The 22nd annual NHRA Nevada Nationals on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway yielded one heck of an exciting weekend and a roulette wheel on three of four points battles in the 2022 Camping World Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship.
By earning the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock and going two rounds farther than Elite Motorsports teammate and contender Aaron Stanfield, Erica Enders earned her fifth Pro Stock championship. She then secured her 43rd career Pro Stock national event win and punched her ticket to a ninth victory at this track against another teammate, Troy Coughlin Jr., racing in his fifth final round of the season. Enders’ Elite Motorsports team’s post-race celebration was as rowdy as one would expect! This was her 10th win of the 18-race Pro Stock season – and there’s still one more race that can be won.
It wasn’t a question of “if” for Enders, especially after reigning five-time champ Greg Anderson was gone after the first round and Stanfield went out in the second round. The big question was when she would take that fifth title. Enders’ focus all season wasn’t within doubt but with a robust class that had at least 16 entries for nearly every one of its 18 events, it was a matter of time before she became the fifth Pro Stock driver to win at least five titles. “As a kid with big dreams,” she said with emotion, “this makes me want to pinch myself. We have worked really hard to get here and we’ve sacrificed a lot. It’s nice to see all of those sacrifices paid off. It’s really unbelievable. I’m a blessed girl.”
This was Enders’ weekend – and her year – at the Nevada Nats. From the No. 1 spot, she defeated Kenny Delco, Dallas Glenn and Kyle Koretsky to meet teammate Troy Coughlin Jr., who had an excellent Sunday, defeating rookie of the year candidate Camrie Caruso, Deric Kramer and Cristian Cuadra. What remains in Pro Stock is the standings behind the champion: Stanfield is second, Coughlin Jr. third, Koretsky is fourth and Anderson fifth, with Glenn, Matt Hartford, Cristian Cuadra, Kramer and Mason McGaha fighting over the table scraps.
For Nevada, this was pretty much a fall weekend, weather-wise, which surprised some nitro teams one would expect to do well at The Strip and elevated others, making for some big on-track surprises.
Regular season Top Fuel standout Brittany Force of John Force Racing changed the pecking order in her class by securing ninth No. 1 qualifying spot of 2022 and 41st in her career. In earning her fifth win of the season she returned to the top spot in class with a single race remaining on the calendar, taking place in a week and a half at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California. In her seventh final round of 2022 and 31st of her stellar career, Force used her better reaction time to score a hole shot win over Mike Salinas and nab that points lead from Justin Ashley, vanquished in the first round by Clay Millican.
Force had a bye her first round, due to the paucity of Top Fuel entries; she defeated three-time champion Antron Brown in the quarterfinals and took out eight-time champion Tony Schumacher in the semifinals to meet championship contender Salinas in the finals. Her victory gave Force a seven-point lead over Ashley, while Salinas is third, 66 behind his final round opponent and Brown is in fourth place, 78 behind her. Four-time consecutive champ Steve Torrence holds fifth place (-87), followed by Austin Prock, Josh Hart, Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta and Millican.
“This shows you that Pomona is going to be exciting, going to be a thrill for everyone,” Force said after her victory Sunday night. “We dominated all weekend, picked up qualifying points, went rounds and got the job done. You know we we struggled through the whole Countdown and we started to turn it around that last weekend in Dallas, but then I screwed it up. So to come out here and win on a hole shot, it’s giving it back to my guys for all the times they carried me,” she said.
John Force Racing’s president Robert Hight and his Chevrolet Camaro SS came into the NHRA Nevada Nationals with a 10-point lead in Funny Car over reigning titleholder Ron Capps’ Toyota GR Supra. By going to the final round against victor Matt Hagan’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, he increased that lead to 61 points, while three-time champ Hagan is now two points behind Capps. Hight, too, was the No. 1 qualifier for this race and outlasted all but his final round opponent as he works toward a fourth championship.
Hagan, driving for Tony Stewart Racing, qualified second and had an ugly, tire-busting first round against Steven Densham, while he dispatched Chad Green’s Mustang and Bob Tasca’s Mustang to make it to the final round against Hight’s Camaro. It was the duo’s 44th match-up and seventh time this year they have met in competition. Hagan was in the finals at Texas Motorplex against Capps, giving him a second straight trip to the last race of the day. This time he came up with the win, which was a must-win situation for the Virginia cattle farmer. “Anything is possible,” he said. “Sometimes you have to be a little lucky and sometimes you have to be a little good. You just never know what’s going to happen and that’s what makes it so exciting for us,” Hagan admitted.
The spoiler in Pro Stock Motorcycle shouldn’t come as a surprise. While he hasn’t had financial backing over the past couple of years, Hector Arana Jr. was the first to hit the vaunted 200mph mark and has always been an excellent racer who’s never let anyone intimidate him. The winner of the last eight rounds he’s raced, Arana has shown he can be competitive – even against his final-round opponent, five-time champ Matt Smith. Smith is known for his intimidation of the competition he’s facing and that stoic mental attitude has served him well. Not against Arana, who ran his own race and demolished his competitor on his GETTRX Buell, running against the similar machinery of Smith.
“It was a fight just to get here,” Arana Jr acknowledged. “Dallas was supposed to be our last race and honestly, we weren’t prepared. We had to go home and rebuild engines after Dallas. I struggled a little in qualifying, but we had a backup plan for race day.” While he did win a couple of races on hole shots (including the final round), “You’ve got to have the pace to get there and we had that.” With his current confidence and the knowledge he’s got GETTRX backing him, “I can’t wait to go to Pomona and keep going. We found our groove pretty quickly. Now our mission is to get the funding we need to come back next year.”
Arana’s victory, Smith’s defeat, Joey Gladstone’s Suzuki exiting after the second round, Jerry Savoie’s Suzuki going to the semifinals, well, it all throws this class into a deeper set of question marks as the season finale looms. Smith retains his lead by four points over Gladstone, Jerry Savoie and his Suzuki are 136 points back in third, while Angie Smith (Buell), Steve Johnson, Eddie Krawiec, Angelle Sampey’s Suzukis, Marc Ingwersen, Ryan Oehler on their Buell motorcycles and Karen Stoffer’s Suzuki are pretty much out of the fight for the title, despite the points-and-a-half on offer at Pomona.
In the Lucas Oil sportsman ranks, watching team owner Tony Stewart run his first-ever drag race in Top Alcohol Dragster was a major draw for fans and competitors alike. “Smoke” turned the second-best qualifying lap on Friday in a single pass and went all the way to the finals in his first ever side-by-side competition, just to lose by about an inch, or 0.0002-sec – to Jay and Shelly (Anderson) Payne’s daughter Madison, also in her first national event. Goes to show that a racer is a racer is a racer – on both accounts. His 5.258-sec pull at 271.57mph couldn’t beat her 5.262/275.90.
With more points available in the season finale in Pomona, the standings in all classes could change and the nitro classes could present some big surprises. The action begins on Veterans Day, Nov. 11 on the historic Pomona track and the season closes two days later. It will definitely be a race worth seeing.
By Anne Proffit