ private plane, which was carrying 10 people to attend the race at Martinsville, crashed into the mountains on a missed approach to the airport there. No one survived. Among the casualties was Rick Hendrick’s son Ricky, a Busch Series driver and heir to the family empire. Also on board were family members John Hendrick, his twin daughters, and members of the racing team’s staff.
Anderson said he “absolutely” wanted to give Hendrick a victory at Vegas and something of a salve for some of the lasting scars of the air tragedy. Hendrick will have two drivers -- Kyle Larson and William Byron -- in the final four vying for the championship this coming weekend in Phoenix.
“Anything I can do to help him out with all he's done for me and how he supports me. I just I feel like I can't ever do enough, so, if I could have a big weekend this weekend and ease some of those memories for him, make some of the bad memories go away for a little while, hopefully I can play a small part in that,” the KB Titan Racing headliner said.
Anderson said for Hendrick, the sting of losing his loved ones “never goes away. But you can probably block it out for a few hours if you get some really good instant news. And that's the best news he can get. That man loves to win. That's why he races, because he loves to win. He doesn't just race to have fun or to go race. He races to win. When he wins, he has a great time. And yes, I think for a fleeting moment at least, he can forget about the bad memories.”
4 – Gaige Herrera all but seals the Pro Stock Motorcycle title - Gaige Herrera will have to wait until Pomona, Calif., to make his Pro Stock Motorcycle championship official. But he left no doubt that the 2023 title will be his after dismissing Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki Hayabusa teammate Eddie Krawiec for the third straight event and the fourth time overall.
Herrera earned his 10th victory of the season in 14 races and ran his elimination-round record to 46-4. He reset the track record on his final run with a 6.75-second quarter-mile elapsed time.
Six times this year, four times in final rounds, Herrera has denied four-time class champion Krawiec a milestone 50th victory.
Herrera said his motorcycle “has been on rails all weekend – all season. A year ago, I never would have expected to be in this situation. I’m very thankful for the opportunity. That was a big one, three [straight] finals for us]. I took Ed out again, not allowing him his 50th. All in all, we’re going home with the Wally, and I’m really happy.”
5 – Mike Castellana earns Pro Modified championship - Once Mike Castellana eliminated Dmitry Samorukov in Round 2 on Sunday, he had to wait through Sidnei Frigo’s victory against Mason Wright in the next pairing to find out if he clinched the NHRA Fuel Tech Pro Mod championship. For Castellana, it came down to the Kevin Rivenbark vs. Justin Bond match-up, and Rivenbark won to hand the crown to Castellana.
The veteran Pro Mod racer from Muttontown, N.Y., said his goal simply was to win the race. He did that, too, recording his first triumph of the year with a runaway victory over former PDRA champion Rivenbark in the final round.
“I had no clue we could win a championship. We’ve been chasing this one a long time,” Castellana said. “We came so close a few years back, but we got it this year.”
He capitalized on the fact that points leader and 2022 champion Kris Thorne crashed his car and lost to Frigo on Saturday night.
6 – Tasca puts costly tossed run behind him, focuses on Funny Car chase - At least in public, Funny Car racer Bob Tasca III shrugged off the surprising late-Saturday news that the NHRA had tossed out his No. 1 qualifying run because of a technical violation. His assessment of Saturday evening's disqualification was, "It's [NHRA's] basketball court and their basketball. We just play here.”
Tasca's 3.842, 336.74 run was disqualified when his headers had a width discrepancy. (Usually, violations occur when the laid-back header angle is out of compliance.)
"My problem with the whole situation is all weekend, there's been a witch hunt out here for header issues," Tasca said. "On Thursday, we brought all our headers down to NHRA, wanted to make sure all the angles were right. All our angles were correct, no issues. All our headers passed. The car runs great. Saturday night they [NHRA] decide to measure the overall width of the header." Evidently, width either wasn't a problem or was not checked beforehand. He said the problem is that in time, headers tend to sag.
"You run them, and you can have some variances," Tasca said. "We happened to have had an older set on. We passed all the angles, no issue, which is, in my opinion, the critical dimension, because that determines a performance advantage. If you lay the header back more, it's more of an advantage."
Regardless, Tasca is adamant the width of the headers provides no performance advantage whatsoever. He said his headers were between an eighth of an inch and a quarter-inch outside the bounds. "The header sagged a little bit, a little bit outside the guidelines," Tasca said. "All of the header angles were perfectly fine. No issue.”
Tasca alleged his PPG Funny Car was declared legal and then abruptly was disqualified.
He said the NHRA’s attitude was “Here's your No. 1 qualifier hat. See you tomorrow.” Tasca said, “That's how it went down. The [NHRA] press release, everything is good. Hours later, the decision was reversed. And from my standpoint, it shows, in my opinion, it's very unprofessional within the NHRA Tech community – because clearly there was a difference of opinion, and NHRA Tech officials were overridden by powers that be. And it makes the teams look stupid, because they handed us the No. 1 qualifying hats after they teched my car, and then they changed their mind. So, it is what it is. I accept the ruling."
Tasca said Sunday morning he is moving forward and was focused on Sunday's eliminations.
"We just play here," he said. "And we're going to go out here focused on winning the race.
“That's the truth. The truth is not harmed by the truth,” he said.
“So, I'm not disrespectful. It is embarrassing to them and us, because let's be honest. They said it was good and it is what it is. So we're here playing their game, and we're going to go and do the best we can within the rules they've come up with. If it was a performance of safety, I would be visibly upset with my own team, because to me, that is unacceptable.
"Eighth of an inch dimension, quarter of an inch dimension on overall width, which has no effect to the angle of the header. To me, it's ludicrous, but what it is. It's their ball field," he said.
7 – Extended Salinas gang going motorcycle racing - It’s no secret that Top Fuel Countdown contender Mike Salinas is interested in racing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. But after qualifying No. 1 in his dragster, Salinas revealed that he and brother Carl Salinas plan to join Mike Salinas’ daughter, Jianna Evaristo, in the bike class.
Moreover, he mentioned that his Scrappers Racing team one day also will include a Pro Modified entry.
