It’s time to get locked into NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs that begin after the next two races, held this weekend during the 41st Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway and at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park (LOIRP) over Labor Day weekend. After these two contests are complete, those in the Countdown have six opportunities to fight for a championship, and if the past few years are any indication, all professional titles will go down to the final race at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip.
This is the second race where Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock are the Camping World Drag Racing Series categories in play; Pro Stock Motorcycle closes its “regular” season at LOIRP on Labor Day weekend after competing in NHRA’s full Western Swing for the first time in class history and having one of their own, Vance & Hines’ Gaige Herrera, become the first to sweep the Swing since Antron Brown performed the feat in his then-Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel dragster, way back in 2009.
Of course winning increases a driver’s chances to get locked into a Countdown berth, with the previous race’s three victors thinking momentum. Six-time 2023 winner Justin Ashley joined four-time champ Steve Torrence as the sole drivers locked into their Countdown berths in Top Fuel. There’s an 83-point gap separating this duo, while Brittany Force, last weekend’s runner-up to Ashley in Topeka and reigning Top Fuel titleholder is third, albeit 223 points behind and not yet locked into the six-race playoffs.
Still looking for her first win of the season – does this seem an awful lot like 2018 without the first-race accident? – Brittany Force is hoping she’s turned the corner with her runner-up result in Topeka late last Sunday night. She’s been the No. 1 qualifier three times consecutively at this track and won here in 2016 after being runner-up a year earlier. Behind her in the standings is three-time champ and five-time winner in Brainerd, Antron Brown. Granted, four of those victories came on two wheels, but Brown runs well at this track. He’s followed by Tony Stewart Racing’s Leah Pruett and Austin Prock of John Force Racing. These three are separated by a meager 27 points.
Kalitta Motorsports’ Doug Kalitta, Mike Salinas of Scrapper’s Racing, Josh Hart and Clay Millican compete the top 10 in Top Fuel. Millican is 372 points behind Ashley but has been fast and consistent all year, earning his first Wally in five years at Joliet in May. Millican is well ahead of Kalitta’s Shawn Langdon and JCM’s Tony Schumacher, both hoping to fight their way into the Countdown’s Top 10 Top Fuel cars. Schumacher, an eight-time class champ, was runner-up here last season and has won at this track three times, most recently in 2008 and has earned six No. 1 qualifying times and speeds. Schumacher is 532 points behind Ashley going into this weekend’s race. There are 14 Top Fuel entries this weekend, with Kyle Wurtzel and Terry Totten looking to make life miserable for the balance of the field.
Funny Car has 17 entries this weekend, with 16 of them chasing points leader Matt Hagan and his Tony Stewart Racing Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. Coming off a runner-up result in Topeka, to Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang, Hagan has a 61-point advantage on reigning and fellow three-time champion Ron Capps’ Toyota GR Supra and holds 174 over John Force Racing’s Robert Hight and his Chevrolet Camaro SS. Those three are locked into the Countdown with two races to run but there’s Chad Green and his Mustang in fourth place, just 11 behind Hight and Tasca, last year’s Brainerd victor, 13 behind Green and 198 points out of the lead. If Green and Hight have difficult weekends, Tasca could leapfrog the duo into third place before Labor Day’s Big Go.
Alexis DeJoria is in sixth place with her DC Motorsports Toyota GR Supra. The 2017 Brainerd Funny Car winner has, over 13 races, accumulated three runner-up results and has been consistently quick. She’s looking for her first victory of the season to add to her six wins and six No. 1 qualifiers. “We only have two races left to put ourselves in the best possible position to start the Countdown, so it’s crucial we do well this weekend. Thirty-two points, less than two rounds, separates us (from third) so there’s an opportunity to make some big moves.”
A two-tine winner this season, Tim Wilkerson and his Wilkerson Maynard Racing Mustang are seventh, followed by J.R. Todd’s GR Supra, the Camaro SS of John Force and Cruz Pedregon, continuing to be the caboose in a 10-driver train. The two-time titleholder is 441 points behind Hagan in his similar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. Joining this group are Alex Laughlin in Jim Dunn’s Flopper, Dave Richards’ Mustang, Blake Alexander driving Jim Head’s Mustang, Dale Creasy Jr.’s Stratus, fireman Chris King, who came so close to qualifying at Topeka in his Dodge, Jim Campbell in an older Chevy and Bobby Bode III, driving his family-owned and prepped Mustang.
