38th Pep Boys NHRA Nationals start Countdown to the Championship

The 38th Pep Boyys NHRA Nationals are on tap this weekend
The 38th Pep Boyys NHRA Nationals are on tap this weekend

The Big Go is over; the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge is done; there are no more “Callouts” to be held in the six remaining races, of 21 total, in NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series. All that’s left is those six races, those six Countdown to the Championship races, starting this weekend with the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at historic Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, PA near Reading.

Maple Grove is a perfect setting for the beginning of three races in a row that will separate racers from posers. Not that there are any posers in the Countdown fields for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. The competition has been exceptionally fierce in the 15 races leading up to these six playoff contests. Maple Grove’s track invites great speeds; its atmospheric conditions make this track fast. With massive trees abutting the quarter mile track and usually with fall temps, the track lends itself to record breaking runs.

There are 16 dragsters entered for the Pep Boys race this year, including each member of the Countdown eligible squad, which includes 12 drivers in this class. Justin Ashley of Maynard Ashley Racing secured the No. 1 seed at Indy with his six wins to date and those little points he earned in the Mission challenge. He has 30 points on Steve Torrence, vying for a fifth championship as Ashley attempts to earn his first. Thanks to his repeat win in Indy two weeks ago that followed a Brainerd win two weeks before that, Antron Brown is third with 44 points to make up, while Tony Stewart Racing”s Leah Pruett is fourth, 58 points behind Ashley with reigning titleholder Brittany Force, driving for John Force Racing holds fifth place points, needing to make up 68.

Justin Ashley is Top Fuel’s No. 1 seed in the Countdown: Gary Nastase photo

The balance of the Countdown field are Kalitta Motorsports’ Doug Kalitta (still looking for win No. 50), Mike Salinas’ Scrappers Racing, Austin Prock of John Force Racing, Clay Millican and Josh Hart in tenth place. Also in the running are Kalitta’s Shawn Langdon and eight time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher, competing under the Maynard Family Racing banner in his 550th professional start. Canadian Dan Mercier continues his quest to win rounds this weekend, as does Doug Foley, both having contested the regular season closer at Indianapolis two weeks ago. Joining them are Jacob Opatmy and Scott Farley. All of them will make the field and, from there, anything can happen.

Ashley, vying for his first professional title in this tough class claims he’s not going to watch the points battle but will, instead, focus on running his team and going laps. “It’s the position we wanted to be in,” leading the points standings at the start of the Countdown; he knows the experience of his crew chiefs, Mike Green and Tommy DeLago, both of whom have guided drivers to titles, will help him and the rest of his crew get centered for these six races. “They lead by example and the guys lean on their leadership,” he said. Finishing the regular season with two wins and two semifinal results, Ashley still knows that momentum can be beat. “Every Top Fuel team on the property can win this race,“ last year’s Reading runner up to Austin Prock said.

Every season’s Countdown to the Championship brings tension to each driver in different ways. For reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps and his eponymous team, Ron Capps Motorsport’s Toyota GR Supra, the prospect of earning a second straight title is precarious at best. “You can have an okay race and drop three or four spots in this Countdown,” Capps said. “You’re either in a good spot or not and legitimately, it feels tougher than last year,” when he secured his third Flopper title by a scant three points over John Force Racing’s Robert Hight and that driver’s Jimmy Prock prepped Chevrolet Camaro SS. Despite earning the Mission #2Fast2Tasty “season” title and gaining an extra four points in the playoffs, Capps knows that “Reading is critical. You can’t win a championship at Maple Grove but you can put yourself into position to win it,” he said.

Robert Hight is always a threat to win for John Force Racing: Anne Proffit photo

With 24 points in hand over former Don Schumacher Racing teammate and current Tony Stewart Racing Funny Car driver of the team’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Matt Hagan, Capps has every reason to feel both excited and filled with nerves. “There are half a dozen independent cars at Maple Grove and they have nothing to lose,” he said. Capps has 38 points in hand over Hight, while Bob Tasca III is looking for his first title with a Ford Mustang at his disposal, 48 points back in fourth place. The versatile J.R. Todd, driver of Kalitta Motorsports’ Toyota GR Supra has been peaking at the right time and is fifth, 56 points behind the leader.

