Well, that was interesting.
The first race of the Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship went according to nobody’s plan, with points leaders Justin Ashley, Ron Capps, Dallas Glenn and Gaige Herrera all bowing out early. Meanwhile, perennial dark horse Matt Hartford battled innumerable issues en route to a massive win in Maple Grove, Doug Kalitta and Alan Johnson finally made it happen and Robert Hight reminded us that he’s not going silently into the night.
In the sportsman ranks, we saw Tony Stewart score another win in Top Alcohol Dragster competition, and Sean Bellemeur back up his win in Indy with another dub in Pennsylvania. Plus, Dan Fletcher got the job done in Super Stock.
Oh, and the place was packed. Maple Grove Raceway was officially sold out on Saturday and had a helluva crowd on Sunday before the rain came.
MATT HARTFORD MEANS BUSINESS:
Matt Hartford and the KB Titan Team proved they’re willing to do whatever it takes to find success, including Hartford battling through an emergency appendectomy. Fresh off of back-to-back wins, Hartford is definitely going to be a contender in the Countdown. He is now the points leader in Pro Stock for the first time in his career, having to get past Greg Anderson, Camrie Caruso, defending world champ Erica Enders and his KB Titan teammate Kyle Koretsky in the final round to secure the win.
DOUGIE GETS IT DONE:
Doug Kalitta finally gets his 50th win in Top Fuel and first with Alan Johnson. What’s even sweeter is that team owner (and uncle) Connie Kalitta was there to watch it all go down. Doug’s been chasing this win since October 2020. What’s more, Doug was in his backup car after a wild incident that included his right rear tire exploding at the finish line during the final round of qualifying. Perhaps everything is coming together at the right time for the Mac Tools team.
ROBERT HIGHT CAME TO PLAY IN THE COUNTDOWN:
After struggling through the regular season, Robert Hight and his team seemed to have turned things around. First, winning the Pep Boys All-Star Callout at the U.S. Nationals and then again securing the win this weekend. Hight was all up in the points battle last year and isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the tough guys (and gal) in Funny Car.
JUSTIN ASHLEY IS NOT INVINCIBLE AFTER ALL:
Were we surprised to see Justin Ashley lose on a holeshot? The Top Fuel driver that’s touted as a “surgeon on the tree” fell to Tony Schumacher’s .025 light and a MOV of 0.0159 seconds (approximately eight feet). However, Ashley was no slouch on the Christmas tree and delivered a .045 reaction time. Ashley has challenged every Top Fuel driver to step it up on the tree, and now maybe the results are starting to show.
MATT SMITH MAKING MOVES:
Matt Smith is also a back-to-back winner after the completion of the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals. Formidable opponent (and perhaps now rival) Gaige Herrera exited race day early when Smith’s teammate Jianna Evaristo eliminated him in the second round. Herrera had the starting line advantage but spun the tire, which translated into an open door for Matt Smith. This might be one championship battle that comes down to the bitter end.
TONY STEWART IS THE REAL DEAL:
Even though Tony Stewart stated he doesn’t like racing on Mondays, he did pretty darn well for himself and the McPhillips team. Stewart got his first “Monday Nationals” win, avenging his final round loss to Madison Payne from Las Vegas 2022.
SEAN BELLEMEUR STRIKES AGAIN WITH KILLER B’S:
Sean Bellemer and the Killer B’s are out for a championship – and it shows. Carrying their momentum from the U.S. Nationals win, Bellemeur let it rip all weekend in his Top Alcohol Funny Car, just furthering his focus on his championship chase.
DAN FLETCHER FINDS THE WINNERS CIRCLE:
Dan Fletcher scored his 107th NHRA victory in Super Stock at Maple Grove Raceway. This Sportsman racing legend campaigns the single most winningest car in the NHRA – a Z28 Camaro that he inherited from his dad.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT:
The competition in Funny Car this year has been extremely close, but in the second round at Maple Grove, Robert Hight and Matt Hagan took it to the next level. Hight’s reaction time was a .059, running a 3.852. Hagan, meanwhile, was slightly quicker off the line with a .052 RT, and went 3.859. The difference to the thousandths of a second was .000. Hight’s actual MOV was .0001, or approximately 1 inch. An insanely small margin, especially considering Hight was running 327 mph, and Hagan an even faster 335 mph.
RAIN DELAYED MOMENTUM:
Tony Stewart said in his top end interview, “The rain that we had interrupts everything and gets you out of sync.” True; however, it seems like he was able to overcome it, and so were several other teams. Drag Illustrated Founder and Editorial Director Wes Buck also shared his thoughts on the matter, “I don’t think enough can be said about how much a rainout like that derails a team’s momentum.”
We won’t have to wait long for the next stop on the Countdown to the Championship since Reading was completed on Monday. Consider our Drag Racing Bracket Bonanza brackets busted this first weekend of the Countdown, as some of these wins were unpredictable.