The six-race Countdown to the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Championships in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle had its first iteration this past weekend at Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, PA. Everyone in those four classes that had assumed a No. 1 seed at the completion of the “regular” season during the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, relinquished their standings at the top of the heap after a Monday finish to eliminations in the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals.
NHRA’s pecking order can change quickly, depending on who reads a track properly during eliminations and who doesn’t. Coming into the first race, Justin Ashley (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Dallas Glenn in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Gaige Herrera topped the standings. After a single contest, Steve Torrence stands atop the dragster class, while Reading victor Robert Hight leads Funny Car, Matt Hartford heads the Pro Stock contingent and six-time champ Matt Smith vaulted to the top of the two-wheeled category.
This weekend is the second of three races in a row to start the playoffs. The betway Carolina Nationals take place on the zMAX Dragway strip in Charlotte, NC and features three qualifying sessions (one Friday, two Saturday sessions), four rounds of Sunday eliminations, KSFMX freestyle motocross team exhibitions, top fuel motorcycle exhibitions and pyrotechnics throughout the three-day gathering. In the hopes of all competitors, the prognosticators of weather have decreed a less-than-25-percent chance of precipitation throughout the weekend, with temps in the high 70s for the first two days and into the 80s on Sunday.
While a minimal, 14-car entry is listed for Top Fuel, it’s a strong grouping made up of the 12 Countdown entries, together with a couple of part-timers who wish they were part of that gathering. Torrence leads Ashley by seven points after being the runner-up last weekend at Reading to now-50-race winner Doug Kalitta, while that driver is third, 26 points behind Torrence. Leah Pruett, Antron Brown, Brittany Force, Mike Salinas, Austin Prock, Tony Schumacher and Clay Millican comprise the top 10, with Shawn Langdon and Josh Hart also eligible for Countdown spoils.
Joining this group of 12 for the weekend are Mike Bucher fro Columbia Station, Ohio and Texan Spencer Massey, hoping to help change the order a bit if they’re able to go a round or four. With only 158 points separating first through 12th place, anything can happen. Antron Brown, who won two of the past three races, was the victor at this race a year ago and will be hoping for another win to aid his opportunity to clinch a fourth title.
Meanwhile, John Force Racing’s duo of reigning titleholder Brittany Force and Austin Prock are able to get down the track successfully in qualifying but not so well in eliminations. If either driver has a good weekend in North Carolina, they could send the class into a different path than it’s currently on, as can another good weekend for eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher, whose semifinal result in Reading has him ready for more. Consistency matters in all four Camping World classes, and Schumacher is finally getting to the point where he’s got the consistency he needs to go rounds in his JCM rail.
Robert Hight, who won the Funny Car race at Maple Grove on Monday for the second straight year, hopes he can get his John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS into a second consecutive Winner’s Circle, but with a three-point lead on reigning titleholder Ron Capps, who won this race last year in his Toyota GR Supra en route to a second consecutive and third championship, he’ll have to rely on tuner Jimmy Prock to give him a car that consistently goes down the 1,000-foot race track seven times. Three points are nothing in this class and can be overcome in the first qualifying session.
The Funny Car field, too, is light on numbers but heavy on viable competitors. With 15 Floppers on the grounds at zMAX Dragway, the standings can change quickly. There are 11 drivers competing for the Funny Car crown, with 176 points from first to 11th. Behind Hight and Capps are Ford Mustang racer Bob Tasca III, Tony Stewart Racing’s Matt Hagan and his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, Reading runner-up Chad Green’s Mustang, Alexis DeJoria and J.R. Todd’s Toyota GR Supras, Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang, 16-time class champion John Force’s Camaro SS, Cruz Pedregon’s Hellcat and Alex Laughlin, driving a Funny Car for Jim Dunn Racing.
Joining this illustrious group of exceptional competitors are Paul Lee, whose Dodge Charger sports TMS yellow-and-black colors for this race weekend, the always competitive Terry Haddock in a Mustang, Dave Richards’ Mustang and John Smith’s Dodge. The track at zMAX has been kind to Capps, who has won Funny Car here three times including last year; Capps reset the track’s speed record during the Four-Wide Nationals held earlier this year at 335.57 mph. Capps and Brown will be racing one another in a season-long charity event that has its latest edition this weekend; the duo will run in the Toyota “Supra Showdown” finale on Saturday.