“My brother and I got this bright idea. We do everything together. So, we're going to go try Pro Stock bikes. We have bikes coming. We want to race bikes. We’ve been riding motorcycles our whole life. So where else can you do stuff together with your family? I mean, I want to beat him – and my daughter,” Salinas said.
The plan, Salinas said, was to “go practice Monday morning, test session, burnouts, launches, and see where we go with it. And our goal is to go run Pro Stock bikes as a family, you know, and just have a great time with it. And we’ve got Pro Mods coming, too. Just live your best life. Family’s around. We have a great time with it. Honestly, we don't care about much other than that, having a great time and enjoying all of this with great people.”
8 – Bobby Cottrell undefeated in Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car in 2023 - Bobby Cottrell has nearly done it all behind the wheel of a Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car. Over the past seven seasons, Cottrell, at the wheel of the Bucky Austin-owned green Bardahl machine, has won countless races, including six consecutive NHRA Heritage Series Funny Car Championships. However, on Sunday at the Nevada Nationals, Cottrell did the impossible and accomplished what nearly every drag racer hopes to do in a season, and that's go undefeated. The six-time champ took home the trophy, winning the Legends Nitro Funny Car division at Las Vegas for the second year in a row, defeating Geoff Monise in the final round to complete his perfect season, not losing a single round of competition all year.
"We're excited. It's surreal," Cottrell said. "I had to take a moment by myself and just realize what has gone on this year, you know, with all the heartache and everything. Unfortunately, we weren't able to race Geoff Monise and his team, but a win is a win, obviously. You know it's awesome. I got the best team and the best car. Bucky (Austin), Mike (O'Brien), Jeannette, the whole team, my girlfriend Heidi, my parents were here, my brothers were here. I couldn't have asked for a better ending. It's been a whirlwind the past seven and a half years. I would have never ever expected this. Hats off to them like I always say. We're excited for next year, Bucky is already talking about the March Meet, so we're excited."
It was no easy road to the trophy for the Southern California native. In the opening round, which was run in the cool temperatures on Saturday night under the lights at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Cottrell, the No. 1 qualifier, laid down the second-best run of the session, stopping the thousand-foot clocks with a blistering 4.777 second past at over 239 miles to defeat an always tough Tim Boychuk in the "Happy Hour" '69 Camaro.
Cottrell backed up his strong opening round pass in the semifinals on Sunday afternoon with an even quicker 4.755 at 241, this time taking out the popular "California Hustler" car and driver Kamaka Pocock.
The Bardahl team was going to have their work cut out for them in the final as they were set to square off against the driver of the "Quarter Pounder" Nitro Funny Car Geoff Monise in a rematch of the Legends Nitro Funny Car final from Thunder Valley in Bristol, Tennessee. Monise was strong all weekend long, qualifying in the No. 3 spot with a stout 4.770, then improved on that by one-thousandth of a second in the first round on Saturday night with a 4.769 to defeat Billy Morris, which held for low elapsed time of the round.
Unfortunately, Monise hurt a motor in his semifinal win over Derrick Moreira and was unable to make the call in the final, giving Cottrell a single for the win. Nonetheless, despite having already secured the victory, crew chief Bucky Austin did not go up to the starting line gun-shy in the final. He tuned Cottrell to a scintillating 4.731 at 242, which was low elapsed time of the event and finished the year in style.
"We went 242 (miles per hour) which is big for our class. Obviously, with this association, we run 1,000 feet, so it takes a little bit of a different setup. I never want to lift off the gas pedal. But we're just excited we came home with the win, and we're going to celebrate now." -- Darin Williams
9 – Summit E.T. Motorcycle racer Jason Drnach hurt in Round 1 accident - Jason Drnach was transported to a local hospital after he fell from his bike after crossing the finish line during the opening round of the Summit E.T. Motorcycle eliminations.
The Taylor, Michigan, racer reportedly was “conscious and communicating” with emergency medical personnel immediately after the accident. Dr. Phillip Surface, the NHRA’s medical director, attended to Drnach before the racer was sent to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment.
No further word about his condition or the nature of his injury/injuries was available Sunday.
Before the wreck, Drnach cut a perfect (.000-second) light, but he ran too fast and broke out against Robert Sanders.
9A - Millican goes three-wheelin' - Clay Millican took quite the ride in E1, as his tire apparently exploded. He went through the traps and as he lifted off the throttle, the tire exploded. There was no visible sign of an engine failure or any other failure. Compounding the pain of the wounded race car, Millican lost the race to Steve Torrence. There has been no immediate cause of the tire's failure determined.
"It was a heck of a ride," Millican surmised.
10 – Some sportsman classes will finish Monday at The Strip - Racing was suspended for some sportsman classes Sunday evening. Top Sportsman and Comp Eliminator will finish eliminations starting at 9:30 Monday morning.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - Competition Plus' Top 10 Items For Saturday's NHRA Nevada Nationals
1 – Qualifiers – and disqualifiers in Funny Car – set the fields for eliminations - Mike Salinas (Top Fuel), Kyle Koretsky (Pro Stock), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) blasted to the top of their respective starting lineups, but the situation wasn’t as cut-and-dried in the Funny Car class.
Funny Car drivers Bob Tasca III, J.R. Todd, and Jeff Diehl had their fourth and final qualifying session passes tossed out for failed post-run inspections. Todd remained in the 10th spot, and Diehl still anchored the field at No. 16. But the ruling cost Tasca his eighth No. 1 starting position of the season. That No. 1 spot automatically went to the No. 2 racer, Robert Hight – who happens to be the driver Tasca is working feverishly to fend off in the championship chase.
The NHRA Tech Department’s decision leaves Tasca in second place on Sunday’s starting grid for eliminations. In the Funny Car standings, Tasca entered the race 36 points behind No. 1 Matt Hagan, and Hight was the No. 3-ranked racer, 33 points behind Tasca.
Hight’s 3.851 at 327.51 from Friday in the Cornwell Tools Chevy Camaro held up for his sixth No. 1 qualifier this season and 83rd in his career.