The balance of the Countdown crew in Funny Car are Alexis DeJoria’s GR Supra from DC Motorsports and the Ford Mustangs of technical partners Chad Green (78) and Tim Wilkerson, lagging by 94 points. Wilkerson, last year’s runner-up at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals and the 2003 winner believes he has “had a good track record there ever since they switched the Countdown schedule around to have us start the six race playoffs in Pennsylvania. We came really close last year, now we just need a win to add to our other two race wins from this season,” the popular racer said. John Force holds ninth place points and needs to find 99 points with his Chevy Camaro SS, while Cruz Pedrregon’s Charger SRT Hellcat and Alex Laughlin, racing Jim Dunn’s flopper complete the Countdown eligibility grouping in Funny Car.

There are 17 Funny Car entries for this race, with Cory Lee of Vail, AZ racing a Mustang, Terry Haddock’s Mustang hoping to quell others’ hopes, Dave Richards presenting his Mustang, together with Mike Smith, Blake Alexander in Jim Head’s Mustang and Jim Campbell returning in the Herzhauser Racing Chevy. As Capp stated, “It’s incredible how many have a shot” at taking the win this weekend and/or the title by Pomona’s season closer.

There were questions, midway through the regular racing season, concerning the competitiveness of Elite Motorsports and its team leader Erica Enders. After securing her fifth Pro Stock championship in 2022, Enders began the season lacking round wins and looking fairly human. While she won this race last year en route to that fifth championship, at the middle of the regular season she was only 15th in points. Now entering the Countdown in third place, Enders looks to be back on her game and ready to make up the 32 points between herself and KB Titan Racing leaders Dallas Glenn and Indy winner Matt Hartford, who stands 25 points behind Glenn. “Wr have reached the point in our season where everything matters,” Enders said. “There is no doubt that the competition is tough and we are surrounded by some guys gunning for their first championship.”

KB Titan Racing’s Camrie Caruso, NHRA’s reigning Rookie of the Year, is slated to attend a Skip Barber single seater school at Circuit of the Americas on September 25: Anne Proffit photo

Glenn, who earned Rookie of the Year honors two years past and Hartford, who’s been working to attain the level of competitiveness he’s now achieving, are just two of the remarkable entries in Pro Stock’s Countdown. Enders’ teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. is fourth (41 back), while KB Titan’s Deric Kramer is fifth (needing 52). Sixth through 16th in the eligible drivers are Elite’s Aaron Stanfield, KB’s Greg Anderson, Kyle Koretsky ad Camrie Caruso, while Cristian Cuadra and his Mustang are tenth. All drivers named thus far, besides Cuadra, drive a Chevrolet Camaro. From 11th to 16th lie Elite’s Bo Butner III, Fernando Cuadra Jr. (Mustang) and rookie Jerry Tucker, independents Mason and Chris McGaha and, finally, Fernando Cuadra Sr, the final member of Elite’s Pro Stock battalion.

There are 22 Pro Stock cars vying for 16 eliminations slots, with former full time entrants Alan Prusiensky *Dodge Dart), Val Smelled and Kenny Delco, Eric Latino and Larry Morgan looking to cause chaos at Maple Grove. Dallas Glenn, who has recorded four victories thus far this season, including victory two weeks ago at Indy, really has had the best car all season, according to Hartford. While Glenn states that the KB Titan team works together as a team, “Every driver is separate; we set things up the best we can and let the drivers figure it out.” Glenn set a goal of “going to the semifinals each race and it’s worked out pretty well for me,” he said. “You can’t rely on others to do your work of beating tough competitors; you’ve got to put your own fate in your own hands.”

The fate of Pro Stock Motorcycle looked to be inexorably headed to a Vance & Hines regular season championship and that’s exactly what occurred when the regular season was completed. Despite failing to win the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park on his Suzuki Hayabusa3, V&H’s Gaige Herrera won nearly all the Mission races, swept the Western Swing in his class’ first opportunity to do that deed and ended up atop the standings over six time PSM titleholder Matt Smith, who won at Indy on his trusty Buell. Herrera has 29 points in hand over Smith and 37 over Hector Arana Jr.’s similar machine, with teammate Eddie Krawiec in fourth 51 points behind and Angie Smith’s Buell just 57 points behind Herrera.

