The NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series intends to crowd as much action as possible into three days of the 22nd annual Thunder Valley Nationals on Bristol Dragway’s dragstrip, a stone’s throw from the oval track used by NASCAR for its Cup Series. Not only is the scheduled race for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle categories on the docket, but the series needs to complete its 10th annual New England Nationals after being rained out last weekend.
There’s also the scheduled Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for all classes after last weekend’s Mission challenge had to be protracted and settled with the sessions that had already been completed. This weekend’s challenge will feature semifinalists from Joliet’s race and all four classes are competing in this specialty race on Saturday.
There will be four qualifying sessions this weekend, two on Friday, a pair on Saturday and, of course, four rounds of eliminations – if the weather holds – on Sunday. Eliminations from Epping are scheduled to take place during in Friday night’s and Saturday’s dual qualifying sessions, which will make the first and second of three days of racing in beautiful Bristol a feast for eyes and ears. The bucolic environment at this track makes for insulating noise at the outdoor amphitheater, something any lover of straight-line racing should be present to enjoy.
Last year, Justin Ashley of Maynard Ashley Racing (MAR) was the Top Fuel victor, but he’s going to have to deal with a surging – and local hero – Clay Millican, who earned his first-ever NHRA dragster victory at this track six years ago. Millican was the victor in Joliet last month after a near-five-year drought and he’s got special feelings about being close to his Drummonds, TN home, too. With a relatively healthy 17 dragsters on the grounds, it’s going to be a great weekend for one driver and a truly sad one for another.
Of course with everyone in the top 10 is on-site for this race, points will be paramount for those hoping to make the Countdown to the Championship after the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day. As no points were given up at Epping, the standings remain the same, with four-time champ Steve Torrence atop the standings, followed by nemesis and reigning titleholder Brittany Force. Her John Force Racing teammate Austin Prock is third, followed by Ashley, Leah Pruett, No. 1 Epping qualifier Antron Brown, Josh Hart, Mike Salinas and the Kallita Motorsports duo of Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta. Millican and Tony Schumacher are 11th and 12th, respectively.
Joining this NHRA Top Fuel dozen for this seven and eighth races of the season are Dan Mercer from Quebec province in Canada (he was scheduled to race last week), Lex Joon, Spencer Massey, Cameron Ferre and Doug Foley, all of whom could easily put a halt to their competitors’ plans. Remember that Top Fuel was under-subscribed for Epping, which gives Antron Brown, as No. 1 qualifier, a bye run on Friday night, putting him in the quarter-finals on Saturday; the three-time dragster champ had a semifinal result in Bristol last year.
The situation is similar for Funny Car. Reigning and three-time titleholder Ron Capps is also the defending winner of this race in 2022, where he gave Toyota the first victory for its GR Supra race car body. A six-time winner in Thunder Valley, Capps could have a huge weekend at this track, with the opportunity to earn two more wins along with a specialty-race victory. While Capps hasn’t yet visited the 2023 Winner’s Circle, his consistency has kept him exceptionally tight in the points chase.
There are 18 Floppers on the grounds this weekend, so two drivers will have to pack up early. Capps is currently second in the standings to former teammate Matt Hagan (Tony Stewart Racing Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat), followed by both drivers’ top competitor, Robert Hight and his John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS, Alexis DeJoria’s Toyota GR Supra, Tim Wilkerson, Chad Green and Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustangs, 16-time champ John Force’s Camaro SS, Cruz Pedregon’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat and J.R. Todd’s Toyota GR Supra complete the top 10.
Add to this lively group the cars of Jim Dunn Racing’s Alex Laughlin, Paul Lee’s Charger, Terry Haddock’s and Dave Richards’ Mustangs, Dale Crews Jr.’s Dodge Stratus, Mike McIntire Jr in a Toyota Camry and Bobby Bode III’s Mustang. Each of these drivers, despite perhaps not making a full-season run, has shown the ability to make it tough for the regular players to make it down a track first to the timing beams. They could foil many a plan this week.
