NHRA’s Countdown heads to North Carolina

Erica Enders battles Greg Anderson
Erica Enders battles Greg Anderson

If the National Hot Rod Association was looking for intrigue in its six-race Camping World Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, it sure found it with last weekend’s Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, PA. Held before an amazing and enthusiastic crowd, under clear skies, the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals set the bar for this year’s Countdown to the Championship, the six-race sprint to determine championships in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. 

The door slammers, along with Pro Stock Motorcycle, were expected to have five races in the Countdown, as Pro Stock Motorcycle will do, but when the Koretsky family bought Maple Grove, the class was invited to perform, with four-time champ Erica Enders of Elite Motorsports earning her first win at the Pennsylvania track and extending her championship lead as she vies to join reigning titleholder Greg Anderson as a five-timer in this highly technical class. The addition of the Cuadra family’s Elite-prepared Ford Mustangs has finally made Pro Stock into a more interesting class. It isn’t just for Chevrolet-powered cars anymore (although it’s the body style, not the engine installed that determines the make of the race car).

The Countdown goes back to “normal” this week when Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock alight at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway for the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals. It’ll be a tough act following last weekend’s race, where NHRA achieved its highest television viewership with a peak of 2.8 million, together with a sell-out crowd at the Reading track currently being renovated by the Koretsky family, who clearly and admittedly have a stake in that track’s success. Not only was the action compelling to watch on the track, but the standings were shuffled in most classes after that exciting race.

Justin Ashley leads Top Fuel’s points standings

This weekend there are 15 Top Fuel dragsters entered for the zMAX contest, including everyone in the Countdown race, along with Doug Foley, who’s had an excellent season thus far and looks to be gaining partnerships that could enable this journeyman to make a full-time run next year. Spencer Massey is also on the entry list, as are Alex Laughlin and Billy Torrence. Laughlin, who is testing the Top Fuel waters with Scott Palmer’s team and Torrence, who races when and where he desires, are definitely good adds to this class.

Top Fuel’s points were upended a bit when John Force Racing’s Brittany Force had a massive parts failure and subsequent fire to end her day in Reading during the quarterfinals, while Scrappers Racing’s Mike Salinas was defeated in the semifinals by event runner-up Justin Ashley of Davis Racing, who assumed the points lead by beating Salinas with his Mike Green-tuned dragster. 

Mike Green explains his tune for Justin Ashley

The victory at Reading went to John Force Racing’s second dragster for Austin Prock, his second career Top Fuel Wally trophy; the third-generation drag racing star performed one of the best recoveries we’ve seen in the semifinals when he used his sprint and midget talents to out-duel and out-drive three-time Top Fuel champ, AB Motorsports’ Antron Brown in a 1,000-foot pedalfest.

With Ashley leading, Force and Salinas trailing by nine and ten points, respectively, Brown moved up the food chain to fourth place (-54) from sixth with his semifinal result against Prock. Steve Torrence holds fifth place points, two behind Brown, while Prock took a giant leap to sixth place and trails Ashley by 74 points. Last year’s Carolina Nationals winner Josh Hart is seventh (-87), Kalitta Motorsports’ Doug Kalitta is in eighth place tied with Tony Stewart Racing’s Leah Pruett and lagging Ashley by 107 points, while Kalitta’s Shawn Langdon is 118 points back. Clay Millican (-124) and Tony Schumacher (-138) are the final Countdown eligible racers. The latter driver has an important partnership announcement this weekend. 

The Funny Car entry is truly sad, with only 13 cars and drivers on the entry list. All of those racers are competing for the Flopper crown. Granted, it’s tough to travel the country when you’re not in the race for the Countdown to the Championship, and it’s money these cars run on, far more than nitromethane. It was a double-up for John Force Racing last weekend, when Robert Hight ’s Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham-tuned Chevrolet Camaro SS won the Funny Car race title, giving himself a 60th career win and an 81-point lead against Tony Stewart Racing’s Matt Hagan and that driver’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. 

Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham talk track conditions

In third place is reigning titleholder Ron Capps (-84), whose Ron Capps Motorsports Toyota GR Supra went to the quarterfinals in Reading after qualifying No. 2, defeated by race runner-up Tim Wilkerson’s Ford Mustang. Capps has won the Charlotte two-by race twice, in 2012 and 2018 and is looking to close his deficit to Hagan and Hight this weekend. There are 11 drivers eligible for the Countdown in this nitro class, with 16-time Funny Car champ John Force in fourth place with his Chevrolet Camaro SS, 97 points behind his company president, while Bob Tasca III has to make up 106 points with his Ford Mustang.

Wilkerson’s Reading result bumped him from ninth to sixth place (-122) and sets last year’s Carolina Nationals winner up for momentum-building results, while J.R. Todd has his Kalitta Motorsports Toyota GR Supra in seventh place. Cruz Pedregon, the two-time NHRA Funny Car titleholder is 152 points behind Hight, and he’s been running well with his John Collins-tuned Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. Alexis DeJoria, Jim Campbell and Blake Alexander complete the listing of those still eligible for the Flopper championship, but their lags of 163, 203 and 225 points make this three the longest of long-shots. John Smith (2012 Dodge) and Chad Green’s Mustang complete the entry list.

Thank goodness for Pro Stock – and please don’t leave the grandstands, you’ll be missing some great racing – who have 19 entries for this weekend’s race at zMAX Dragway outside Charlotte. When NHRA made all full-time entries that have raced every regular-season contest eligible for the Countdown, that brought this class’ number to 15! And, yes, Erica Enders retains her “drive for five” leadership in the class. KB Racing’s Greg Anderson, who earned his fifth title at Pomona last year and his 100th class victory in the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals in September and his teammate Kyle Koretsky are second and third, trailing by 81 and 88 points, respectively. Koretsky earned the win light here in 2021.

When Enders earned her first Reading Wally winner’s trophy, she defeated Elite Motorsports stablemate Troy Coughlin Jr., who earned his first pair of class trophies this season andmoved to fourth (-90) in the Pro Stock standings when he defeated Anderson in the third round. Enders beat Koretsky to gain her finals appearance. Elite’s Aaron Stanfield holds fifth place, just one point behind teammate Coughlin Jr., while KB’s Dallas Glenn, last year’s Rookie of the Year in the NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series, is in sixth place (-118), followed by Denver winner Matt Hartford (-162), Mason McGaha (-164), Bo Butner and Camrie Caruso, rounding out the top ten and 172 and 173 points behind Enders, respectively.

 

Troy Coughlin Jr.’s stock is rising

The balance of the field eligible for Countdown points include the Mustang of Fernando Cuadra Jr., Deric Kramer’s Camaro, Cristian Cuadra, also in a Mustang, Chris McGaha’s Camaro and Fernando Cuadra, whose Mustang rounds out those that are Countdown eligible. Eleventh through 15th places are pretty much out of the opportunity to win the champion’s white hat, but all have the opportunity to move forward in the standings. Rob Tucker, Larry Morgan, Kenny Delco and Baron Troupe, all racing Camaro products, are hoping to crash the party and bring a bit more chaos to the class. 

Once again there will be a single qualifying session on Friday at sunset, which is likely to be held under clear and cooling skies, which should mean mega lap times for all involved. Saturday offers two opportunities for qualifying, starting at 1:30PM ET and 5:15PM ET. The latter session, provided the forecast for temps in the mid- to high-70s starts to cool by the time the nitro crowd hits the water box is correct, should make for another banzai qualifying session. On Sunday, the warmest day of the weekend, will see eliminations starting at the crack of noon and continuing until all victors get their laurels. FS1 and FS2 will carry all the activities, along with NHRA.TV.

By Anne Proffit 

About Anne Proffit 951 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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