All it took for Matt Smith to earn his first 2023 Pro Stock Motorcycle race win was a switch back to his trusty Buell: Anne Proffit photo

There are 12 eligible riders in this class, including Steve Johnson’s and Chase Van Sant’s Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles, Marc Ingwersen’s Buell, the four valve Suzukis of Jianna Evaristo and Kelly Clontz, as well as Ryan Oehler’s Buell and Chris Bostick’s Suzuki. There are 15 motorcycles entered for this race, which includes veteran Cop Ellis riding a Matt Smith Racing Buell, Cory Reed and his Suzuki looking to get more laps under his belt after rejoining the series at Indy and qualifying for the most recent race, Ron Tornow on his EBR and John Hall on the second WAR Suzuki as Van Sant’s teammate.

Just because there are only 15 riders in Maple Grove doesn’t make it easier on Herreraa, or Smith, or anyone in the Countdown’s six races. Herrera acknowledged being excited for the playoffs and these next six races but also said that his V&H Suzuki motorcycle, “does 90 percent of the work!” While he finds in awesome to get a “refresh” on the season, he’s always wanting to have close competition that “makes me push a little harder,” even as others are emulating or trying to equal his finesse at the starting line. “It’s not been easy, but everyone has done their jobs. My riding style goes well together with Drew’s (Andrews Hines, crew chief) tuning style and I’ve been very responsible about the chassis and what it’s doing. I’m focused on my job, not what the other riders are doing,” Herrera stated.

In addition to the four Camping World categories, NHRA’s Lucas Oil sportsman racers will be in action, including Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Sportsman, Top Dragster and Factory Stock Showdown. While current forecasts show only partly cloudy skies for this weekend’s racing, temps will increase day to day with Friday being the coolest in the low to mid 70s and Sunday cranking up to the high 70s, with clear and cool nights but no measurable rain, which will be a boon to racers and NHRA’s Safety Safari.

This traditional race will see two qualifying sessions on both Friday and Saturday and eliminations starting at 10:30AM ET on Sunday morning. Qualifying sessions air on FS1 while eliminations are scheduled to be shown on FOX from 2PM to 4PM ET on Sunday afternoon.

Top Fuel

1. Justin Ashley 2,121

2. Steve Torrence 2,091

3. Antron Brown 2,077

4. Leah Pruett 2,063

5. Brittany Force 2,053

6. Doug Kalitta 2,046

7. Mike Salinas 2,033

8. Austin Prock 2,025

9. Clay Millican 2,013

10. Josh Hart 2,000

11. Shawn Langdon 1,992

12. Tony Schumacher 1,982

Funny Car

1. Ron Capps 2,114

2. Matt Hagan 2,090

3. Robert Hight 2,076

4. Bob Tasca III 2,066

5. J.R. Todd 2,058

6. Alexis DeJoria 2,047

7. Chad Green 2,036

8. Tim Wilkerson 2,020

9. John Force 2,015

10. Cruz Pedregon 2,000

11. Alex Laughlin 1,990

Pro Stock

1. Dallas Glenn 2,108

2. Matt Hartford 2,083

3. Erica Enders 2,076

4. Troy Coughlin Jr. 2,067

5. Deric Kramer 2,056

6. Aaron Stanfield 2,048

7. Greg Anderson 2,035

8. Kyle Koretsky 2,024

9. Camrie Caruso 2,011

10. Cristian Cuadra 2,000

11. Bo Butner 1,990

12. Fernando Cuadra Jr. 1,980

13. Jerry Tucker 1,970

14. Mason McGaha 1,960

15. Chris McGaha 1,950

16. Fernando Cuadra 1,940

Pro Stock Motorcycle

1. Gaige Herrera 2,113

2. Matt Smith 2,084

3. Hector Arana Jr. 2,076

4. Eddie Krawiec 2,062

5. Angie Smith 2,056

6. Steve Johnson 2,042

7. Chase Van Sant 2,032

8. Marc Ingwersen 2,020

9. Jianna Evaristo 2,010

10. Kelly Clontz 2,000

11. Ryan Oehler 1,990

12. Chris Bostick 1,980

About Anne Proffit 1245 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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