"Whether we're No. 1, No. 2, or No. 16, the job doesn't change,” Hight said after hearing he would start from the No. 1 spot. “This team is dialed in. We need four win lights on Sunday to keep ourselves in this championship fight. The bonus points help. We know all too well how the little points can make or break you at the end. We're looking forward to a long, hard-fought race day tomorrow."
Salinas (3.680 seconds, 331.77 mph), who claimed he has “been distracted as a driver” recently, showed no signs of losing his focus in claiming the No. 1 spot in Top Fuel with his Scrappers Racing dragster.
“This weekend I fixed that,” he said. “We have a lot on our plate. Took care of it and just, you know, departmentalizing everything and with the right people around us, we'll be just fine. And think about this. Here's the coolest part. If all these cars are running this good at the end of the year, can you imagine what next year is going to be like? It’s going to be great. I mean, it's going to be fun. I can't wait to run with my daughter [Jasmine Salinas] and race.”
Koretsky picked up 11 points and swiped the No.1 starting position in his final chance Saturday evening with his 6.589-second pass at 205.66 mph in the Lucas Oil Chevy Camaro.
“The last few races have been down and out. We didn’t give up,” the KB Titan Racing driver said. On his car is a tribute to mom Karen,who has been cancer-free for 20 years. “She’s a fighter, and we’ll keep fighting,” an emotional Koretsky said. “I’m here to get the win for my mom.”
Gaige Herrera trampled over the rest of his rivals once again to secure his 13th No. 1 qualifying spot in the Pro Stock Motorcycle’s 14 races. He did it with his Friday track records of 6.760 seconds in the quarter-mile at 199.82 mph.
“My bike has been a bracket bike. It’s consistent and fast,” the Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki rider said.
2 – Kris Thorne walks away from frightening Pro Mod crash - Reigning Pro Modified champion and points leader Kris Thorne walked away Saturday evening from a scary crash in the first round of eliminations.Additionally, he lost the round opening the door for Justin Bond and Mike Castellana to make a run for the title.
Nearly one-third of the way down the track against opponent Sidnei Frigo, Thorne’s car started drifting toward the center line. Then it made an abrupt left, spun, and crashed hard into the left-side wall. It went airborne, flipped, and came down on its roof. It slid upside down until it came to a stop along the wall.
Thorne exited his car on his own power as the Safety Safari and emergency medical personnel rushed to the scene.
After a few minutes to collect himself, Thorne said, “We’re all good. Just got crossed up. I didn’t do a good job driving; should’ve lifted. You get caught up in things – championship stuff on the line. Just overdrove and didn’t do a good job. I don’t care who you are, you get in predicaments like this. Your mind’s not right and you do stupid things.”
3 – Matt Hagan has learned to focus on what he can control - Matt Hagan played high school football in southwestern Virginia, and he knows the game is nothing like drag racing. In football, a player can neutralize the opponent and cause a momentum shift. He can tackle the running back on a crucial play, sack the quarterback, or intercept a pass. But in this Funny Car championship chase, points leader Hagan, for instance, can’t just go and tackle Robert Hight, who’s in third place in the standings and starting to cut his margin by taking the No. 1 qualifying spot and earning bonus points.
“Oh, I can,” Hagan said, with the audacious laugh of a linebacker.
Of course, he won’t. Nor will he flatten No. 2 Bob Tasca III.
Hagan said he has learned through the years that “you don't really have control over other people or who you're racing or who they race or anything like that.”
Hagan said that concept is “challenging,” but he said, “What has helped me deal with pressure or turn pressure into something that's exciting for me is really just focusing on what I have control over. When you think about the big picture, you're like, ‘Oh, this guy's got to beat this guy,’ and ‘Cylinder head guy's got to put the head on right,’ and ‘There's a bottom-end guy to torque the rods right,’ you start thinking about it, it's overwhelming. You don't really control that. You have no control over it, so why worry about that? So for me, it's like focus on what I can control and do the best job I can with that and believe in the guys that I'm with.
“You have to trust in your people. You have to trust that they're going to do a great job, that they're going to rise to the occasion. And then when that moment comes for you, you have to rise to the occasion,” Hagan said. “I think that's something I really pride myself on is when we get down to the semifinals and finals, I really step up a lot of times in the race car, and I make sure that we have a great light and I'm doing my job in the race car. And I think my guys see that and they know that and they believe in that. But I know that they're going to drag the car up there and nothing's going to fall off of it and they're going to do their job and Dickie Venables is going to run the track as hard as he possibly can run from the data that he gets from Kurt [track specialist Johnson] out there.
“We just try to do a good job racing. You just can't sweat it, man. The cards will fall where they're going to fall,” he said.
“I've been on both sides of it to where I had to show up and win two rounds and Force had to win the race. That was my second year driving a race car, and it ripped my heart out. You roll in there thinking you're gonna be a champion second year, and it didn't happen. Super humbling. Super humbling,” Hagan said. “But I grew a lot as a person. I grew a lot as a man. I grew a lot as a racer.
“Things are different now. I've been in those positions a lot now, and we finished third last year, second year before that, won the championship before that and so on and so on. I've had three titles with two different tuners. Autoweek named me driver of the decade, and it was not off of popularity. It's just off of round wins and race wins and championship wins and that comes back down to your crew and your guys and me doing a good job. If we could pull this down and win another championship, we're on the right track to doing it again.”
4 – Leah Pruett feeling a ‘more exciting pressure’ these days - Throughout her drag racing career, particularly as a Top Fuel competitor, Leah Pruett has put pressure on herself. So as the points leader with a legitimate shot at a championship and duking it out with the class’ elite, she is no stranger to pressure.
“It's a more exciting pressure,” Pruett said. “That's truly what I feel. I look at the competition, eyes on Justin [Ashley], [Steve] Torrence, and Doug [Kalitta], really. It's coming down to those and the caliber that those teams are, what they've done over the years, from their tuners to their drivers ... I'm proud to be in that hunt against them. They're the best in the world, and I've always dreamed of being the best in the world. And we can't be the best until we beat those.
