Herrera Completes Western Swing Sweep; Ashley, J.R. Todd Claim Sonoma NHRA wins

Gaige Herrera in the Sonoma Winners Circle with all of his Western Swing sweep trophies - Suzuki photo
Gaige Herrera in the Sonoma Winners Circle with all of his Western Swing sweep trophies – Suzuki photo

It’s exceptionally tough to sweep NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series’ Western Swing. It’s been 14 years since former Pro Stock Motorcycle standout and three-time Top Fuel champion and team owner Antron Brown performed the sweep and now, it’s been done again.

For the first time in category history, Pro Stock Motorcycle ran all three Western Swing races, at Denver, Seattle and Sonoma. And for the first time, Gaige Herrera took his Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa3 to the No. 1 spot in qualifying, won the first-ever Pro Stock Motorcycle All-Star Callout and secured his third race win in a row, collecting his third straight Wally winners trophy, his winner’s medallion and blue hat, bonus money, bonus points and, yeah, a broom to let everyone know he swept the Western Swing.

Hard to believe Herrera joined the series last year at the U.S. Nationals, riding a two-valve Suzuki prepared by Gary Stoffer and Greg Underdahl and doing a good job. Andrew Hines saw something in Herrera over the next six Pro Stock Motorcycle races and snapped him up to succeed Angelle Sammy as Eddie Krawiec’s teammate. Herrera has now earned his sixth victory of the season – only Steve Johnson’s Suzuki and Hector Arana Jr’s Buell have wins in the two-wheeled class – and is looking to lock up the No. 1 position for NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs when they begin in Reading after the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals, held every Labor Day weekend at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP).

The Western Swing is one of the most difficult selection of races any competitor can undertake, going from close to 6,000 feet above sea level to the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by trees and then to California’s Wine Country, a very different climate from Seattle’s. It’s tough on machinery, on crews and on riders and drivers, who all need the one-week rest (for Top Fuel and Funny Car, Pro Stock Motorcycle is on hiatus until Indy) after these three weeks.

This past weekend it wasn’t the nitro classes that got top billing during the Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals; rather it was Pro Stock Motorcycle’s time to shine. With a full complement of competitors, the first ever Callout in the class’ history and the possibility – let’s call it a probability – of Herrera’s broomstick-wielding end of day, no matter what happened in Top Fuel and/or Funny Car, the two-wheeled set were the stars of this show.

Sure, Steve Torrence won Saturday’s Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in Top Fuel, but he didn’t win the race on Sunday despite racing well into the semifinals, where he was ousted by the last driver to sweep the Western Swing, Antron Brown. Torrence, leading the points coming into this race, got pushed back to second when his technical partner Justin Ashley defeated fellow Toyota partner Brown in the race’s final elimination round. it was a needed turnaround for Ashley, who’d been eliminated in the first round the past two races after leading the points standings prior to the Swing.

Justin Ashley is back to his winning ways in Sonoma – Anne Proffit photo

Ashley gave The Maynard Family another victory to salve the loss of matriarch Cathi, winning in his sixth final appearance and taking a tenth national event win from the seventh qualifying spot. In the first round he defeated Doug Kalitta, keeping that driver at 49 Top Fuel wins, while he took out No. 1 qualifier Austin Prock in the second round and Josh Hart in the third round. In the final, Ashley defeated Brown by a true eyelash, earning a .0001-second victory, or 3.778 to 3.787 seconds. “I knew it was gonna be a close race no matter what. Most of the time when we line up it is a close race and you got to credit Antron and his team,” Ashley said.

His victory leaves Ashley 32 points ahead of Torrence, with Brittany Force third, Antron Brown fourth, Leah Pruett in fifth, followed by Austin Prock, Doug Kalitta, Mike Salinas, Josh Hart and Clay Millican. There’s a 331-point gap between first and tenth; with three races remaining before the Countdown, points are king, as both Shawn Langdon and Tony Schumacher fight for spots in the Countdown. Schumacher in 12th lags by 450 points.

