Antron Brown won’t start the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship playoffs with the Top Fuel points lead. That honor goes to Justin Ashley on the strength of six wins and a series of spectacular performances during the regular season.
But nobody enters the Countdown to the Championship – and this weekend’s opener, the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway – with more momentum than Brown, who heads into the playoffs on the strength of back-to-back wins in his 11,000-horsepower Matco Tools/Toyota dragster. That includes victories in Brainerd and at the U.S. Nationals in Indy, bumping Brown up to third in points.
Looking for his fourth career world championship, Brown trails Ashley by just 44 points, with four-time world champion Steve Torrence sandwiched in between at 30 points back of Ashley. With a host of standouts right behind Brown, including Leah Pruett and defending world champion Brittany Force, the veteran and 74-time event winner knows the Countdown will be a challenge. But an immediate win right of the gates this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway – and a third straight overall victory this year – would be a strong statement to start the playoffs.
“This whole team, we’re just getting stronger, and the longer we go and the more we fine-tune it, the better we get,” Brown said. “You’re going to have to give it every ounce of what you’ve got this year. That’s what it’s going to take to win. We’re going to keep working, keep trying things to get better. We know how this Countdown works, so you’ve got to show out. We’ve lost some really close rounds (this year), but we’ve got to keep pushing and keep after it, and it’s starting to swing our way. We finished second last year and we want to do one spot better this Countdown, but it’s going to be tough.”
Austin Prock (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Joey Gladstone (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won last year’s race in Reading, which will again be broadcast on the FOX broadcast network and Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including eliminations coverage starting at either 2 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday on FOX, depending on local listings. It is the first of six playoff races, and the 16th of 21 events during the 2023 NHRA season and Brown is again peaking at the perfect time.
He won for the second straight year in Indy, but opens the Countdown to the Championship in a better place than last season, where Brown started the postseason in sixth. In the loaded Top Fuel field, that can make a major difference, especially also going against the likes of veteran Doug Kalitta, Mike Salinas, Clay Millican, Josh Hart and defending event winner Prock.
Brown, who originally hails from the New Jersey area, has also always enjoyed racing at Maple Grove Raceway. The fan-favorite facility is one of the quickest and fastest tracks on the NHRA tour and Brown has two career Top Fuel wins at the track (2015 and 2016). Both of those victories ultimately led to world championships, which certainly is the goal this year as well. Brown, though, knows it’s a tall mountain to climb, especially with the way Ashley and his team has performed in 2023.
“That team is on fire and it’s definitely the team to beat for the championship, hands down,” Brown said. “It’s an incredible team and we’ve all got our work cut out for us. But I know our team is deadly and if we keep up and keep working, we’ve got as good as a chance as anyone. We’re excited to get back to Maple Grove Raceway and we’ll have a lot of family and friends from (New) Jersey rooting us on. We’re coming off two great wins and we just want to keep that momentum going. We’re gelling at the right time of the season and we’re still hungry to chase another championship.”
Funny Car’s Ron Capps takes a 24-point lead into the playoff opener at Maple Grove Raceway, with defending event winner Hight just 38 points back. Others to watch include Bob Tasca III, J.R. Todd, John Force, Alexis DeJoria, Chad Green, Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon.
In Pro Stock, Enders will look to defend her event win and start the chase for her sixth championship on a winning note. She currently trails points leader Dallas Glenn, who has four wins this season, by 32 points, with Indy winner Matt Hartford just 25 points back. Other standouts include Troy Coughlin Jr., Aaron Stanfield and Greg Anderson.
Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Gaige Herrera enjoyed a dominant regular season, winning six times, but opens the playoffs with just a 29-point advantage over Indy winner and defending world champ Matt Smith. The rest of the talented field includes Hector Arana Jr., Angie Smith, Eddie Krawiec, rookie Chase Van Sant and Steve Johnson.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, as well as action in the Flexjet NHRA Factory Stock Showdown category and Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Pro Stock. After nitro qualifying, fans can enjoy a thrilling show from “NitroMike” and his “Walking Tall” P.T. Cruiser Wheelstander.
Fans are invited to the Nitro Alley Stage all weekend, which will help create a festive atmosphere leading into Nitro Alley. The Nitro Alley Stage will be the main entertainment hub in the pits when the Camping World Drag Racing Series competitors are not on the track, hosting Nitro School, meet and greets and much more. As always, fans get a pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. They can see their favorite teams in action and servicing their hot rods between rounds, get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers, and more. Fans can also visit NHRA’s Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create an exciting atmosphere that includes interactive displays, merchandise, food and fun.
Race fans at Maple Grove Raceway can enjoy the special pre-race ceremonies that introduce and celebrate each of the drivers racing for the prestigious Wally on Sunday and includes the fan favorite SealMaster Track Walk. The final can’t-miss experience of any NHRA event is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes, where fans are invited to congratulate the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals event winners.
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2 and 5 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 15 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 17. Television coverage includes qualifying action on FS1 at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday, 12:30 p.m. on Sunday on FS1, and then eliminations on FOX at 2 or 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday, depending on local listings.
To purchase tickets to the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, fans can visit www.maplegroveraceway.com. All children 12 and under are admitted free in the general admission area with a paid adult. For more information on the NHRA, please visit www.nhra.com.