2023 NHRA BETWAY CAROLINA NATIONALS- EVENT NOTEBOOK
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - SALINAS SCORES MILESTONE NUMBERS; STEWART’S McPHILLIPS TA/D TEAM DISQUALIFIED; HERRERA GETTING HIS GROOVE BACK, OUT-MANEUVERING SMITH; CAPPS TRYING TO TRADE PLACES WITH HIGHT AGAIN; HARTFORD MAKES CASE FOR FOUR QUALIFIERS
SALINAS GOES 300 - Thirty-one years after Kenny Bernstein broke the 300-mph barrier in the quarter-mile, Top Fuel owner-driver Mike Salinas hit the 300-mph plateau in half the distance Saturday in qualifying for the betway Carolina Nationals at Concord, N.C.
For running a 300.80-mph speed at the eighth-mile and becoming the first nitro-class driver to do so, Salinas earned the sought-after $30,000 bonus from Phillips Connect. The company offered the jackpot more than a year ago, last August 31 just before the 2022 U.S. Nationals.
“This is awesome. This is what it’s all about,” Salinas said immediately after exiting his Valley Services dragster. He credited crew chief Rob Flynn, assistant crew chief Aron Cave, and the Scrappers Racing team.
“We fired everything we had at it,” Flynn said, expressing joy that it stuck.
Salinas said he had come close to recording the 300 in the eighth-mile several times during test runs. And at Brainerd, according to announcer Alan Reinhart, Salinas vowed, “We’re going to do this.”
What’s more, Salinas shattered both ends of Brittany Force’s track records in grabbing the No. 1 qualifying position with his 3.647-second elapsed time and 338.00-mph speed on the zMAX Dragway 1,000-foot course. She had set the E.T. mark earlier this year at 3.651 seconds and the speed mark last September at 336.91 mph.
Jim Epler, Phillips Connect executive vice-president, broke the Funny Car class’ 300-mph barrier in the quarter-mile at Topeka. He told nhra.com last August that that “was a major accomplishment. Now you see drivers reaching this speed at just half the distance. It’s a true testament to the technology and the incredible crew chiefs that have taken this sport to the next level.”
Phillips Connect is planning to honor the first 10 drivers in either the Top Fuel or Funny Car category with membership in the “300 in the eighth-mile” club. The second driver to accomplish the feat will receive a $13,000 payout, and the third will pocket $9,000. The fourth through 10th drivers will earn $3,000 apiece.
Antron Brown followed Salinas in qualifying, and he clocked a 299-mph speed at the eighth-mile. “That was a heck of a run by Salinas,” he said. "All these cars are flyin’ this weekend.”
DAVID VS. GOLIATH - If anyone knows the story of David vs. Goliath, it's Mike Bucher.
Bucker, the #dragracingpreacher, qualified No. 14 in the Leverich Family Top Fuel dragster races No. 1 qualifier Mike Salinas in the first round.
Just coming to race this weekend was a test for Bucher, who battled the spiritual and mental decision. Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of his daughter Abigail from Leukemia. She was the eighth of his 14 children.
"I was originally going to leave Sunday and go down there and meet the team and work on the car a little bit," Bucher admitted. "But I just couldn't be away from my family and wife (Sheila). And so I just had no peace about going."
For good measure, Bucher leaned on faith and prayer for the finality of his decision.
"What I prayed for is, 'Lord, give me your peace and your direction," Bucher explained. "I really had no peace about going. So near Monday, it was like, I don't know. I needed to be here for the family on the 20th. But at the same time, I want to use Abby's life as a testimony. And I just feel like God's given me a platform to share. And so the team and everyone involved was still on board to go."
Sheila supported whatever Bucher decided, whether it meant staying or going.
Bucher is adamant his wife's wishes were most important, but when it came to God's will, that was most important.
"My struggle was I don't want to do anything without being in God's will," Bucher said. "I also will not race and put it ahead of my wife, kids, or the church. And Saturday and Sunday, I had no peace about leaving because I needed to be here for them."
When Bucher let go of the idea and admitted when he put it in God's hands, the picture became clearer.