It was a redeeming weekend for J.R. Todd and his “Yella Fellas” Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car squad. Not only did they take control of Saturday’s Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for his first victory in that race-within-a-race, but they finally broke through for their first victory of the year, having a tough season after going to the finals in the first race of the season in Gainesville, FL. The driver’s Toyota GR Supra almost seemed destined to earn victory on Sunday; after a hard-fought first round against Blake Alexander’s Jim Head Mustang, a second-round beat-down of No. 1 qualifier Bob Tasca III’s Mustang and defeat to points leader Matt Hagan and his Tony Stewart Racing Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, Todd picked off Chad Green’s Mustang in the finals, ending a 52-race drought that began after Gainesville in 2021.

J.R. Todd had to wait 21 months between wins. It was worth it – NHRA photo

“Man, I forgot what this was like,” Todd said as he hoisted his Wally winner’s trophy and donned his blue cap. “It’s been a long road to get here. We’re getting a good handle on it, and the consistency is coming around – it kinda started in Bristol when we went to a semi and then another in Norwalk. We started out with a new combination at the beginning of the year and Todd Smith (co-crew chief) said, ‘it’s gonna take me a while to figure this thing out,’ and I feel like he’s finally getting it dialed in!” Green made his first final round Funny Car appearance at this race.

While Hagan increased his lead over reigning titleholder Ron Capps and his Ron Capps Motorsports Toyota GR Supra to 19 points (both exited in the semifinals), Green holds third-place points, followed by Robert Hight and his John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS, Alexis DeJoria (out in the first round) with her Toyota GR Supra, Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang, Tasca III, Todd, John Force’s Camaro and Cruz Pedregon with his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. Blake Alexander (Mustang) and the Funny Car of Alex Laughlin hold 11th and 12th place points. The lag from Hagan to Pedregon is 372 points.

Only Herrera has punched his ticket to the Countdown to the Championship. Not anyone in Top Fuel, not anyone in Funny Car. Just the guy who started to run in this class last Labor Day and never won a round of play until Gainesville started the 2023 season this past March. Herrera’s move to Vance & Hines would amaze anyone who hadn’t been paying attention as the rider learned his craft under the tutelage of both Stoffer and Underdahl last year.

 

Gaige Herrera beat Angie Smith to earn the first-ever Pro Stock Motorcycle Callout on Saturday – NHRA photo

“Being the first rider to sweep the Western Swing is something I never expected,” Herrera said. “It’s hard to put into words how it feels, but I give all credit to the team. They work their butts off to give me the best bike possible, which gives me all the confidence in the world when I pull up to the starting line.” While he wanted to race six-time champ Matt Smith’s Suzuki for the win in the finals, the latter’s machine refused to start and Herrera was the winner without turning a wheel, but he did run the final round solo and, after beating a centerline-fouling Ryan Oehler’s Buell, a red-light fouling Marc Ingswersen’s Buell and Karen Stoffer’s two-valve Suzuki in a straight-up race (finally), Herrera turned 6.775/198.12 to earn his sixth win of the year after claiming his seventh No. 1 qualifier and that Callout All-Star Saturday race.

Herrera has 359 points on Hector Arana Jr.’s Buell, while teammate Eddie Krawiec – still looking for his 50th win – is third, Matt Smith has fourth with Angie Smith’s Buell fifth. Steve Johnson’s Suzuki is sixth, rookie Chase Van Sant, dismayed that his Suzuki wouldn’t start in the first round is seventh, Ingwersen and his Buell are eighth, followed by the Suzukis of Jianna Evaristo and Kelly Clontz. Buell rider Ryan Oehler in 11th is only eight points behind Clontz and sees the possibility of overtaking her at Indy for his sole hope of being part of the playoffs. There’s a 638-point gap from first to 11th in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

While Pro Stock Motorcycle gets to rest until the U.S. Nationals at Indy on Labor Day, Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock are back in action August 11-13 for the final and 34th Menards NHRA Nationals presented by PetArmor at Heartland motorsports Park in Topeka, KS.

About Anne Proffit 1266 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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