Throughout the NHRA regular season Justin Ashley and the Phillips Connect Toyota team were focused on consistency and excellence with the goal of entering the Countdown as the No. 1 seed. This weekend Ashley, who secured a category-leading six regular season wins, will start the six race playoffs as the team to beat and with the largest lead in the Countdown era thanks to team’s success in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge specialty races. Ashley will have a 31-point cushion over the No. 2 seed going into the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway.
“We accomplished everything we wanted to in the regular season but that is behind us now,” said Ashley, whose previous best playoff seed was No. 3 last year. “We wanted to go into the Countdown as the No. 1 seed and collect a large number of Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge championship points. We feel good about that but understand that at this point in time our focus is solely on being successful in Reading.”
Ashley finished the final four races of the regular season with two wins and two semifinal finishes. The 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year won back-to-back in Sonoma and Topeka before racing to the final four in Brainerd and Indianapolis, losing to eventual winner Antron Brown at the biggest race of the year. Ashley’s seven final rounds and six wins in the regular season are both career-best marks and have the fourth-year team owner and driver confident but cautious.
“If you choose to be overconfident, this sport will humble you very quickly,” said Ashley. “Every Top Fuel team on the property can win the race. That’s why we believe the best approach revolves around constant improvement and being the best version of ourselves that we can be. Our Phillips Connect Toyota Racing team is incredible and works tirelessly to win both on and off the racetrack. As we head into the toughest six races of the season I am proud to be a small part of that group.”
Going into the Countdown Ashley will have a 31-point lead over the second-place team thanks to 21 points earned in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge. Steve Torrence was second best in the Saturday specialty race competition earning 11 points, so Ashley netted a 10-point advantage at the end of the regular season. The past few seasons have seen championships decided by three points in Funny Car last year and by three points in Top Fuel in 2019.
“I have to thank Mission Foods for sponsoring the #2Fast2Tasty Challenge,” said Ashley. “It created meaningful racing for the teams, fans and drivers. Every point is critical whether they come from round wins, qualifying points, or the Mission Foods Challenge. So, I cannot express the importance of adding another 21 points to our total. This championship battle will be tight and everything matters.”
Starting the playoffs at Maple Grove Raceway for the third season in a row has Ashley feeling good considering he has raced to the final round in both of his appearances at the quick and fast track nestled in the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania. Last year as the No. 2 qualifier Ashley defeated Jeff Chatterson, Doug Kalitta, and Mike Salinas before dropping a close race to Austin Prock. The year before that he started the race as the No. 6 qualifier and outran Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican and Steve Torrence before losing to Billy Torrence in the final.
“We have had a few good races at Maple Grove Raceway and it’s generally a very fast track,” said Ashley, who has two No. 1 qualifiers this season. “The key will be to get two good runs on Friday in qualifying and then we can start focusing on getting ready for race day with the remaining two qualifying runs. Mike Green and Tommy Delago work so well together and I consider myself very fortunate to work closely with them and our entire team. We will be ready for any kind of track conditions, including those that may present an opportunity to join the Phillips Connect 300 MPH to the 1/8 club.”
Throughout the season Ashley has been mindful of balancing his schedule between sponsor appearance, fan engagement and on-track excellence. His marketing partners including KATO Fastening Systems, Lucas Oil, Strutmasters.com, Toyota and Mac Tools have all highlighted his on-track success as well as his growing popularity amongst NHRA fans. Ashley spends time with Junior Dragster drivers on Fridays of each race and has been an active participant in numerous fanfest events. The championship contender knows that the balance is necessary to grow his Maynard Ashley Racing team’s success.
“I always felt that when you are busy at the track it means you’re doing something right,” said Ashley. “The key is to find balance. We have a great team and our partners all know what it takes to win. The best part of the day is running well and then coming back to a hospitality area full of guests and spending time with the people that make it all possible. Our partners are the reason we are in the position that we are today.”
The Phillips Connect Toyota Top Fuel team will be on track on Friday for two qualifying runs at 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. with two more qualifying runs on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Final eliminations will start on Sunday September 17 at 10:30 a.m. ET. The race will be televised nationally on FOX.