While the vast majority of Pro Stock racers are competing using Chevrolet’s Camaro bodywork, the sparring between current champions Erica Enders and the eight-car Elite Motorsports entry is being challenged by KB Titan Racing and its squadron of partners. However, the first-round departure of former points leader Dallas Glenn, who races under the KB Titan banner, to Cristian Cuadra’s Elite Mustang, definitely stirred the pot a bit. That, and Matt Hartford’s second consecutive victory – he’d never won more than once in a year until this season – has this class all shook up.
With a healthy 20-car entry for the betway Carolina Nationals, Pro Stock definitely has plenty of opportunities to change the championship hopes of its 16 eligible Countdown challengers. Hartford’s pair of wins over the past two weeks give him a 30-point advantage on five-time, reigning champ Erica Enders, while her Elite teammate Troy Coughlin Jr is 45 points behind the current leader. Glenn fell from first to fourth and has a 53-point lag, while fellow KB Titan family member Kyle Koretsky’s runner-up slot at Reading vaulted him to fifth place, 76 behind Hartford.
Behind this group are Elite’s Aaron Stanfield, Deric Kramer and five-time champ Greg Anderson of KB Titan, KB Titan’s 2022 Rookie of the Year Camrie Caruso, Cristian Cuadra and his Elite Mustang, Bo Butner III, Fernando Cuadra Jr. in a Mustang, Jerry Tucker of Elite Motorsports, Chris and Mason McGaha’s independent entries and Fernando Cuadra Sr. There’s 244 points between first and 16th, but in reality, the 141-point gap from first through tenth, where Cristian Cuadra currently resides, is the real tipping point in this class. Look for Alan Prusiensky, Brandon Miller, both driving Dodge entries, Eric Latino and veteran Larry Morgan to definitely shake things up.
Now that Gaige Herrera is out of the top spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle, ceding that space to six-time and reigning champ Matt Smith, who is making good power with his Suzuki but still looking to improve his 60-foot times, the landscape has a different look to it. Not that Herrera is giving up, but the two-wheeled set is getting even more competitive and evenly matched than it had been at the start of the season. It was expected that Herrera would do well with his Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa equipment, but the way he ransacked the rest of the field in the regular season had many wondering how they could make up the difference.
There are 18 riders contesting for 16 spots in Sunday eliminations this weekend, as the series welcomes back Joey Gladstone and White Alligator Racing’s Jerry Savoie to the game, along with Chip Ellis’ Buell for Matt Smith Racing; it looks like Cory Reed is sitting this one out as his Reed Motorsports rider Gladstone returns. The entry list includes Marcus Hylton on a Buell, Ron Tornow’s EBR and John Hall on a WAR Suzuki. Matt Smith has a 17-point advantage on Gaige Herrera in the points standings, with Hector Arana Jr third, Eddie Krawiec fourth and Angie Smith in fifth place, 88 points behind her husband. Both Arana and Angie are riding Buell motorcycles; the balance of the top five are on Suzuki bikes.
Jianna Evaristo, who made her first 200mph pass in Reading – and defeated Herrera – is sixth, followed by fellow Suzuki rider Steve Johnson, while the Buell of Marc Ingwersen holds onto eighth place. Rookie Chase Van Sant’s WAR Suzuki and Suzuki rider Kelly Clontz complete the top 10, with Chris Bostick’s Suzuki and Ryan Oehler’s Buell eligible for Countdown honors. There 210 points between Matt Smith and Oehler and, truth be told, once you get past the top five, the balance of the field is looking to better their final standings once the tour completes its season in Pomona come November.
Beyond the Camping World entries, Lucas Oil sportsman racing is the province of 11 classes: Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car, Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Sportsman, Mountain Motor Pro Stock, Top Dragster and the second appearance of Factory X, which had its debut at the U.S. Nationals and this weekend once again has four cars entered: for Indy winner Greg Stanfield (the sole Chevy Camaro), Allen Johnson in Geoff Turk’s Blackbird Dodge and a pair of Ford Mustangs for Chris Middlebrook and Conner Statler.