"After I decided not to be gone all week, I just had this peace, and it just seemed like I needed to be here for the anniversary," said Bucher, who is the pastor of Calvary Chapel Church outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
Bucher used Wednesday evening's service to deliver a message about Abigail and how faith can help through the grieving process.
"I want to always use her life as a testimony," Bucher said.
If Funny Car driver Robert Hight didn't know what it was like to live in the shoes of Benny the Bomb, he did after Friday night's Q-1 session during the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMax Dragway.
Benjamin J. Koske, aka Benny the Bomb, was a drag racing novelty act that would blow himself up in a wooden box or a car.
Let the record reflect that Hight has no aspirations to follow in Koske's footsteps.
Friday night, when his Cornwell Tools flopper detonated shortly at the hit, it provided a feeling Hight would just as soon never experience again.
"It's something that you don't want to ever have happen, but you drive these things, things are going to break, and you're going to have problems - that was a big one," Hight said. "You always look at what could have been and the bright side of everything. And I'm much happier that it happened right there on the starting line than at 300 and some miles an hour."
One has to wonder, what does it feel like to blow up?
"This concussion just hits you right in the chest because it's all underneath that body," Hight said. "Unless the body leaves the car, all that pressure just stays right there, and it comes right back at you, hits you, and it disorients you for a split second. But when I hit the gas, it went left on me because the left side wasn't running, and the right side pushed it left. And so you can see in a lot of the pictures, I had the wheels turned to the right, and then it's boom. It was a big explosion."
The disorientation only lasts for seconds, Hight added. It's the nature of a Funny Car driver, a breed of driver some consider fearless. Fearlessness is described when a driver knows something could go wrong and still hits the throttle.
"Immediately, I was on the radio, and I said, 'Guys, I knew something was wrong with this thing," Hight explained. "And I could tell Jimmy knew something was wrong, too. He turned around and looked at the pipes, and we both thought the same thing: that it was just a hot cylinder, one that was a little lean and started banging a little bit. Little did we know all the push rods on the left-hand side were melted. And when I stood on the gas, over boosted it and just blew it, blew it up."
The issue was traced to an oil delivery issue, which in turn led to pushrod failure.
Hight said the incident didn't injure or hurt him; it just did something else.
"It gets your attention," Hight added. "Just a big old gust of wind, like the biggest wind you could ever have, just right on your chest, just focused right there. That's it. And whoa."
STEWART DISQUALIFIED – In the first setback for popular NHRA newcomer Tony Stewart, the sanctioning body disqualified him and his first-place McPhillips Racing team from the betway Carolina Nationals because of a rule infraction.
Stewart had qualified fourth in the Top Alcohol Dragster class Friday night. But early Saturday, the sanctioning body announced that during a post-run inspection, officials determined Stewart’s car was using a purchased ignition part that did not meet Tech Department approval.
McPhillips Racing issued the following prepared statement early Saturday evening that explained its position:
“McPhillips Racing prides itself in being honorable in all of our racing competition. Prior to Tony (Stewart’s) Round 1 of eliminations at the Carolina Nationals, NHRA confiscated the magnetos on Tony’s Top Alcohol Dragster. It was brought to our attention that the magnetos, which we had purchased used from another team, were found to not be within NHRA’s tolerance. The part had been unknowingly modified prior to us purchasing it. The part is not required to be certified in our Top Alcohol category. We regret that Tony was unable to compete in the Carolina Nationals due to this violation. The team is solely owed [owned] by McPhillips, and Tony has no say in the purchase of parts. McPhillips Racing accepts full responsibility and going forward, we will be more vigilant in inspecting and testing used parts that we purchase.”
The ruling did not affect Stewart’s McPhillips Racing teammate Matt Cummings or either of Tony Stewart Racing pro drivers, Leah Pruett and Matt Hagan.
Stewart will receive no points for this race, and it will be counted as one of his 10 events.
The punishment spoiled an otherwise uplifting weekend for Stewart. His TSR nitro team announced Friday an extended partnership with Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage before Funny Car’s Matt Hagan zipped to the provisional No. 1 qualifying position and maintained that through the early Saturday session. Pruett also had staked herself and her Top Fuel dragster to a berth in the top half of the field.
