Ashley, Hagan, Glenn Big NHRA Winners in Pomona

Justin Ashley capped a superb pair of weekends at Pomona - Photo courtesy Davis Motorsports
TOp Fuel Dragster
Justin Ashley capped a superb pair of weekends at Pomona – Photo courtesy Davis Motorsports

There’s something to be said for date equity in racing. When events occur at a similar interval to the previous year or years, there are notes that can be used to assist in preparation and running a car or motorcycle in competition.

That fact has helped upset the apple cart in NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series. Starting the season a couple of weeks earlier than the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals would normally see didn’t have much of an impact, but the swapping of dates at Phoenix and Pomona, NHRA’s first Western Swing of the 21-race 2023 Camping World regular season sure changed things around.

As Dean “Gudo” Antonelli explained on Saturday night, after his driver, reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps slotted the Ron Capps Motorsports Toyota GR Supra into eighth seed in the Lucas Oil Winternationals, he lamented the fact that so many cars were having issues and not making the kinds of laps both teams and fans are accustomed to seeing at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip.

“The light is different, the sun’s in different places, the water grains are different. Everything is different this weekend,” he lamented. It didn’t matter how different everything was on Sunday. That’s when cream rises to the top of the racing cup and those that can make the right adjustments reap the rewards. On Sunday, Antonelli and Capps came close, making it to the finals, but they still couldn’t put the last lap together against Matt Hagan’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat from Tony Stewart Racing.

Matt Hagan earned his second Funny Car win at Pomona – Anne Proffit photo

In a battle of NHRA Funny Car championship three-timers, Hagan and his crew chief, Dickie Venables, read the track right and went straight and fast for their second victory of the year – they also took the season opener in Gainesville last month – in a runaway against Capps, whose final 1,000-feet of the day found him sawing at the wheel a bit to keep his blue and gold Supra from crossing the center line and being disqualified. Until that point, both Hagan and Capps looked like they were on a mission to outdo the other.

The win was Hagan’s fourth in what is normally the season-opening race. The Winternatiionals were not the opening salvo in 2021, when the track was unavailable until later in the year, causing it to be run as part of NHRA’s midsummer Western Swing, as Seattle wasn’t able to hold the race during that pandemic-oriented season. Hagan won the Winternationals in 2015, 2017 and 2018 before earning his 45th career victory this past weekend. It was the team’s consistency in making their four laps on Sunday that got the job done: each one was in the 3.9-sec range, albeit a tick slower every time.

Hagan beat former teammate Ron Capps in the final round – Anne Proffit photo

Crediting his Dickie Venables-led team for “always putting a great race car underneath me,” Hagan said he’ll always “try to rise to the occasion when I can and turn on win lights. It’s a great day when you can move up from being the No. 10 qualifier and win the race. I’m always glad to have Dickie in our corner.” For Capps, it was the second straight time he’s been on the losing end of a final round, having dropped last week’s final to Robert Hight’s John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro. The second runner-up post left the reigning champ 26 points behind double winner Hagan, with Alexis DeJoria third in her DC Motorsports Toyota GR Supra (-64), Hight fourth (-71) and Bob Tasca in fifth place driving his Ford Mustang.

In this class, the other winner came Friday, when defending Pomona winner Cruz Pedregon had the quickest time – it held through two more qualifying sessions to give him the No. 1 position. Two drivers were sent home unqualified in Funny Car: Jeff Diehl and Steven Densham. In the class’ Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, the final win light went to Chad Green and his Ford Mustang over DeJoria’s Toyota GR Supra. “It’s our first win in Funny Car as a team,” Green noted. This [season] is going a little better than I expected, but we’re not surprised. I mean, we’ve got a good car. We’ve got a good group of guys and we’re focused this year.”

Top Fuel’s fortunes are shifting from the old guard to the new guard. While he had a less-than-satisfying trip to Florida to start the year, Davis Motorsports’ Justin Ashley nabbed his second straight Winternationals victory a week after his first win of the season in Phoenix and a day after nabbing the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in class. He was also the No. 1 qualifier in a light, 14-car field. Racing in a rematch of the 2022 Winternationals, Ashley beat John Force Racing’s Austin Prock in the race’s final round, after earning the Mission challenge, the No. 1 qualifier and marauding through the field.

Ashley hit his marks all weekend – Anne Proffit photo

His repeat victory placed Ashley firmly at the front of the Top Fuel field going into the Las Vegas Four-Wide contest in two weeks that ends the first Western Swing of the season. Former points leader Steve Torrence was pushed 45 points behind the New Yorker after the Texan fell to Prock in the quarterfinal round. “I’m not sure a race weekend gets better than this, to be honest with you,” Ashley confessed. “I think it was just really an incredible job top to bottom,” by his team, led by crew chiefs Mike Green and Tommy DeLago. “We were saying, on our way up here, that to win any race is special and then to be able to win two races in a row, with the Mission Foods Challenge in between is just amazing.”

