It can take a while for a season to set in, so that competitors and fans alike can glom onto the racers they feel – or know – are best suited to earn a championship once the campaign is completed. This year, it might take a far longer time to figure out who’s got it and who hasn’t; the first two races of the 21-stop NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season has had its share of head-scratching results.
For instance, what happened to Erica Enders? The five-time champ who looked invincible as she completed her 2022 title fight (gaining her fifth championship in Las Vegas, the penultimate race), has been an also-also-ran in the first two race meetings. She didn’t even make the call at the 54th Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals and lost in the first round of last weekend’s 35th and final NHRA Arizona Nationals. Thankfully, Elite Motorsports teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. earned the season’s first Pro Stock wally; KB Titan Racing’s Camrie Caruso earned her first career victory in the class in Phoenix, becoming only the second woman – after Enders – to earn a Pro Stock win.
With 19 Pro Stock Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Mustangs and the lone Dodge Dart in the pits for this weekend’s third race, the 63rd Lucas Oil Winternationals – being held in springtime on the In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip – the chore of making it into the gang of 16 for Sunday’s eliminations is getting even more difficult. Couple that with the fact that two teams, Elite and KB Titan, have control over well more than half the entries, well, it gets tougher and tougher to gain points traction in the door slammer class.
Elite Motorsports’ eight-car squadron contains Enders, Aaron Stanfield, Coughlin Jr., Cristian, Fernando and Fernando Cuadra Jr., 2017 champ Bo Butner III and newcomer Jerry Tucker. KB Titan is responsible for the cars of fellow five-time titleholder Greg Anderson, Camrie Caruso, Kyle Koretsky, Dallas Glenn, Matt Hartford and Deric Kramer. That’s 14 Pro Stock cars, folks! While Harlow Sammons fields cars for Chris McGaha and surging son Mason McGaha, the runner-up at the Gatornationals, there are also single-car entries for Alan Prusiensky, Shane Tucker and Steve Graham. It’s a tough class and even tougher if you don’t have an affiliation with established winners.
In Phoenix, Robert Hight earned his second consecutive Funny Car title, driving a Flav-R-Pac Chevrolet Camaro SS from John Force Racing. That allowed him to take the lead in this class over Gatornationals winner Matt Hagan, driving Tony Stewart Racing’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat and Phoenix runner-up Ron Capps, the reigning and, like Hight three-time champion in this tough class, fielding his Toyota GR Supra. Those three have a slight advantage on DC Motorsports’ Alexis DeJoria, who won the first Mission #2Tasty2Fast Funny Car Challenge in the Valley of the Sun. Thus far she’s having an excellent season.
With 18 Floppers on the grounds at Pomona’s Fairplex, two racers will have to pack up early. Who will it be? Despite gaining added funding through his alliance with Maynard Family Racing, Tim Wilkerson has had a tough start to this season in his Ford Mustang; at the same time, his technical ally Chad Green, running with Tim’s son Daniel turning the knobs on his Mustang, is having a superb start to his year, currently lying fifth to DeJoria – and just five points behind her – after two completed rounds of racing in a 21-contest campaign.
It would be hard to count out Cruz Pedregon and his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, who won the season finale at this track, Ford Mustang stalwart Bob Tasca III who took the No. 1 slot in Phoenix, Gatornationals runner-up J.R. Todd in his Kalitta Motorsports Toyota GR Supra, 16-time champ John Force’s Camaro, Blake Alexander in Jim Head’s Mustang, Paul Lee’s Charger or the Jim Dunn MoonEyes car for Alex Laughlin. In addition to the usual characters, including Terry Haddock’s Mustang, look for Jeff Arend in Russo Racing’s Toyota, Steven Densham driving his family’s Mustang, Jeff Diehl back in his Camry this weekend and nostalgia racing standout Jason Rupert in his Mustang.
Guess who’s got the lead in Top Fuel standings? Yep, Steve Torrence, who hasn’t won yet this year, but the four-time consecutive titleholder has managed to go laps in the two races held thus far, make it to either the semifinals or final rounds, so he’s got an 11-point lead on Gatornationals winner Mike Salinas. By virtue of her consistency and lack of failures in the single Tony Stewart Racing green-and-black dragster, Leah Pruett has found her way to third place ahead of Phoenix victory Justin Ashley, who had a tough time in the first race of the year. The first Mission #2Fast2Tasty Top Fuel Challenge winner Doug Kalitta is holding down fifth place, while Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon holds onto sixth place.
It hasn’t been the fastest or quickest two races for Brittany Force, who is down in seventh place after a pair of challenging weekends, and she’s followed by her John Force Racing teammate Austin Prock, the winner at this track last November. Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher complete the top 10 in the points tally, followed by Clay Millican, Josh Hart, Krista Baldwin, Doug Foley and Scott Palmer.
This week’s slight, 14-car Top Fuel field includes everyone in the top 10 plus Baldwin, Ron August Jr., Millican and Josh Hart. The latter driver, after winning the Pep Boys Top Fuel Callout at his home race in Gainesville, has been battling to get back to the winner’s circle, one he’s visited twice in less than three years on the tour. He noted that his car is going well early in the runs, but is sure his guys, led by Ron Douglas, will get it all figured out so he can make solid full passes and keep the car under him.
Coming off his victory in Phoenix, Justin Ashley is hoping he can continue that momentum and not revert to the issues he had in Florida. The defending winner of the 2022 Winternationals, Ashley will be participating in his first – and only the second ever – Mission #2Tasty2Fast Top Fuel Challenge this weekend, once again racing his semifinals opponent, Steve Torrence, while Shawn Langdon gets to battle Leah Pruett. In Funny Car, it’ll be Hight against Chad Green and Capps against DeJoria, while Phoenix Pro Stock winner Camrie Caruso gets to battle Matt Hartford and Bo Butner III runs against Kyle Koretsky. All of this occurs on Saturday
And that’s not the only “side show” planned for Pomona’s first gathering of the year. Three days of Legends Nitro Funny Car competition will take place this weekend. Also on Saturday, Toyota’s Supra Showdown launches this weekend, featuring two identical road-going Toyota GR Supras making passes down this iconic dragstrip at Pomona. The schedule has this race-within-a-race in Las Vegas during the Four-Wide race in April, during Charlotte’s four-wide contest, at Route 66 Dragstrip near Chicago in May, in Bristol, at Sonoma and then, for its finale, the Toyota Supra Showdown goes to Charlotte during the Countdown to the Championship.
Toyota’a Supra Showdown pits its Top Fuel drivers against the Funny Car members of the Toyota clan. A season-long tally will establish a team winner, with the winning team’s charity getting all the money involved. For the 2023 season, Team Top Fuel drivers compete for Matco Tools for a Cause (AB Motorsports, Antron Brown), Wyakin Foundation (Davis Motorsports, Justin Ashley), Feeding America (Kalitta Motorsports, Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon) and East Texas Treatment Center (Torrence Racing, Steve Torrence). The Team Toyota Funny Car drivers compete for the following charities: A Soldier’s Child Foundation (Ron Capps Motorsports, Ron Capps), Feeding America (Kalitta Motorsports, J.R. Todd) and Austin Pets Alive (DC Motorsports, Alexis DeJoria).
The weather looks to be better in the Los Angeles region this weekend. While rains have washed any semblance of rubber from the In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip at Pomona’s Fairplex, the crack Safety Safari should have it ready for the start of sportsman competition on Friday morning. There is a single Friday qualifying session and two on Saturday for the Camping World competitors, with eliminations set to start at 11AM PDT on Sunday.
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