“So there was a quote I'd heard earlier this week: 'Sometimes it's not about being the best. That's in the short game,' right? This is such a long game of 11 months. It's about being the best most of the time and when it counts.”
This moment for Pruett and her team, she said, is a product – an accumulation – of work from earlier in this season.
“I would say for us the success that we're showing at this point in the season is from what we worked on at the beginning of the season,” Pruett said. “We knew that we had parts, some mechanical systems on the car, that needed runs to be vetted out. And that took 20, 30 runs to validate that pathway we were on. Knowing that, OK, if this does work, this is going to be, for us, a consistent combination when it counts. And that's the Countdown, and that's how far out we look.
“Teams talk about it all the time: Try and find that clutch pack that works the best and is the most consistent, and once you find that, then you save up that inventory for those last six races so that you don't have that variable to deal with. We've been doing that probably 10-fold on all parts with the car with that in mind, so it's an enjoyable feeling knowing that the performance of our car and the tunability of it has the validation that we were hoping that it would have. To have faith in something for six, seven months and to work on things is ... it's a good spot to be in. So I think that's where most of my focus is more than the particular championship because when you focus on the car and the utility of what you're doing and what it takes to go rounds, then the championship is the product of it,” she said.
“I feel so proud of Neal [Strausbaugh], second year lead crew chief, to be at the hunt with [experienced tuners] Alan Johnson and Richard Hogan. I think about how blessed I am to have the opportunities that we have here. I feel extremely lucky to have the drive to follow those opportunities. I wake up every morning and I pray and I am thankful. Before my feet hit the ground, I try to make sure that I'm absolutely thankful, and this sets the tone for my whole day. And that really has kind of changed things,” Pruett said. “Do I reflect all the way [back to the beginning of her career]? I try not to, because I feel like that takes away from what we're doing right now.”
One major improvement for her is that she is keeping her emotions in check better than she used to.
She said she has focused on “a lot of mental strategy,” saying, “OK, you might be mad about what you did or didn't do. Well how do you channel that anger that I had into just being better, doing better? What can I do during the week? How can I practice different?’ My health has been kind of ... I just have a lot of stuff going on. It takes a lot of maintenance, so optimizing that. Just looking at every way that I can be better. So when I used to get mad at myself, it was really for the wrong reasons. I guess I'm less mad at myself, because I know I'm doing 110 percent. And if my 110 percent and the results aren't good enough to beat them, then I need to work harder, find a different way, and not just be mad and like just stop there. The refusal to give up and to continue to find ways to beat these other guys is such a driver for me. Justin just being absolutely phenomenal all the time ... Austin [Prock] and Kalitta, living in the [3.]40s and [3.5] 50s ... I can't just wish to be there. I have to work to be there. Personal excellence is the ultimate accomplishment, and so that truly is what I'm after -- my personal best, the best that I can be.”
And if that comes with a championship, that’s even more gratifying.
5 – What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, unless NHRA tech officials issue DQ - The NHRA disqualified four Pro Stock cars from Friday night’s session at the NHRA Nevada Nationals for technical violation after bypassing a safety device.
All four disqualified runs were from Elite Performance cars, including No. 1 qualifier Erica Enders. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Aaron Stanfield, and Jerry Tucker also had their runs thrown out.
"There was a check on a safety system. Had nothing to do with performance that should have been done at the beginning of the race if the tech department was set the way it should be," team owner Richard Freeman said. "It was just a wiring deal on the safety part of the Leahy [device, the automatic shutoff required on professional race cars]. There's some confusion on how it should be done with some of the problems that were earlier this year, and it wasn't done to their liking."
Earlier in the season, Enders had an issue at Gainesville where the Leahy device malfunctioned and shut her car off, causing her to lose in the first round. Apparently, Friday's tech issue could be traced to ensuring the same malfunction didn't happen again.
Freeman didn't feel the NHRA's decision to disqualify his cars was part of a witch hunt, a term bantered by some following the Tony Stewart / McPhillips Racing disqualification in Charlotte. Freeman said he believes the situation was avoidable and could have saved his drivers grief and embarrassment.
"My program's always been one that's been scrutinized, and it's probably because of a bunch of rednecks that do pretty well at what we do," Freeman said. "So for me, it's not that big a deal for someone like Erica, who has to deal with the repercussions of stupid s***. That's really the issue. But it ain't going to affect us one way or the other. And we will try to do what they want done. Again, it should have been handled, in my opinion, in a different way, but it is what it is."
NHRA declined further comment on the issue.
6 – Clay Millican disqualified from Dallas race, six days after the fact - Clay Millican wasn't angry he was disqualified from the Texas FallNationals for having unsecured ballast on his Top Fuel dragster. After all, in his world, rules are rules, and he was taught as a kid growing up in Drummonds, Tenn., to play by the rules.
Drag racing fans might be hearing here about Millican's disqualification for the first time because the disciplinary action wasn't publicized, nor was it delivered in a timely fashion.
"Probably more than anything, I was taken aback a little by the fact that it took six days for us to know that that happened, which I found to be strange," Millican said.
Last Saturday morning, almost a week after losing in the semifinals, Millican opened his email at 7:19 a.m. to see a notice from the NHRA's Tech Department. The letter, Millican said, informed him he'd been disqualified from the event and lost any associated points. He was also fined $5,000.
"I've never been disqualified for anything, ever. I've never been in trouble with anything, as far as competition goes," Millican said.
Millican, purely in jest, blamed it on the excellent conditions.
"Obviously, it was one of the best performing races of all time in all the classes," Millican said. "So the track was spectacular, the weather was spectacular. We were having trouble with the car carrying the front end and not just on the starting line – like downtrack is wobbling the front end."
Millican said his team added a bigger tank and a bag of lead shot in a location common with Top Fuel dragsters adding weight. In his race against Leah Pruett, his tires shook, and the front end lifted.
"I pedaled it, and it literally drove the front end up so fast that it dislodged it out of the tube that it lives in, and that's against the rules," Millican said. "I don't really understand how it came out, to be honest with you, but it did."
What Millican doesn't understand, either, is how the incident was handled all those days later.
