On Friday night Top Fuel point leader Justin Ashley and the Phillips Connect Toyota Top Fuel dragster ran to the top of the field with a strong 3.687 second pass at 335.57 mph. Today at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals they held off a furious charge from several drivers to officially qualify No. 1 at the first race of the Countdown playoffs. Ashley earned three qualifying bonus points for his Friday night effort and moves into race day with a 33-point lead over Steve Torrence.
“We feel great. Obviously qualifying well is important,” said Ashley, who has three No. 1 qualifiers in 2023. “Once race day comes, it’s kind of all behind you. You’re trying to put yourself in the best position to win the race on Sunday and I feel like we accomplished that. We went down the track three out of four times. We feel good about the position that we’ve put ourselves in coming into this race and for the remainder of the countdown.
Ashley and the Phillips Connect Toyota Top Fuel team made three consecutive quality runs after their first run of the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals was too aggressive for the Maple Grove Raceway track. The ability to bounce back and set themselves up for success on race day has become a hallmark for the Maynard Ashley Racing team.
“I think it’s a good problem to have when you don’t make it down the racetrack in the first session and you look around like, ‘Wait, that’s weird. Why did that happen?’ We have four sessions and that’s a part of the race,” said Ashley, a six-time winner this season. “You’re not going to make it down the racetrack every time. But one of the amazing things about (crew chiefs) Mike Green and Tommy DeLago is how consistent they are. They seem to always find a way no matter where we qualify 1 or 16 or somewhere in between. We have to make sure the car goes up and down the racetrack and they have a very methodical, smart approach the way they tune this race car.”
Tomorrow will be the first of six playoff races for Ashley and his Phillips Connect team which also receives backing from KATO Fastening Systems, Lucas Oil, Mac Tools, Toyota and Chip Lofton and Strutmasters.com. Last year Ashley raced to the final round and set himself up to take over the points lead at race number two. This year with the point lead Ashley is keeping everything in perspective.
“Inherently there’s more pressure because the playoffs have started but it doesn’t change our approach at all,” said Ashley. “Our mentality is to continue to do the same thing that we’ve been doing since the start of the year because there’s a reason we’re in the position that we are now. We take every race the same whether it’s the playoffs or the regular season. I feel confident in the group that we have and I feel confident that we’re not going to let the pressure get to us.”
The race will start tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. ET, one of the earliest start times in recent NHRA history. The series is looking to complete the race before rain moves into the area. Teams will warm up between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. tomorrow looking to get a handle on one of the coolest track of the season.
“I mean, everyone’s in the same circumstances with the 9:30 a.m. start,” said Ashley. “The guys have to get up a little bit earlier, me included, and other than that the weather is going be really good. It’s gonna be good tomorrow no matter what time we run, but the fact it’s even earlier and we have a 9:30 am Eastern time start. Just means it’s gonna be even faster.“
The Pep Boys NHRA Nationals pre-race will begin at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow and the first pair of Top Fuel dragsters will fire off at 9:30 a.m. ET. The race will be broadcast nationally on FOX and fans should check their local listings for start time.