Kalitta, Hagan, Enders, Herrera NHRA Champs, Kalitta, Herrera, Green, Stanfield Win

Doug Kalitta finally earned his first Top Fuel title after 26 years of trying - NHRA photo

 

Herrera, Enders, Kalitta, Hagan celebrate their championships – Anne Proffit photo

It took him 26 years and six runner-up disappointments before Doug Kalitta finally became an NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel champion. Not only did he earn his first title in the final run of the final race of a 21-contest season, but Kalitta and his Kalitta Motorsports team won the race, joining fellow first-time champion Gaige Herrera, who had points in hand even before Sunday’s final eliminations in the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals, held at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip.

This track is loaded with history and had even more to add by the time the sun set on the 2023 NHRA season. This was the final event for Camping World as titular sponsor – they’ll continue with the series for several years, but not as the title, naming sponsor. Next season Mission Foods will take over as title sponsor for NHRA’s four professional classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

The historic Pomona track saw teams and drivers throughout the pits attempt to make their own history during this monumental race weekend. It’s been a while since the Top Fuel category championship was earned in the last pass of the last race, with both contestants trying to become a first-time titleholder. The title goes back to Michigan with Kalitta, who had to beat Tony Stewart Racing’s Leah Pruett in order to finally end his bridesmaid status.

Doug Kalitta finally earned his first Top Fuel title after 26 years of trying – NHRA photo

That’s exactly what Kalitta did with his final round lap of 3.673 seconds at 334.98 as Pruett ran 3.720/326.16. Theirs was a tight race and just what fans deserved to see at the close of three days of competition. Pruett had lane choice; Kalitta had to run in the right lane, while most of the wins came from the left. Didn’t matter; the Michigan multi-talented driver came into the race 15 points behind four-time champ Steve Torrence and four points ahead of Pruett. Torrence was out in the semifinal round against Pruett (who won from the right lane), while Justin Ashley, with a mathematical chance to be titleholder fell to Kalitta in the penultimate round.

“It’s incredible the way the points worked out to come down to that last run,” the newly crowned champ said. “I just stayed focused. It was obviously a big round and it played out just perfectly. It was a hell of a drag race and it was nice to get the win,” as well as the title. He wore both the blue race-winners ball cap and the white champion’s cap. And no one was more pleased than his uncle, Connie Kalitta, who came out to the right side of the track to watch his team leader close the deal.

Matt Hagan earned his 4th Funny Car championship and the first for Tony Stewart Racing – Anne Proffit photo

All four Funny Car title aspirants were out of the running for Sunday’s race win before the semifinal round: 2021-2022 Funny Car champ Ron Capps’ Toyota GR Supra was defeated when he hazed the tires, in the first round by eventual race runner-up Tim Wilkerson; Capps was in fourth place coming into this race. Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang, in second place before eliminations began, fell to two-time class champ Cruz Pedregon’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat in the second round. Robert Hight, driving John Force Racing’s Chevrolet Camaro SS also lost in the second round, to eventual race winner Chad Green’s Ford Mustang. Points leader Matt Hagan, in a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat from Tony Stewart Racing, lost a smoker to Jim Head Racing’s Blake Alexander, who did a good job of “giant-killing” this weekend before succumbing in the semifinal round.

Still, Hagan’s lead was sufficient to give the Virginian his fourth championship and anoint his team as one to watch. At the end of the day, TSR Nitro was going for a double-up on championships, but it wasn’t meant to be. Although Hight was the No. 1 qualifier, and gained a few “little” points, it wasn’t enough and he failed, by 12 points to earn the title this year. Tasca was 17 points back by the close and Capps fell to 175 points behind his former teammate. Hagan, a six-time winner through these 21 races, was “doing some praying today entering the race. I hadn’t prayed to my mom since we lost her this year. And I said, ‘I don’t know what you are doing up there, but I could sure use some help today from you and my brother.’ You hate to see someone go out in the second round to win a championship. I don’t wish losing on anyone; that’s not my style of racing.”