"I'm at a loss, I really am. But there's no knock on any of it because if you don't know, you don't know," Millican, whose team is owned by Rick Ware Racing, said. "I know how they do it in NASCAR, and I don't drive in NASCAR, but I know the team's getting notified when it happens. There's an investigation. The team receives a phone call on Monday and Tuesday, and the public knows about it.
"[The ballast] landed on the track. It came out of the car, and it was brought back to us, and nothing was said at that point."
CompetitionPlus.com reached out multiple times to the NHRA for clarification on why the penalty took so long to hand down and instead was given the following statement.
"Clay was discovered to have loose ballast in the semifinal round. Per the NHRA rulebook, discovery of loose or disguised ballast will result in disqualification from the event, regardless of whether infraction occurs during qualifying or eliminations."
7 – ‘Like A Cadillac’: Sampey’s Smooth, New Ride Yields No. 1 Start - Angelle Sampey is quickly getting the hang of four-wheeled racing.
In just her second race in the Top Alcohol Dragster category, the three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion qualified No. 1 Saturday with a 5.190-second elapsed time at 273.22 mph.
“It was amazing – and the most amazing part about it is it didn’t feel that fast,” she said. “I was kind of nervous, because they said they set the car on kill. And these guys – Samsel Racing – they do this all the time. This is what they do. They go No. 1 qualifier, and they have the fastest car at the racetrack. I got a little nervous, thinking, ‘Oh, God, what is this going to feel like?’ Took off. Went down the racetrack. It felt smooth. It felt like a Cadillac. I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe we didn’t go that fast.’
“When they came down the track with the time slip, saying I went a [5.]19, I was so excited. It’s only my second race,” Sampey said. “It’s a little bit humbling, because I know that I really didn’t do anything.” She said she just got to “mash the loud pedal, like Clay Millican says, and steer it. It’s all what the guys do at the shop and at the racetrack. I’m just the lucky person to be driving it.”
In her debut, at the previous event, at Dallas, Sampey was No. 16 qualifier and advanced to the semifinals.
8 – Greg Anderson has extra incentive to perform well this weekend - No. 8 Pro Stock qualifier Greg Anderson is in second place in the standings, 85 points behind leader Erica Enders, and he always wants to perform well for key supporter Rick Hendrick. But this weekend carries an added incentive for Anderson to go rounds Sunday.
For longtime NASCAR team owner Hendrick, this is a sadly memorable weekend. The Cup Series tour is competing at Martinsville, Va. It was 19 years ago on Oct. 24 that a Hendrick Motorsports private plane, which was carrying 10 people to attend the race at Martinsville, crashed into the mountains on a missed approach to the airport there. No one survived. Among the casualties was Rick Hendrick’s son Ricky, a Busch Series driver and heir to the family empire. Also on board were family members John Hendrick, his twin daughters, and members of the racing team’s staff.
Anderson said he “absolutely” wants to give Hendrick a victory this weekend to as a salve for some of the lasting scars of the air tragedy.
“Anything I can do to help him out with all he's done for me and how he supports me. I just I feel like I can't ever do enough, so, yes, if I could have a big weekend this weekend and ease some of those memories for him, make some of the bad memories go away for a little while, hopefully I can play a small part in that,” the KB Titan Racing legend said.
“I hope I can hold my weight this weekend,” Anderson, who saw teammate Kyle Koretsky grab the No. 1 starting position, said. “And it's a special day obviously when Kyle wins -- when Kyle Larson wins -- for Rick. And if he can win at Martinsville, it'd be huge. And if I can do the same and we can double up on that weekend, he's happy. He can forget all about those bad memories. So that's what it's all about.”
Hendrick said the sting of losing his son and other family members “never goes away," Anderson relayed. "But you can probably block it out for a few hours if you get some really good instant news. And that's the best news he can get. That man loves to win. That's why he races, because he loves to win. He doesn't just race to have fun or to go race. He races to win. When he wins, he has a great time. And yes, I think for a fleeting moment at least, he can forget about the bad memories.”
9 – Fernando Cuadra working with bike racers in wake of Angie Smith’s crash - Fernando Cuadra says it’s not rocket science. Helping Pro Stock Motorcycle racers protect their feet and other impact points on their bodies is a mission he has adopted since significant injuries in consecutive events to Angie Smith and Chase Van Sant. And the bootmaker and leather-goods crafter from Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, knows he has the resources to at least help resolve the problem.
“For me, it's easy, because that's my business,” Cuadra said.
Cuadra has 34 factories, and he gathered the leaders among his 12,000 employees for a brainstorming session about how collectively they can provide solutions and improve safety for NHRA motorcycle racers.
“OK, guys, this is the issue,” Cuadra told them. “And everybody gave their opinions,” he said. They concluded that they were surrounded by the answer: “The sole leathers. It’s to walk [on] all day long and scratch all day long [without wear].”
He presented to the NHRA a leather that possesses a 50-to-1 durability.
Cuadra and the husband-wife Pro Stock Bike tandem of Matt and Angie Smith quickly have moved beyond the talking stage on a new design of a riding boot.
“I offered them to design something that it can be flexible, that they can use it for riding but protecting themselves by far much more of what they have today,” Cuadra said.
What he is offering is leather – cut-outs from sample sheets of leather – that can be applied to customized parts of the racing suits to impact areas of each racer’s choosing.
“At the end of the day, they need to protect just the spots they need to be at,” Cuadra said. “I'm not a bike rider, they are. But that's what I'm bringing the whole leather, but we can cut it here. It's something that you don't have to be a genius to say, ‘OK, I want one spot in this form, so we will cut it at the spot.
“I want to do and make the leather,” he said. “I'm bringing to Pomona a complete sheet of leather that they can cut the pieces and put it on the spots. But they need to be protected and they can attach by making the little holes and sew it right here at the truck with no extra money, just to protect.”
He said, “We have a company that works with leather -- all the alligators and ostrich and so forth. And the sole leather that we use, you think about it, if we use a sole leather that you walk all day long and you don't wear out for at least three or four or five months walking every single day, why we don't use that piece of leather into certain spots and the uniform and the pants or here or the places that need to be protected?”