Those hoping to take a bite out of Ashley’s lead once the teams encamp in Sin City, include Gatornationals victor Mike Salinas (-55), reigning Top Fuel titleholder Brittany Force (-64) and Prock, who is three points behind his teammate Force. Prock, who won the World Finals at this track last November, battled fellow rookie of the year Ashley – Prock took that honor in 2019, Ashley in 2020 – to the finals, but slowed in the final round. “Really an excellent points day,” Prock said. “Really proud of these guys,” referring to his reconstituted team with Joe Barlam and Chris Cunningham turning the knobs. “It’s race three and they worked like champions today. We knocked out hitters in the first three rounds of eliminations and then went head-to-head with one of the hottest cars in the class right now. We’re starting to hit our strides and I’m really excited about it.”

Camrie Caruso is having a stellar second season in Pro Stock – Anne Proffit photo

Pro Stock ended Women’s History Month with Phoenix winner Camrie Caruso hitting on all cylinders – until the semifinals, that is… The second year driver, who was NHRA’s top rookie of the 2022 season, went from her family team to combine brain trusts with KB Titan Racing. Thus far she’s earned a victory and a semifinal round result, which she accomplished this Sunday. Caruso was runner-up to Matt Hartford in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Pro Stock Challenge and went to the semifinals on Sunday, which will put her in the next Mission Challenge. Caruso’s No. 1 in class was set on Friday, as the track became slicker for the Pro Stock cars.

On Sunday, it was a different story, as Caruso was out in the semis and the final round pitted her teammate Dallas Glenn against Hartford, who has a technical alliance with KB Titan. Glenn earned his fourth career victory, first this season in his Chevrolet Camaro, beating Hartford in the finals. “It was a great day, and anytime I’m tired at the end of it, I know it’s been a good day,” Glenn said. “I’ve got an absolutely great car and it’s been running really well. I’m comfortable in it and I was just able to make a lot of clean runs. I’ve never been able to get it done in Pomona before, and it’s been so frustrating, but I knew the car was going to be really good today and I was just happy it all came together for us.”

Dallas Glenn beat Matt Hartford in the Pro Stock finals – Anne Proffit photo

 

One driver for whom nothing came together all weekend long was Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd. On Saturday, Todd was the unwitting victim when John Force, with whom he was dueling during the second qualifying session, lost it and twice tangled with Todd, the second time taking him along for the ride as Force’s Camaro’s parachutes tangled with Todd’s Toyota GR Supra, which had just made its best pass of the weekend, placing the driver 5th in class. He had to use a backup car for the final qualifying run and into eliminations on Sunday. In his first elimination round late Sunday morning, Todd was approaching the finish line ahead of Alex Laughlin when tire spin caused a massive explosion, destroying the Supra’s body. Despite his quicker pace, Todd was unable to continue, allowing Laughlin to compete in the second round. “If you knew a weekend like this was coming, you’d rather stay home,” Todd remarked afterwards. “More than anything i just hate all the work that’s been created for all my guys – especially right before an ‘off’ weekend.”

J.R. Todd before his engine exploded – Anne Proffit photo

Another driver whose exploits this past weekend need to be noted is Terry Haddock, who only qualified 14th but punched well above his norm in the Ford Mustang he races. Prior to this season, Haddock campaigned both a Top Fuel and Funny Car, delegating the former to a driver who could help his bottom line. He sold the Top Fuel operation at the close of the 2022 season and is putting his eggs in the Funny Car basket. Haddock beat Robert Hight’s Camaro, Tim Wilkerson’s Ford Mustang before Hagan ended his day in the semifinals. Score one for the little guy…

Terry Haddock went to the Funny Car semifinals in his Ford Mustang – Anne Proffit photo

One thing that went absolutely right was the weather. Not a speck of rain hit the track all weekend and the sunshine, warmth brought big crowds to the track, particularly on Saturday. As the newly renamed In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip was drenched in sunshine, it was great for the fans, who congregated at the many In-N-Out stands now dotting the facility. In addition to the Mission Challenge, Toyota brought its first Top Fuel vs Funny Car charity bouts to Pomona, that saw dragster drivers racing Flopper combatants. The winners of both challenges were Funny Car drivers: Ron Capps and Alexis DeJoria.

NHRA takes the Easter weekend off before alighting to Las Vegas for the NHRA Four-Wide nationals the weekend of April 14-16.

About Anne Proffit 1264 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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