Todd, Kalitta Motorsports’ double-class star (he’s won in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, and is the 2018 Funny Car champion) has advanced to five of the last six semifinals, including victory in the wine country of Sonoma, final leg of this year’s Western Swing. ”The car is definitely turning the corner and going to the later rounds consistently,” he remarked. “Our points don’t really reflect what we’ve done over the last month, but that doesn’t take anything away from the progress we’ve made.” One issue Todd didn’t mention as he works to move up the Flopper ladder is the No. 2 man in the standings, fellow Toyota driver Capps, who is a six-time event champion and four-time runner-up in Brainerd. That the Californian loves taking time with camping fans in “The Zoo” is likely one of his great advantages. Capps is looking for his 75th win.
Only one Pro Stock driver is locked into the Countdown and that is Dallas Glenn, currently 228 points ahead of his KB Titan technical partner Matt Hartford. All but one racer in this class’ top 10 is using a Chevrolet Camaro body. The title fight in Pro Stock is between KB Titan, which has six drivers in the top 10 as we head to Minnesota; the balance come from Elite Motorsports, who are fielding nine cars this weekend. Behind Hartford is Elite’s Troy Coughlin Jr., who needs to make up six points. Deric Kramer, whose 2023 season has banished thoughts of his moribund runs last year is in fourth place, followed by reigning and five-time champion Erica Enders, who will contest her 200th Pro Stock race this weekend after winning the final race at Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka late Sunday night.
The balance of the top 10 are fellow five-time champ Greg Anderson of KB Titan, Elite’s Aaron Stanfield, Camrie Caruso of KB Titan, Cristian Cuadra and his Elite Mustang and Kyle Koretsky, the Maple Grove track owner who races for KB Titan. Koretsky is 456 points behind Glenn, while 11th place Bo Butner III of Elite needs of make up 18 points on the Pennsylvanian to work his way back into the magic top 10. Alan Prusiensky is campaigning his Dodge Dart at this track, while Mason and Chris McGaha are bringing their Camaros. Rookie Jerry Tucker is entered in a Camaro for Elite, while Fernando Cuadra and Fernando Jr. are using Mustang bodies, as is David Cuadra. Robert River and his Chevy Cobalt complete the 17-car Pro Stock entry list.
Enders keeps cracking the glass ceiling in drag racing, on the verge of becoming the most successful woman in motorsports. In addition to her 45 national event Pro Stock victories, she has a single national event win in Super Gas, which ties her with three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Angelle Sampey. Enders has won twice at Brainerd (2012 and 2015). Pro Stock is returning to Brainerd after a long absence: “It has been four years since Pro Stock got to race in Brainerd and we are super excited to try our hand in front of some of the coolest fans on tour. As in most sports,” she reminded, “momentum is huge and we are riding the wave from our win in Topeka. As the regular season winds down, these round points are crucial. I absolutely love the pressure and excitement!”
In addition to these three Camping World classes, look for Pro Mod, Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Sportsman and Top Dragster in the staging lanes. In Top Alcohol Dragster, Tony Stewart makes his return and JCM Racing’s Mike Lewis, who was a semifinalist last week in Topeka returns to the fray. This weekend also features the latest Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, with Brittany Force, Clay Millican, Justin Ashley and Antron Brown competing for points and money in Top Fuel, Matt Hagan, J.R. Todd, Bob Tasca III and Robert Hight in the water box for Funny Car, along with Erica Enders, Dallas Glenn, Greg Anderson and Deric Kramer running the “tortilla challenge” in Pro Stock.
There are two qualifying sessions scheduled for Friday (2:45 and 6PM CT) and a pair on Saturday before eliminations take the stage on Sunday at 11AM CT. It’s going to be hot and probably muggy in Brainerd, Minnesota this weekend, with Saturday being the warmest day, currently forecast at 93 degrees. Thankfully, there’s no rain in the forecast so that will keep The Zoo viable and happy.