Cuadra said the leather that he presented to the NHRA officials Thursday “is a leather that we tested from their racing leathers to this leather to the durability is 10 to 1. I told them I'm not going to charge a dollar to do the leathers. The boots are going to cost raw cost. Not one dollar [for the leather reinforcements to go inside the riding suits]. ‘It's for the protection of integrity of the people that we are in this sport,’ I told her. I told Angie, ‘Recuperate soon, because a pair of boots never seen is waiting on you that’s going to be fancy, fancy, fancy.’ That's what I told her, because they have a beautiful attitude and they deserve to have better protections all the way. And if we can help, my business is related with leathers. That's the reason.”
Matt Smith is going to test the boots at the Auto Club Finals at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip.
“They're going to try the boots and the leathers the way he wants to. So he's going to do it, and I say, ‘You know what? I'm going to just see that [it’s] comfortable that you can ride.’ So he told me already what we need to [have] flexibility and the protections on the sides. So I have the pair of boots that we are going to start with. He's a size 10, so we're going to make the prototypes on size
Sorry for the guys that wear size 7 and 8, but we're going to make the whole thing. It’s not my business to do that. It’s my job to give the best of what we have.
“One boot is for testing, but the leather is for all of them, whoever wants to have the piece of leather for them. They can do whatever they want. It's going to be open and free.
“I want to give this to the White Alligator guy, Jerry Savoie, and also for them, yes. So we're going to give the leathers and tell them, ‘This is what it is. This is the way to cut it. This is the way to put it in the spots that you want it. It's your responsibility, not mine. That's very simple, just you make little holes and sew it.' That's it.”
10 – That's what he said - “I own stock in Tums.” – Dean “Guido” Antonelli, Ron Capps’ crew chief, responding to talk about feeling pressure during these closing days of the Countdown to the Championship
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - Competition Plus’ Top-10 News Items For Friday’s NHRA Nevada Nationals
1 – NHRA had four runs thrown out from the Q2 sessions due to "technical" violations. - The NHRA's public relations department confirmed one of those drivers who had their run thrown out was Erica Enders. Reportedly the Q2 runs of Jeg Coughlin Jr., Aaron Stanfield and Jerry Tucker were all disallowed. NHRA is expected to release a statement further detailing the reason for the disqualifications, which consisted of the run only.
2. Provisional No. 1 qualifiers kick off Camping World Series action - Taking early commands of their fields Friday were Mike Salinas (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Salinas took a small step in moving up the championship point standings on Friday when he took the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with his 3.699-second elapsed time at 332.75 mph in Q2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“We backed it down,” Salinas said about his pass. “We figured we would run a (3.) 68, a 68 with a 9 or a 68 with a 7. We backed it down a little too much. We should have been a 68. The car made a nice clean run, smooth.”
Hight stopped the clocks with a 3.851-second pass at 327.51 mph. If his performance holds up, Hight will clinch his sixth No. 1 qualifier this season and his 83rd overall. With only two races left in the Countdown to the Championship, Hight understands a strong showing is of the utmost importance this weekend.
“After Dallas, we kind of knew what we were up against,” Hight said. “You dig yourself a big hole, and you have to get out of it. The only way to do that is race aggressively, try to get as many points as you can get, and it’s a must-win here and Pomona. But the way those other cars are running that we’re fighting against, you’re going to have to be a win and a semifinal to even have a chance, and we might even have to win both of them – and that still might not be enough. That’s how close this is and the caliber of cars.
Enders remained on top despite her Q2 run being disallowed.
“[Even with] how well we’ve done here in the past and the success that we’ve had here in Las Vegas, we sucked so bad earlier this year that we couldn’t even win here in the spring,” Enders said. “It’s been an uphill battle, but with the way the Countdown is structured, we finally got ourselves out of the ditch that we were in – and just in the nick of time. We never doubted it; we just had to identify our problem and work through it. That’s something my guys are great at; when their backs are against the wall, they perform flawlessly and they never give up. They’re very tenacious, so I’m proud of them. Having the provisional No. 1 here is very meaningful."
Herrera was in a league of his own, running .082 quicker than the third quickest bike in the field.
"For the whole Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki team, we were very happy with that," said Herrera. "With the cooler conditions in Q2, we were expecting a 6.77, but that pass was so smooth and straight as an arrow that it felt slow. I knew it was on a good pass, but I didn't expect it to go 6.76 and get the new track record. That's a big deal to me and the whole team.
"I'm going into this race knowing in the back of my head that I can possibly lock it up this weekend, but it depends on how Ed does, and the rest of the guys as well. Everything I've accomplished this year has really been starting to set in, going to the last two races here and Pomona, just sitting back and thinking about everything, it's hard to believe what's been accomplished and what we continue to accomplish."
3 - Super Gas racer crashes in Friday qualifying - Marko Perivolaris, of Novato, Calif., had a scary trip down The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the first round of Super Gas eliminations at the Nevada Nationals. The Sonoma Raceway regular exited his race car under his own power after it struck the left wall beyond the finish line. Perivolaris was examined onsite by the NHRA medical team before being transported to a local medical facility for further evaluation.
In an earlier incident, an unidentified Super Comp racer experienced a medical emergency and was transported to a hospital. The NHRA has not yet released any details about the racer’s name or condition.
4 – Angie Smith ready to compete again after nasty motorcycle accident - Angie Smith said, “I'm not one to sit around and not do anything.” So it’s no surprise that not only is she back at the dragstrip following her vicious spill from here Pro Stock Motorcycle at the recent St. Louis race, but that she’s ready to race this weekend at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Cleared to race late this morning by NHRA Medical Director Dr. Phillip Surface, Smith spent Friday prepping to return to action during Saturday qualifying for the Nevada Nationals. Smith is wearing walking casts on both feet because she has eight broken toes, and she has undergone two surgeries to repair damage from a serious arm burn. She became separated from her bike past the finish line during qualifying two races ago, at World Wide Technology Raceway.
