Every single competitor in NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series is focused on the Countdown to the Championship that begins after the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, held over the Labor Day holiday weekend. To get into the Countdown, foraging for “baby points” in qualifying and going rounds are two of the biggest ways to increase a car and driver’s standings in the points battle, with the “Big Go” final “regular season” race on the horizon.
Still, there are three contests in which to gather points before the Countdown begins after Labor Day, and most every team in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle has nose to grindstone in efforts to prepare both body and mechanicals to survive these next three races and to move up the feed chain to the top of the heap.
This weekend’s final Menards NHRA Nationals presented by PetArmor on the Heartland Motorsports Park drag strip at Topeka, Kansas will be noteworthy as it brings back Pro Stock to the gathering after a two-race vacation. It allows Pro Stock Motorcycle a breather as every contender tries to figure out how to spook points leader Gaige Herrera, who used the Western Swing to win every title in sight for himself, his Vance & Hines team and Suzuki: all three races, the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge and the first ever Pro Stock Motorcycle All-Star Callout.
The 13th race in a 21-contest campaign is the 34th and final for Heartland’s drag strip, caught in a money fight due to over-wrought taxation, according to the track’s owners and managers. Holding NHRA national events since 1989, it’ll be a bittersweet weekend for competitors, officials and fans of this mid-country racetrack.
Contestants for NHRA’s Wally winner’s trophies are coming out in force to race this weekend, as Top Fuel boasts a 17-car field, 17 for Funny Car and 18 Pro Stock entries are confirmed for the race meeting. The race also boasts ten Lucas Oil sportsman categories: Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Sportsman, Top Dragster and the new Factory X class.
The professional classes will have three qualifying attempts: one on Friday evening and two on Saturday, before final eliminations take place on Sunday. The schedule includes the latest Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge on Saturday, always a draw for those competing and anyone watching.
In Top Fuel, the two most successful racers of this regular season are points leader Justin Ashley and four-time consecutive class champion Steve Torrence. There’s a minuscule 32-point gap between the two, but a 331-point valley from first to Clay Millican in tenth place. “There is a lot of history at Heartland Park Topeka and we would like nothing more than to take that final Wally back to our shop,” said Ashley. “Jim Epler, executive VP at (sponsor) Phillips Connect, made the first 300-mph pass here in Funny Car, so our team has plenty of motivation.”
Last year Ashley went to the semifinals while Torrence came up short short to fellow Toyota racer Antron Brown in the finals at Topeka. The duo has to contend with always swift Brittany Force, the reigning dragster champ, with AB Motorsports’ Antron Brown, Leah Pruett of Tony Stewart Racing, Force’s John Force Racing teammate Austin Prock, a rising Doug Kalitta of Kalitta Motorsports, the always quick Mike Salinas of Scrappers Racing, Sonoma semifinalist Josh Hart and Millican in the top 10. Shawn Langdon and Tony Schumacher still have the opportunity to run in the Countdown but, as Schumacher put it, “We want to get in by earning our spot in the top 10, and we have three races left to do that.”
Add in aspiring winners Buddy Hull, who is making progress this season, Lex Joon, Terry Totten, Jacob McNeal, the irrepressible Scott Palmer and you’ve got a Top Fuel lineup in Kansas that would be the envy of most any track promoter.
The Funny Car lineup is no less stellar, led by a tight battle between three-time class champions Matt Hagan, driving a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat for Tony Stewart Racing and a very busy reigning titleholder, Ron Capps, who is racing Thursday night in the SRX contest on Eldora Speedway’s high-banked dirt oval, before climbing into his self-owned Toyota GR Supra for the weekend. There’s only 19 points between these two former Don Schumacher Racing teammates, while Funny Car’s tenth place-holder, Cruz Pedregon and his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, are 372 points behind Hagan’s tally.
Probably the largest worry the top two have in this class is the resurgence of a driver who had a truly tough start to his season: J.R. Todd of Kalitta Motorsports, the 2018 titleholder in this class is rebounding at the right time after a very slow early campaign in his Toyota GR Supra. Todd’s Sonoma victory moved him out of also-ran territory to eighth place in the race for a title; the Sonoma victory was his first in almost two and a half years. “We definitely had a car capable of winning at Denver and then went to the final in Seattle and probably should have won there, but when we got to Sonoma it was kind of like, ‘alright, let’s finish the deal here.’ I definitely felt like we had a good shot to win there (at Sonoma), the stars aligned and we won the race.”
Another driver who might have been overlooked at the start of the year is Chad Green, a technical partner to Tim Wilkerson, whose son Daniel is Green’s crew chief. The duo clicked from the start when Green was a Ford Mustang 2022 part-timer and they’re now third in the points, only 116 behind Hagan. Another driver on a mission is fourth placed Robert Hight, whose John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS just won the famed Night Under Fire match race at Summit Motorsports Park last weekend. A three-time Topeka winner, Hight fell to boss John Force (currently ninth in the standings) the past two years; his momentum from last weekend’s Norwalk match race has the Californian jazzed.
Alexis DeJoria has shown consistency in her DC Motorsports Toyota GR Supra and is in fifth place, followed by Wilkerson’s Mustang, the similar car of always speedy Bob Tasca III, Todd (just three points behind Tasca), John Force and Pedregon. These drivers are joined by Jack Wyatt’s Dodge Charger, Alex Laughlin in Jim Dunn’s Funny Car, the Charger of Paul Lee, Terry Haddock, Dave Richards and Blake Alexander’s Mustangs and Chicago firefighter Chris King’s Dodge. They all make for a stout entry that could cause some big changes in the standings after Sunday’s race.
There is no class more tightly contested than Pro Stock where the most prominent competitors race a Chevrolet Camaro. The sole exception in this year’s top 10 is Cristian Cuadra, the second generation racer running an Elite Motorsports Ford Mustang, along with his father Fernando and brothers Fernando Jr. and David. While KB Titan competitor Dallas Glenn has made a mockery of the standings, a full 202 points ahead of technical partner Matt Hartford, Elite’s Troy Coughlin Jr. is only two points behind Hartford. KB’s Deric Kramer holds fourth place while Elite’s Aaron Stanfield is fifth, followed by five-time and reigning titleholder Erica Enders, who was out of the top 10 just a few races ago!
“The summer swing is winding down and it’s time to get serious,” Enders declared. While Kansas has been a good venue for both Enders and the Elite squad over the years, Enders believes gaining a victory at this final race “would make a win that much more special. We’ve had a bit of time and my guys and I are fresh and ready. We tested, spent time in the engine shop and are ready to go show the world why we are Team Elite,” she said.
KB Titan’s Greg Anderson, also a five-time champ and Camrie Caruso lead Cristian Cuadra and KB Titan’s Kyle Koretsky in the points chase. Everyone in the top 10 is on-site for this week’s shootout, together with Bo Butner III, Alan Prusiensky’s Dodge Dart, Mason and dad Chris McGaha, rookie Jerry Tucker from Elite Motorsports, Fernando Cuadra, Fernando Cuadra Jr. and David Cuadra (who will do a full year in 2024). With 18 competitive cars attempting to make a field of 16, along with Pro Stock’s Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for the Denver semifinalists, this Pro Stock weekend should be one for the ages.
Not only will the title chases be hot over this weekend, so will the weather, with 90-degree-plus temps on tap for the entire race meeting. Sunday has the specter of scattered thunderstorms to contend with. Here’s hoping the race meeting goes off without the hitch of having the Safety Safari doing extra work to keep the track clean and prepped and that the Heartland Motorsports Park farewell is a joyous one!