The NHRA Countdown is racing to the midpoint with the NHRA Midwest Nationals, the third of six NHRA playoff national events, this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway. Justin Ashley and the Phillips Connect Toyota Top Fuel dragster powered by Vita C Energy have established themselves as the team to beat opening the Countdown with back-to-back runner-up finishes and a move from third place to first in the Top Fuel standings. Entering the last race in Charlotte Ashley had a seven-point lead and at the end of the weekend the third-year driver and team owner had extended that lead to 43 points thanks to a No. 1 qualifier effort and three round wins on Sunday.
“We had a great weekend in Charlotte and gave ourselves a chance to win the race,” said Ashley, who has now raced to ten final rounds in his young career. “We would’ve loved to turn on our fourth win light of the day on Sunday but each round is seemingly tougher than the next during the Countdown. We performed well and our Toyota teammate Antron Brown performed better. Every round is an opportunity to learn and get better.”
Ashley, who finished fourth in Top Fuel last season, has been at the top or near the top of the Top Fuel class all season. He opened the year with a win at the Winternationals and picked up another national event victory at the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tennessee, on Father’s Day weekend. Runner-up finishes in Houston and Epping buoyed the team throughout the regular season. The Phillips Connect Vita C Energy team closed the regular season on a hot streak of semifinal finishes recording five over the final six races to position the team third in the standings coming into the Countdown.
The final round appearance with a No. 2 qualifier at the Pep Boys Nationals in Reading moved him into the points lead and last weekend as the No. 1 qualifier he defeated Alex Laughlin, Torrence, and Doug Kalitta before facing Brown in the final round. Taking on three Countdown competitors on race day showed the 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year there would be no easy path to his first championship.
“All season it has been a battle and now in the Countdown the stakes are even higher,” said Ashley. “You have to bring your A game every round because you are facing multi-time champions, race winners and some of the most talented teams in the sport. Dustin Davis has put together a great group led by crew chiefs Mike Green and Tommy DeLago that continually rise to the occasion.”
The Davis Motorsports operation along with Justin Ashley Racing has built a strong foundation that has continued to evolve with the addition of primary sponsor Phillips Connect at the beginning of the season. A three-race program was lengthened to a full season commitment that was further extended to 2023 and beyond with a major announcement at the U.S. Nationals over Labor Day. The stability of sponsorship combined with added experience has positioned Ashley as a legitimate championship contender if not the front-runner with four races remaining.
“These next few races before the World Finals are a great chance for teams to position themselves well for a chance at the title in Pomona,” said Ashley. “I believe there will be a handful of teams in contention for the world championship chance on the last day of the season. It’s very exciting for all involved on and off the racetrack and I fully expect our Phillips Connect Toyota Vita C Energy team to be in the conversation. This is a big challenge but our team is up for the task.”
Ashley has earned two No. 1 qualifiers this season, ironically both at zMax Dragway, but his Phillips Connect team has also started an additional nine races from the No. 4 position or higher. The consistency in qualifying has given the team an advantage throughout the race weekend and into race day.
“We have been fortunate to make good runs in qualifying that have not only earned us bonus points but puts us at the back of the pack in the later qualifying sessions,” said Ashley. “The later we run the more time Mike and Tommy have to evaluate what is happening on the track and they have so much experience it is a real advantage. I know when I get strapped in the dragster it has the capability of making very quick runs. As a driver, that is a great feeling.”
Heading into the Midwest Nationals for the third time in his career Ashley will be looking to bounce back from last season’s upset in the first round when he was the No. 7 qualifier but did not advance to the quarterfinals. It was a minor hiccup in a strong first effort in the Countdown for Ashley.
“I am looking forward to getting to St. Louis and keeping this momentum,” said Ashley. “Three races in a row to start the playoffs really builds the excitement. World Wide Technology Raceway is a great facility and the leadership there has done an amazing job. I know it will be packed all weekend and we just want to put on a good show for the fans.”
The Phillips Connect Toyota Top Fuel dragster powered by Vita C Energy will be in the last pair of Top Fuel dragsters on Friday night when conditions will be perfect for quick and fast runs. Ashley and his team will have two more qualifying runs on Saturday before final eliminations begin at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. FS1 will broadcast the race nationally.