In the two nitro classes, the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge will run concurrent with the semifinals and finals for Epping at Bristol this weekend, a schedule that’s guaranteed to confuse just about everyone in attendance, including the racers.
After a couple of weeks off, it’s time for the Pro Stock cars and motorcycles to return to NHRA’s Camping World stage. With 20 viable entries in Pro Stock, all of them attempting to take down points current leader Dallas Glenn of KB Titan Racing, it will be tough to call a winner right off the bat in Pro Stock. Aaron Stanfield’s Elite Motorsports Camaro won in Bristol last year and is in the Mission challenge running against Deric Kramer, while Glenn takes on Elite rookie Jerry Tucker.
Behind Glenn in the points standings, there’s a 168-point gap to second place and KB’s Matt Hartford, with the balance of the top 10 reflecting the two dominant teams: Deric Kramer is third with KB Titan, while Troy Coughlin Jr. and Aaron Stanfield are fourth and fifth with Elite Motorsports power. Chicago Pro Stock All-Star Callout victor Camrie Caruso of KB Titan is sixth, followed by teammate and five-time champ Greg Anderson in seventh. Bo Butner III and Cristian Cuadra (the sole Mustang body in the top 10 – all others are Chevy Camaros) from Elite are eighth and ninth while KB Titan’s Kyle Koretsky holds 10th place points.
Many will be watching to see if five-time reigning champ Erica Enders can pull out of her slump in 14th place, but there are many others in this class to watch: Shane Tucker, Alan Prusiensky (Dodge Dart), Larry Morgan, Chris and Mason McGaha, Fernando and Fernando Cuadra Jr, both driving Mustang bodies. along with David Cuadra, also in a Mustang, all entered at this race. It’s a full and healthy gathering of the door-slammers.
Pro Stock Motorcycle has a healthy 18-motorcycle field set for this race, all of them but Gaige Herrera looking for their first win of the season. Herrera, who joined Vance & Hines at the start of the year, has won all three races contested to date and look pretty darn unstoppable. That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to give up immediately, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to even the score in this class.
Herrera has a 169-point lead on teammate Eddie Krawiec, both of them riding Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles, while six-time champ Matt Smith’s in third, followed by WAR Racing rookie rider Chase Van Sant’s Suzuki, Hector Arana Jr.’s Buell, Joey Gladstone’s Reed Motorsports V&H Suzuki, Angie Smith’s Buell, Steve Johnson and Jianna Evaristo’s Suzukis and the Buell of Chip Ellis (-247), who returns for this race, making up the top 10.
In addition to your top 10., look for Marc Ingwersen and Ryan Oehler’s Buell motorcycles, Chris Bostick’s white Suzuki, Marcus Hylton on a Gann Buell, Ron Tornow’s Buell, John Hall on the second WAR Suzuki, Kelly Clontz’s Suzuki and Lance Bonham’s Buell to shake and bake the standings. In the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for this class, Herrera and Krawiec battle one another., while Ellis and Hector Arana Jr. compete for MIssion’s money and points.
The Epping eliminations, which take place during the second qualifying session Friday and both Saturday sessions, have the following match-ups for Round 1 in Top Fuel: No. 1 Brown has a bye; Langdon faces Tony Schumacher; Leah Pruett races Doug Kalitta; it’s Josh Hart against Brittany Force; Dan Mercer vs Justin Ashley; Mike Salinas faces Clay Millican while Austin Prock and Steve Torrence do first-round battle. In Funny Car, No. 1 Chad Green races Jim Campbell, Matt Hagan faces Terry Haddock, Alex Laughlin runs Blake Alexander, Ron Capps battles Bob Tasca III, Robert Hight takes on Alexis DeJoria, Tim Wilkerson battles John Force and Cruz Pedregon is racing J.R. Todd.
Weather is looking good for Friday and Saturday, with mostly sunny conditions and temps in the high 70s and early 80s, but current forecasts are calling for afternoon showers on Sunday. Everyone in the NHRA Camping World pits is hoping the forecasts are wrong.