“I'm healing very well. I had my skin graft nine days ago, and everything's going along as planned. And I got clearance from my plastics doctor, my orthopedic doctor and he's an orthopedic surgeon, trauma orthopedic surgeon, as well. So I got cleared from three people,” Smith said.
“It was probably a surprise to everybody, but I can see my progress and everything that's going on. I have a little bit of medical background, and I know my limitations. So as long as I keep everything how I'm supposed to do it, I think everything will be fine,” she said.
“I don't like sympathy. I probably don't give a lot of sympathy, and I don't need a lot of sympathy. I'm not soft. I'm not going to be held down long,” she said. Besides, she said, “NHRA drag racing is near and dear to my heart.”
One reason for her acceleration, Smith said, was the fact “I just did everything the doctor told me to do when I was supposed to stay in bed with my feet elevated. I really wanted to go to Dallas, but I didn't go to Dallas because Matt was like, ‘You need to stay home and rest and recuperate.’ And that was probably the seven days that I needed to be at home. I absolutely didn't do anything but stay at home with my feet elevated, and I didn't do anything. So that probably helped me more than anything. I was not a very happy person, because me not being at the racetrack and my team and my family being there is hard.”
Smith said the plan is to make passes Saturday but clarified, “I'm not going down the track full-power, 190 miles an hour, tomorrow, but I am getting on the bike tomorrow for Q3 [the third overall qualifying session]. I will be on the bike. I had a walker for the first three days [following the accident], and I was like, ‘I'm over this.’ Then the doctor told me I could walk in my boots, and so I walk in my boots and I got it going. I have to walk on my heels because of the whole situation with my feet.”
She has no worries about her broken toes, she said, “because they took X-rays this week and they said I'm healing very well. We're going to wrap it up real good and it'll be fun." Although she hadn’t slung her leg over her motorcycle since the incident, she said that doesn’t mean anything: “I've been racing motorcycles for 25 years. I'll be fine.”
Although a debate has developed about whether motorcycle-racing leathers are thick and protective enough, Smith defended hers.
“My leathers did their job," she said. "The reason why I had to have a skin graft is from the heat of the pavement and the bike being on top of me. My leathers did their job. They were completely in one piece. It was the heat from the bike being on top of me – 600 pounds being on top of me for that brief second. I was under the bike for a brief second. That’s why I had to have a skin graft on my arm. After I'd separated from the bike, I rolled a lot, and that's why I broke my toes, the flipping. The flipping is what broke the toes. The skin broke.” The arm injury was a burn “because from the heat of me skidding with the bike on top of me. Vanson Leathers makes the best leathers there are out there, and they did their job.”
She did say she and husband Matt Smith, the team owner and five-time and reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, plan to look at the possibility of acquiring a different style of racing footwear.
“We are going to entertain the idea of different shoes, and we are going to work with Mr. Cuadra to get us different racing shoes, she said. “Mr. Cuadra” is Pro Stock racer Fernando Cuadra, who owns Leon, Mexico-based Corral Boots. At this point, Cuadra does not specialize in racing apparel, but Angie Smith said she and Matt Smith and the Cuadras will collaborate on a design.
“They're going to beef up the toe a little bit. They're going to do a couple things to make our racing shoes better, but other than that, all of the safety equipment did its job," she said. "It's going to be the first time [for Cuadra to fashion a racing boot]. Matt's going to test them at Pomona coming up in two weeks.”
She, too, might be competing for a spot in the Pomona field. “That’s the plan,” she said. “We’ll see how many bikes are at Pomona.”
5 – John Force celebrates sponsor’s 50th anniversary with special livery - Racing with a gold-and-black scheme on his PEAK Antifreeze and Coolant Chevrolet Camaro that pays tribute to Old World Industries’ first motorsports sponsorship with the PEAK brand of NASCAR’s Kyle Petty, John Force is celebrating his marketing partner’s 50th anniversary. His team’s uniforms replicate the uniforms Petty’s crew wore in the 1980s.
Brian Bohlander, director of marketing – sports & partnership, said, “Old World Industries’ 50th anniversary is November 8th. So this weekend is the perfect event leading into the AAPEX show to celebrate the company’s golden anniversary. In 1986, Old World acquired the PEAK brand and shortly thereafter entered into its first motorsports sponsorship with Kyle Petty.”
Force and Kyle Petty will also be together at the AAPEX show next Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the company’s anniversary, along with Michael Waltrip and Danica Patrick.
Meanwhile, Force is seeking his fifth Nevada Nationals victory and first of the year. He also won in 2002, 2010, 2013, and 2016. He was No. 1 qualifier in 2013, when he beat daughter Courtney Force in the final round en route to the most recent of his 16 championships.
“This PEAK Chevy team is right in the middle of the fight in this Countdown and we still got a shot, but it is a long shot,” Force said. Referring to OWI’s anniversary celebration, “I’m very proud to be a part of this. Tom Hurvis gave me an opportunity years ago to drive the PEAK and BlueDEF Chevrolet. I will always be grateful for that. I’m looking forward to this weekend. We have a car that got fast. The PEAK Chevy has progressively gotten faster all year. We are going to go into Las Vegas and get us a win.”
6 – Aaron Stanfield clinches his third Factory Stock Showdown crown - All that Aaron Stanfield had to do Friday to secure his third Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown world championship was complete one pass. He did that in his Stanfield Racing Engines Chevrolet COPO Camaro, then said, “It’s pretty cool to be able to do it here in Las Vegas. I love this racetrack. It's good to be able to do it, we're happy to get it done quick this weekend. All the championships are special, and they all have their own story. There's no such thing as a bad championship so I'm very thankful, very blessed. Thank you to all the guys that work on my hot rod.
“Collectively between Pro Stock and Flexjet Factory Stock, there's a lot of guys that play a big hand in me being able to do all of this,” Stanfield said. “I'm just very thankful for individually each one of them. I'm so glad to get it done, and I want to thank Flexjet and the NHRA.”
Stanfield, an 11-time Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown national-event winner, laid the groundwork for this title two weeks ago at Dallas. The 28-year-old from Bossier City, La., beat his closest competitor, Stephen Bell, in the first round, then outran No. 1 qualifier Lenny Lottig in the second round to accumulate enough points essentially to eliminate his closest rivals.