HERRERA RISES AFTER STUMBLE – Gaige Herrera lost his Pro Stock Motorcycle lead at the previous race, after an iron-fisted grip on it at every other race this year. After all, he brought a 30-4 race-day record into zMAX Dragway, thanks to a six-for-seven performance in finals rounds in the class’ first 10 races. And he found his mojo Friday.
The Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki racer, No. 1 qualifier at nine of 10 bike events, seized command of the order once again Friday. He used a 6.731-second elapsed time at 200.41 mph that held up through Saturday’s first session.
But typically, Herrera didn’t regard it as a great run, nothing close to the 6.710-second zMAX Dragway-record E.T. he set this April at the four-wide race.
“I put it in third gear and the front of [it] started washing out. So basically, the front wheel wasn’t the same speed as the real wheel. It was sliding. Able to run through it – went a .73, so we’re happy with that.”
After securing his 10th top-qualifier position in 11 races, Herrera said again, “I’ve got the motorcycle to beat.”
FUNKY FINAL AT READING DRAWS ATTENTION – Looking back at crafty Matt Smith’s ambush of year-long Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader Gaige Herrera last weekend at Reading, Pa., announcer Brian Lohnes relished the audacity the six-time and reigning champion executed his strategy to win the race and climb to the top of the standings.
Delighted by the juicy daring and the kismet of it all, Lohnes told podcast co-host Tony Pedregon that it “was like a diabolical, dastardly plan for Matt Smith came together in perfect harmony.”
Jianna Evaristo, the young Scrappers Racing rider who has improved this season as she has been tutored by Matt and Angie Smith, took advantage of No. 1 qualifier Herrera’s bobble in Round 2, lost to Smith. Smith eliminated Evaristo to set up a final-round match against another of his riders, hired veteran Chip Ellis.
In that final, Ellis – a smart, skilled, and respected motorcycle racer – recorded a suspiciously super-late .400-second reaction time, guaranteeing Smith the crucial victory.
“And,” Lohnes said, “there are maybe 75 percent of the people who are salty about it, and 25 percent of the people can admire this guy actually crafted a way to win and he won.”
Pedregon said, “Well, if you get to know Matt Smith like we have and you see the pattern, we should have not expected to see anything less than what we saw. What’s really amazing about him is – and this is hard to do ... There’s a reason Matt Smith has won [six] championships. If he has to get down and wrestle you in the mud, that’s what he’s going to do. That’s just how he was brought up. That’s the way he races.
“I’d like to have him on the show. I’d like to put him on the spot and ask him what that conversation was in that final round,” Pedregon said, “because you know my position about throwing races. There is a rule that exists. That’s going to be a tough conversation. I think the one thing you don’t want to do with this sport is ..."
“Invalidate it,” Lohnes broke in to finish the thought.
Pedregon said, “That’s the worst thing that can happen. If it happens again, the pressure’s going to be on – and not just the pressure from us ... from the viewers. You have to answer to fans, and at some point, you’re going to have to answer to your sponsors, too, because they want to win within the rules.
“But,” he said, “you cannot take that away from Matt Smith. He has won the last two races. How he won it ... Gaige slipped up a little bit. But this guy is there to catch that ball and run it back to the end zone. The question is, can he continue to do it? I think it’s very interesting that he’s willing to bring a third bike out. If it’s a blocker, then it’s a blocker. But it cannot be a diver.”
Lohnes laid out what Herrera has before him if he is to win a championship in his first full season.
“So we know right now what Gaige Herrera has done; what’s he’s done basically every race this year. He has put a gap on the field by hundreds of seconds. And what we have learned on that is that’s only good enough to get you a good spot in the first round on Sunday. You actually have to get the bike to the finish line four times on Sunday. Gaine spun the tires at Maple Grove, opened the door for Matt. And he [Smith] drove his bike and his big rig and a fleet of other bikes right through the pack.”