Chad Green battled Tim Wilkerson for the race win – Anne Proffit photo

The race win went to a first-timer, as Chad Green earned his initial victory in the Funny Car class, thanks to astute tuning by Daniel Wilkerson, Tim Wilkerson’s son. Green and Wilkerson are technical partners, both driving Ford Mustangs. And there they both were, in the final round, battling for this year’s final race win. “It’s just been an amazing weekend,” Green said after noting his son, Hunter earned the Top Alcohol Dragster victory on Sunday. “First off,” he continued, “it’s been an amazing season. This has been a dream season for us and I couldn’t be more proud of my guys. They’ve really come a long way in the last few years and stuck with me. We’ve been trying all year to get this Wally; we’ve been close a few times but I can’t think of a better way that you could top off a season, ending it like this!”

In Pro Stock, the championship and the race win went to Elite Motorsports’ Erica Enders and Aaron Stanfield, respectively. By winning her first round match-up against teammate Fernando Cuadra, Enders secured her sixth title, and that came after a shaky start to the 2023 campaign, when she was, at one point early on, 15th in the points standings. This driver’s tenacity enabled her to dig her way out and consistently perform in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, where she entered in third place. “Things started to change direction in St. Louis,” she explained. “After we won Dallas, I thought maybe we could actually pull this off. It’s just a perfect lesson about why you never quit and why you never give up.”

Erica Enders earned her 6th Pro Stock title – Anne Proffit photo

Enders went as far as the semifinal round after beating teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. in a close second round match-up; she couldn’t get her car running right in the third round and lost to Matt Hartford of KB Titan Racing. Teammate Aaron Stanfield, who is the 2023 Factory Stock Showdown champion, won a close first-round match-up against KB Titan’s Deric Kramer, waltzed past teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. in the second round, got five-time champ Greg Anderson of KB Titan Racing to foul out in the third round and marched by Matt Hartford with a superior light in the Pro Stock finals, where his margin of victory was a minimal .0021 seconds.

Aaron Stanfield earned his 8th Pro Stock win – Anne Proffit photo

“This is really incredible,” Stanfield remarked. “Thank you to my wife – she’s ready to pop at home and it’s very special to get this done at the last race!” In earning his eighth career Pro Stock victory, Stanfield allowed, “We’ve struggled this year, and we’ve been waiting for that win to come. To get it here, at the last race is just awesome and given everything else that’s going on in my life, it’s perfect timing.” The win found Hartford third with Stanfield in fourth, moving up one spot. The balance of the Pro Stock standings see Troy Coughlin Jr fifth, Dallas Glenn sixth,Kyle Koretsky seventh, Deric Kramer eighth, Bo Butner III ninth and Cristian Cuadra tenth, the latter driving a Mustang.

It was the Gaige vs Eddie show in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final round and Herrera won again for the 11th time – Anne Proffit photo

Pro Stock Motorcycle looked like a Vance & Hines Motorsports show throughout the season and this weekend, but there was a qualifying incident that shook up the field. Although the finals came down to Herrera vs teammate Eddie Krawiec, the latter trying for his 50th win, everyone was worried by Kelly Clontz’s Saturday crash at top end that has a similar look to Angie Smith’s. The result of a lock-up, Clontz rolled off her Suzuki motorcycle, which slammed the wall without her aboard. She went to hospital, received stitches in her left hand and returned to the track.

Kelly Clontz returned to the track after a qualifying accident – Anne Proffit photo

Angie Smith did qualify and race her Buell this weekend, but was out in the second round to Steve Johnson’s Suzuki. She ended up eighth on the season; Krawiec was second, followed by the Buell of Hector Arana jr., Matt Smith’s, Jianna Evaristo’s and Johnson’s Suzukis, Marc Ingwersen took seventh with his Buell, followed by Angie, injured Chase Van Sant (WAR team owner Jerry Savoie rode Van Sant’s Suzuki this weekend) and Clontz in tenth place.

Herrera’s championship was clinched when he exited the water box in the first round of qualifying but he and the team elected to celebrate at the close of qualifying Saturday afternoon. “It doesn’t feel real, to be honest,” Herrera said Saturday afternoon. Wrapping up the championship here in my hometown, this is something I’ll never forget, winning the championship in my first full season. There is a lot that has been accomplished this year but this definitely tops it all!” Herrera earned his 11th win of the season from the No. 1 qualifying slot. “This season,” he affirmed, “I an’t even put it into words. I didn’t expect to end like this this weekend.”

But end it did. The entire 2023 Camping World Drag Racing Series community will celebrate at Pechanga Casino and Resort Monday night and then begin their preparations for the 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season that begins March 7-10 with the 55th NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Florida.

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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