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Ashley, Hagan, Coughlin Jr. & M. Smith Win Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge; B. Force, Hagan, Enders & Arana Jr. Qualify No. 1 In Denver

Top Fuel points leader Justin Ashley won the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge for the fifth straight time on Saturday, picking up the victory in the specialty race over Austin Prock in front of another sold out crowd at Bandimere Speedway as part of the 43rd and final Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals.

In the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge, Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Troy Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won the bonus event in Denver. Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Hagan (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) all qualified No. 1 at the 10th of 21 races during the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season. It was also the second straight sellout crowd in Denver.

Ashley went 3.883-seconds at 313.95 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Phillips Connect/Toyota dragster to defeat Prock in the final round, winning the bonus event for the fifth time in 2023 and earning 15 bonus points for the Countdown to the Championship in the process. Ashley, who qualified 11th for Sunday’s raceday, will now look for his third double-up weekend of the year.

“It has been a dream season so far,” Ashley said. “It’s been unbelievable and we’ll take a win any way we can get it. It’s such a fun event and it really helps us get ready for raceday. It’s packed here and the fans are excited.

“You try not to think about the championship this early in the year but how can you not? These championship points are so critical. Now that we’re at 15, it really is like a dream come true. When they reset the points, everything starts from scratch, but those 15 points are critical. We’re ecstatic with all these Mission #2Fast2Tasty wins.”

Force wowed the sellout crowd during the final qualifying session, making the fastest run ever at Bandimere Speedway with a pass of 3.724 at 337.33 in her 11,000-horsepower Monster Energy dragster. It set the track record and gave the defending world champion her fourth No. 1 qualifier this season and 46th in her career. Doug Kalitta moved to second in qualifying with a 3.779 at 322.42 and Antron Brown’s 3.783 at 327.90 puts him third heading into raceday.

“We’re really proud of our run,” Force said. “I love this racetrack and I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. We want to leave our mark here and to run 337, I’m proud of this entire Monster Energy team. We want to turn on four win lights tomorrow, that’s what we really want to do.”

Hagan became the fifth different Funny Car driver to win the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge on Saturday, getting past Bob Tasca III in the finals with a run of 4.511 at 192.82 in his 11,000-horsepower Dodge Direct Connections Charger SRT Hellcat. That puts him halfway to what would be a perfect weekend at his sponsor’s race and Hagan has already shown what he’s capable of on Thunder Mountain.

His run of 3.895 at 324.59 from Friday handed him the No. 1 qualifier for the first time this season and the 50th time in his career, adding to his momentum in front of a packed house. Hagan opens eliminations against Chris King and is focused on Sunday while also taking a minute to celebrate his victory in the specialty race.

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“I think we’re putting on a pretty good show for Dodge – No. 1 qualifier, 50th No. 1 for me and winning the (Mission) #2Fast2Tasty Challenge,” Hagan said. “It’s so much going on, it’s incredible. It’s just super special. It’s a real emotional day and I’m proud of my guys, proud of (crew chief) Dickie Venables and all the work they put in. This cannot be done without the team that I have. We have a special team at (Tony Stewart Racing). They just do a great job.

“(Our combination) has proven itself again up here and I feel like we have a great combo again for tomorrow. Rolling into raceday, I feel very, very confident about tomorrow.”

John Force qualified second with his 3.920 at 323.74 from Friday and Tasca’s 3.943 at 315.12 put him third.

Pro Stock’s Troy Coughlin Jr. claimed his second victory in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge and was perfect on the starting line in the process, posting a .000 reaction time and a run of 6.949 at 196.42 in his Chevrolet Camaro to defeat Aaron Stanfield, who went red. Coughlin won the first specialty race of the season in Phoenix and picked up another in front of a capacity crowd in Denver, earning three playoff bonus points and the bonus purse. Coughlin beat points leader Dallas Glenn in the opening round and then got past his Elite Motorsports teammate to finish off a memorable day on the mountain.

“Being triple-zero, that’s not something I’m really set up to be,” Coughlin said. “It’s fun, don’t get me wrong – it’s a cool stat afterwards. But when it clouds up, you just get in there and you can really crush the tree. 

“Winning this gets you into race mode. You win and it’s exciting, but you almost have to get over it pretty quickly and get back into race mode just like you were this morning. You really have to know when to turn it on and turn it off. It’s mental toughness, but that’s exciting.”

Enders moved a step closer to her first career victory on Thunder Mountain, as her pass of 6.919 at 195.70 in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Camaro from Friday gave her the No. 1 qualifier. It’s her second No. 1 this season and 31st in her career. Defending event winner Matt Hartford stayed second with a 6.919 at 195.34 and Glenn took third with a 6.921 at 195.19.

“I’m feeling really good,” Enders said. “It’s always challenging to come up here on the mountain. Pro Stock cars, we’re down quite a bit of horsepower and our shift points come at different increments than normal. Having said all of that, I feel like we performed pretty awesome this weekend and we’re going to try to continue that tomorrow.”

Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Smith continued to impress on Thunder Mountain, beating Steve Johnson in the final round of the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge with a pass of 7.150 at 196.98 on his Denso Auto Parts Suzuki. It was Smith’s first appearance in the specialty race and he made the most of it, knocking off Arana Jr. in the first round before the matchup with Johnson, his longtime rival. Smith is the defending event winner in Denver and now has a chance for a double-up in the last race on Thunder Mountain.

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“We came up here with a new bike this year, a Suzuki, and I’ve never run one in my whole life up here,” Smith said. “But we made our best time of the weekend last run and I’m very happy with everything. We’ve got it running better – still not where I want it to be, but we are close to where it needs to be. 

“It’s kind of been frustrating because I’ve had Angie in it, I’ve had Jianna (Evaristo) in it, I’ve had Chip Ellis in it, but I was never in it. I had everybody around me in it, but I never got to be in it. So for me to get in it and win it on the first time is pretty good.”

Arana Jr. easily hung onto the No. 1 spot thanks to his track record run of 7.047 at 189.36 from Friday on his GETTRX Suzuki. That handed the most recent event winner his first No. 1 spot of the season. Rookie Chase Van Sant stayed second with a 7.121 at 188.52, and points leader Gaige Herrera moved up to third with a 7.123 at 187.39.

“I feel awesome. We have a great bike,” Arana Jr. said. “Our GETTRX Buell is mean, she’s bad to the bone. I just need to do my job and get her down the track. We should be good. We’re going to take it one round at a time and enjoy our last passes we get down this beautiful track here at Bandimere speedway. How awesome is it to be able to get the last No. 1 and set the track record the last time here. I’m so excited. What an awesome way to end it.”

Eliminations for the 43rd and final Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway begin at 11 a.m. MT on Sunday.

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