7 – Pro Mod class will crown a champion this weekend - The championship in the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by Type A Motorsports is at stake this weekend. It is the last of four events in the first year of the NHRA Pro Mod’s playoffs, as well as the 10th and final race of the 2023 season. This weekend’s race will be featured during Sunday’s broadcast on Fox Sports 1 (FS1).
Points leader Kris Thorne is bidding for back-to-back titles. With the finale awarding points-and-a-half, Justin Bond, who trails Thorne by 31 points, is among several racers withing striking distance.
Mike Castellana, Jason Lee and Stan Shelton all entered the weekend within 100 points of Thorne. Castellana is 50 points off the pace. Lee is 69 points back, and Shelton is 91 points behind Thorne.
8 – Nitro contenders lay out their visions, strategies for stretch run - Justin Ashley started the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship in first place in the Top Fuel class. However, he has fallen to fourth place, watching first Doug Kalitta, then Steve Torrence and Leah Pruett, take turns seizing the spotlight. He remained optimistic as Friday qualifying opened, despite piling up a 108-point disadvantage with only two chances to make up ground.
The first opportunity is this weekend’s Nevada Nationals. After that, the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., will close the season.
“Last year, we were in and out of the points lead during the Countdown, and there were always several teams grouped together, trying to take the top spot. The field is more competitive than it has ever been, and it has shown throughout the first four races of the Countdown,” Ashley said. “If we can find success in Las Vegas, I believe we’ll have an opportunity for the championship in Pomona.
“Our goal from the start of the season was to win the championship for this team and all our sponsors,” the Phillips Connect / Leatherwood Distillery / Toyota Dragster driver said. “We know what we need to do, and that begins by taking it one lap at a time in Las Vegas. Every opportunity for points is critical, whether it’s qualifying or race day.
“We all know you have to perform in the playoffs. And we haven’t been able to capitalize on as many opportunities as we did in the regular season. But we have two more races and remain right in the thick of things. We just need to get back to our routine of stacking round wins on top of one another and let the points take care of themselves,” Ashley said. “Vegas is a city where fortunes can turn around in an instant, and that is what we are going to be looking for.”
Mac Tools dragster driver Doug Kalitta is a mere four points behind newest leader Leah Pruett and a shaky nine points ahead of surging Steve Torrence, who’s pursuing his fifth crown in six seasons. Kalitta has been in this position before – and has been disappointed six times with runner-up finishes.
This time the 51-time winner is charged up about this year’s opportunity. Fresh from a weekend at Dallas in which he set the Texas Motorplex speed record at 336.73 mph, Kalitta said, “I feel confident,” Kalitta said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what we can make happen on Sunday. Everybody on the Mac Tools team is super-excited. I think we’re in a great spot. We just need to do what we do and go rounds. It’s all about executing.”
Title tuner Alan Johnson, who has won with six different drivers, is starting to regain his stride. And Kalitta said, “Having Alan Johnson in my corner, and obviously this team I have, definitely brings a whole new element of confidence, for sure. He and Brian [co-crew chief Husen] are doing an awesome job tuning the car. The guys are definitely in their groove putting this thing together, and having this team I have with two races to go is a pretty good spot to be in.
“I’m definitely thinking about it. Whenever I’m driving, it’s on my mind – especially when I’m going back and forth to the race shop to check on the boys to see how they’re doing or when I sit down with Connie [his team owner and uncle, drag-racing pioneer Connie Kalitta] to work out when we’re leaving, there’s always something going on throughout my day that involves the race team. I wake up in the morning, and I have a practice tree at home, so it’s definitely part of my routine. There’s just a lot of positive energy going on with this Mac Tools team,” he said.
“We want it. Everybody on the team is hungry – I’m not focused on it every moment of every day or anything like that, but it’s important. We don’t need to get too psyched up about this thing,” Kalitta said. “We just need to keep working hard and keep moving forward.”
For Torrence, it’s a simple task for Pruett, Kalitta, and himself: “The bottom line is all three of us control our own destiny. We’re separated by less than one round, so it comes down to whoever does best in these last two races.”
Like Kalitta, he said he feels strong.
“Coming off what we did at Dallas, it’s hard not to be confident,” Torrence said. Two weeks ago, he qualified No. 1, recorded career-best elapsed time and speed numbers (3.636 seconds, 336.62 mph), and reached the finals – where he lost to Pruett by an agonizingly close .005 of a second. “That was on me,” he said. “We had the car to win, but it takes everybody doing everything exactly right in one of these races, especially in the Countdown.”
In the Funny Car class, current champion Ron Capps’ playoff fortunes have mirrored Ashley’s. But he’s hoping his four victories at this event (2001, 2005, 2011-12) bode well for him as he will work to climb from fourth place, 99 points off leader Matt Hagan’s pace.
Capps, Hagan, and No. 3 Robert Hight all are pursuing a fourth championship, trying to join still-active and Countdown qualified John Force, as well as retired legends Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme. But just like last year, Capps has found himself out of the lead but with a chance to win the title with two races remaining on the schedule.
“Here we are, same conversation: Headed to Vegas, two races to go, and another chance to win a championship,” he said. “We would have liked to have been positioned better in the points going into this weekend, but it makes me extremely proud that our NAPA AutoCare team has put our Toyota Supra in a position to win a championship pretty much every season, and you can’t ask for more than that as a driver. And surely, you can’t ask for any more than that as a team owner.
“[We’ll try to] move up in the points. There’s a lot that has to happen, and Vegas is one of those tracks that can be very unpredictable,” Capps said. “For the fans, it’ll be very exciting. And for us racers, it’s going to be nail-biting time, but we love that.”
Tony Schumacher, who has eight championships and more victories (86) than any other Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, isn’t in the title mix at this point. But he assessed this weekend best: “It’s crunch time, which makes it all the more entertaining for the fans. We will start to see the championship decided here. Teams will step up out of necessity. Some teams will implode. It just comes with the pressure.”