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Kalitta Gets First World Championship; Hagan, Enders & Herrera Also Claim World Titles at In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals

Top Fuel veteran Doug Kalitta claimed his first career NHRA world championship on Sunday at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip, knocking off Leah Pruett in a winner-take-all final round, while Funny Car’s Matt Hagan gave Tony Stewart Racing its first world championship at the 58th annual In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals.

Erica Enders (Pro Stock) also secured the championship on Sunday at the 21st race of the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season, and the last of six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Gaige Herrera earned the Pro Stock Motorcycle world title on Saturday.

Kalitta powered to a Sunday-best run of 3.673-seconds at 334.98 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Mac Tools/Toyota dragster in the final round, driving past Pruett’s run of 3.720 at 326.16 to pick up his third win of the season. After six runner-up finishes in his 26-year career, Kalitta finished the job on Sunday to win a world title for the first time.

On a pressure-packed Sunday, Kalitta knocked off Dan Mercier, Josh Hart and Justin Ashley to set up an incredible final round with Pruett. Kalitta led wire-to-wire, setting off a raucous celebration on the starting line as the veteran had finally achieved the ultimate goal in the sport.

“It’s incredible the way the points thing worked out to come down to that last run,” said Kalitta, who won for the third time this season and 52nd time in his career. “I just stay focused. It was obviously a big round for us and it played out just perfectly. It’s just one of those deals get to the end of the track and I cannot believe these guys are cheering and high-fiving as I get around the corner because I missed seeing the win light.

“When we got to semis with the cars still in, you’re just wishing and hoping for the best really. This is one of the coolest places to run, with the museum and just the history of the NHRA, and I’ve heard all the stories back in the day with Connie (Kalitta), and this is just like the pinnacle for me. It’s hard to believe. I’ve always dreamed about this opportunity over the years and thanks to my guys for making it happen. I appreciate all the support I’ve gotten from the fans and we’re taking this trophy back home.”

Hagan clinched his fourth world championship in his 11,000-horsepower Dodge Direct Connection Charger SRT Hellcat during a wild second round on Sunday at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip. With Hagan, Robert Hight and Bob Tasca III separated by just 17 points entering raceday, all three won the opening round, but each lost during the quarterfinals. Tasca fell first, then Hagan and it came down to Hight’s matchup with Chad Green. But Hight also smoked the tires, handing the championship to Hagan.

It’s the fourth world title for Hagan, joining John Force, Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme as the only drivers to win four or more Funny Car world championships in NHRA history. To get there, Hagan was consistent throughout, picking up six victories and advancing to eight final rounds. He held the points lead for the bulk of the regular season and then got hot at a key time in the Countdown to the Championship, winning back-to-back races in St. Louis and Dallas to take the points lead for good. That proved critical during the wild turn of events on Sunday, one that gave Hagan his place in history.

“It’s just one of those things, you hate to have to stand there and watch someone go out to win a championship,” Hagan said. “That’s just not my style of racing and not how I want to win one. But it’s really about the body of work we did all year and coming in here and being ahead in points and being able to have that opportunity. I just can’t say enough about every single one of my guys that wrench on the car. They’re all coming back next year and everyone’s excited about that. Tony Stewart, to get his first championship out here in second year in NHRA, it’s unbelievable.

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“I think it speaks volumes to the group he’s assembled and the people we put around and the leader he is as a team owner and just as a guy. It’s unbelievable we were able to do that this year. It’s super special for me, and it puts you in a caliber of drivers, you look up and you go, ‘How is it possible, I’m not that good.’ I know I’m not that good because I’ve surrounded myself with people who are better than me. That’s the only reason I’m in this position. It’s pretty incredible.”

Erica Enders’ path to a sixth world championship in Pro Stock was simple on Sunday: simply win the opening round of eliminations. After qualifying third, the winningest female in NHRA history took care of business, knocking off Fernando Cuadra with a run of 6.502 at 210.80 in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro. It gave Enders her sixth world championship, much to the delight of the crowd, tying her with Warren Johnson for the second-most in Pro Stock history.

It was also a resounding bounce back for Enders, who struggled mightily to open the 2023 campaign. But Enders and her Elite Motorsports team turned things around at the perfect time, as she moved into the points lead at the halfway mark in the Countdown to the Championship and then added to her lead with victories in Dallas and Las Vegas. That put her in command and Enders finished with her fourth world title in the past five years and four victories this season. Her victory in Dallas also gave her the most wins by any female in NHRA history and a sixth championship will only add to her legacy.

“On the heels of a career-best season last year, anything is going to be challenging,” Enders said. “It took us seven races to figure out our issue and I owe my guys all my credit in the world. The message this year is tenacity and consistency, and digging through all of it prevailing when it matters. I have to thank my guys for that.

“It was a dogfight and I’m really thankful for the position we were in. When my guys’ back are against the wall, they perform and we execute and makes me so proud to be their driver. I think word that describes this year is tenacity. Every championship has its story and this season is another reminder of why you don’t give up. You doubt yourself and it’s digging yourself out that ditch and that’s what this season is about.”

Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Gaige Herrera clinched his first career NHRA world championship on Saturday at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip, wrapping up his dominant title run to close out qualifying at the 58th annual In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals. He also won the event on Sunday. 

“This is very special, it doesn’t feel real to be honest,” Herrera said. “The amount of stuff we’ve accomplished this year and then wrapping it up getting the championship and then making a run like that the last qualifier, it’s been an incredible season. I’m living the dream. Last year I was just out here trying to have a little fun and to get the opportunity to ride for the legends that I grew up watching race and looked up to, to be able to race with them and accomplish what we have, it’s very surreal. 

“Wrapping up the championship here in my hometown, this is something I’ll never forget, winning the championship in my first full season. There is a lot that has been accomplished this year, but this definitely tops it all. This is something I’ll always cherish and remember. You never can take anything for granted. The bike has been flawless all year. We set a lot of records and it just goes on and on. It’s crazy.”

The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series begins March 7-10 with the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

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This story was originally published on November 13, 2023. Drag Illustrated

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