Points leader Justin Ashley started the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs in impressive fashion at Maple Grove Raceway, powering to the provisional No. 1 spot in Top Fuel on Friday at the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals.
Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are also the provisional No. 1 qualifiers at the 16th of 21 races during the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season, and the first of six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Ashley put together a run of 3.687-seconds at 335.57 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Phillips Connect Toyota dragster at his home track, vaulting to the No. 1 position after struggling during the opening session. If it holds, it would be Ashley’s third No. 1 this season and fifth in his career. Seeking his first world championship, it’s already been a banner season for Ashley, as the points leader has six wins heading into the playoffs. But he’s only focused on the task at hand during the Countdown to the Championship.
“That was a great run for this Phillips Connect Toyota team,” Ashley said. “We didn’t have a great run in the first session. This is basically a home race for me since I am from New York and we have a lot of friends and family here. You want to do well to start the Countdown and this was a great start. That run felt really good and it was a great way to wrap up the first day of the Pep Boys Nationals.
“It was good to have fans congratulate us for being No. 1 in the Countdown, but we are putting that behind us starting with this race. We have six races to try and win this championship. It will be exciting and I am looking forward to driving this Phillips Connect Toyota Top Fuel dragster on race day here in Maple Grove Raceway.”
Defending world champion Brittany Force closed out the night with a strong 3.689 at 336.57 that puts her second and Doug Kalitta is third thanks to his 3.696 at 331.45.
In Funny Car, Bob Tasca III stole the show to close out qualifying, putting together an impressive blast of 3.874 at 334.90 in his 11,000-horsepower Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang. That puts Tasca on track for his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season and the 14th of his career, giving the veteran a pair of strong qualifying runs to open the Countdown to the Championship. Starting the playoffs in fourth, Tasca is right in the mix of championship contention for a second straight year and was eager to make a big move on Friday under the lights at Maple Grove Raceway.
“Every point matters right now, every run now through the end,” Tasca said. “I think we got five bonus points, and that’s big. But to be here at Maple Grove – the Koretskys are like family to us, this is the track I debuted professionally in my alcohol Funny Car. I’ve won here in my nitro car. We have great memories here, and to see what they’ve done to this facility, see these fans on Friday night, and run low E.T., it’s a lot of fun.
“I love being here, and a win here is critical. We’re a couple rounds out of first place, and a good weekend really changes the game for us as we march on in this championship. To do it, you have to go toe-to-toe with the best. You saw that Mustang banging heads with Robert Hight (and) I think you’re going to see a whole lot of that from now until the end of the year.”
Running right next to Tasca, Robert Hight went 3.879 at 329.34, which is good enough for second at the moment. Chad Green went 3.887 at 330.07 for third and points leader Ron Capps is right behind after a 3.888 at 335.65.
Maple Grove Raceway continued to bring out the best in defending Pro Stock event winner Erica Enders, as the defending world champion made the quickest run in both sessions and, ultimately, the quickest run of the season in Pro Stock with a standout pass of 6.494 at 211.13 in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro. Enders has repeatedly put up big numbers at Maple Grove Raceway over the course of her stellar career and that continued on Friday, making the first Pro Stock run in the 6.40s of 2023. As she chases her sixth career world champion, Enders made a strong impression on Friday, putting her on track for her third No. 1 spot of the year and 32nd in her career.
“That was good. Being able to secure our first win here last year changes that whole feeling of rolling through the gates,” Enders said. “We came off the trailer and went to the No. 1 spot that first session, and we nitpicked the run and felt like we could have gone high .48 low .49. We came back second session and did just that. I’m really proud of my team. We had plenty of pep talks going on last the week and just getting our minds in the right position, because these last six are the ones that matter.
“We just have to put our heads down and go to work. This is a position we’re extremely familiar with. This is my 20th year in Pro Stock and we’re battling for our sixth championship. My dad told me, make it count, make every single run count and don’t leave anything on the table, from reaction times, to shift points, to keeping it in the groove. It sounds simple, but it’s way more challenging than that. That’s our mindset, just be positive, put our heads down and go to work because we can do this.”
Troy Coughlin is currently second after going 6.605 at 210.21 and Aaron Stanfield took the third spot after the first day with a 6.507 at 211.46
Gaige Herrera made a major statement in his first career appearance in the Countdown to the Championship, shattering the track E.T. record in Pro Stock Motorcycle on both runs Friday, including an incredible 6.678 at 202.45 on his Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki to close out the day. Should that hold, Herrera, the points leader, would grab his ninth No. 1 qualifier in 10 races in the class this season, with the time just off the 6.672 he ran in Chicago earlier this year. It’s the third-quickest run of the season for Herrera, who was thrilled with how his bike ran to open the playoffs on Friday.
“I was kind of shocked it ran 6.67, but Andrew (Hines, crew chief) isn’t,” Herrera said. “He said all the conditions are there to do it. To come out and be able to get the provisional No. 1 qualifier in the start of the Countdown and get as much points as we can – all those little points add up – I’m happy with today.
“It’s just qualifying so far, but we’re off to a good start. This definitely takes some pressure off. I think everyone kind of flips a switch when the Countdown starts, and I kind of expected all the other teams to step up. For us to have that little step forward in front of everyone, I’m definitely happy with that and the whole team.”
Hector Arana Jr. is currently second with a pass of 6.747 at 201.85 and rookie Chase Van Sant ran 6.754 at 200.02, putting him third.
Qualifying continues at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.