LOOK, MA! WATCH THIS! – Ron Capps is hoping to show off for his mom, Betty Capps. “I’m bringing my mom to that race for the first time. It’ll be the first time she’s ever gone to an event at zMAX. So, looking forward to my mom hanging out and getting to spend the weekend with her,” he said.
Even more so, the NAPA Toyota Supra Funny Car driver, the three-time and current class series champion and three-time winner of this race (2012, 2018, 2022), wants to flip the situation on rival Robert Hight. Capps entered the Countdown as the top seed, but Hight defeated him in the semifinals at last week’s playoff opener – by a margin of .0001 of a second, or about one inch. With that, Hight took the points lead, leaving Capps three points behind him. Ironically, Capps beat Hight by three points for the title last year, a fact the irked the vocal Hight all winter long.
So this race, which produced one of two Countdown victories for Capps, is a pivotal one for the reigning champ.
“Hopefully ‘Guido’ [crew chief Dean Antonelli] and our NAPA AutoCare team can have another solid weekend like we did in Reading. We’re going into the race as the defending event champions, and it sure would be nice to keep racking up the points,” Capps said.
Meanwhile, Hight hasn’t been talking much about Capps this weekend. His focus seems to be Matt Hagan, who’s atop the leaderboard in his JHG Dodge Charger Hellcat. Hight said Friday that “I don’t think we had anything for Hagan’s .82.” And even after posting his third-quickest pass of the season, Hight reiterated, “We’re pushin’. We don’t have anything for Hagan yet.”
Nevertheless, Capps is Hight’s closest rival in the standings, although Bob Tasca III, yet another stout racer to contend with, clocked a career-best 3.836-second elapsed time Saturday to move ahead of Hight on the ladder.
Capps was second Friday, and Hight rode out a massive engine explosion. After Q2, Hight bounced back with a 3.849-second run, and Capps slid back to No. 7.
Saturday it was Capps’ turn to experience a strong engine detonation. It happened as he approached the finish line.
Afterward, he said, “I think that was my fault. It was running good, and I didn’t want to shut it off. I’m very disappointed in myself. I think I just overdrove the thing.
“It’s a bummer. We might have to change chassis. We don’t know yet,” Capps said. “Runnin’ good. I was having to really drive it. At certain times you just say, ‘Alright, maybe shut it off,' but it’s running so good you don’t want to shut it off and find out it was going to run better.”
He said he had the utmost faith in his team to have a car ready for him to take into eliminations Sunday.
“We’ve got a car ready to go,” he said.
Maybe Capps can regain some of his zMAX magic Sunday. He set the zMAX Dragway Funny Car speed record this spring at the four-wide event, at 335.57 mph.
GIVING ’EM ‘WHAT FOUR’ – Pro Stock points leader Matt Hartford said what a lot of racers and probably even more ticket-buying fans wanted to say.
“Yesterday we should have had two qualifying sessions, not one. A lot of people don’t like how outspoken I am about different subjects. But in the Countdown, NHRA, you got to have four. You got to have four qualifying runs in the Countdown,” Hartford, team owner-driver of the Total Seal Chevy Camaro, said.
“This is a professional class. This is a professional sport. If there’s ever a time to say, ‘We need four runs at every event,’ it should be for the six races of the Countdown,” he said.
Hartford spoke during a rain delay at zMAX Dragway: “Hypothetically, what if this rain wasn’t going to clear up today? That means you’re going into eliminations with one run. That’s not where any team – and I don’t care which class you’re in – no team should be in that position. It could happen. But if you have four, the chances of that happening are less; diminished.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - BIGGEST WINNERS, LOSERS FROM READING REGROUP; TAFC’S TIGGES SENT TO HOSPITAL AFTER CRASH; HIGHT’S FUNNY CAR EXPLODES;
WHO'S HOT, WHO'S NOT - It’s too early in the NHRA Countdown to determine who will end up in the title conversation by November at the Pomona, Calif., finale.
But clearly, the Pep Boys Nationals at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway last weekend – which launched the six-race playoff – produced some who were a hit and some took a hit.
Among the biggest winners from Reading were Steve Torrence and Tony Schumacher, who didn’t win the Top Fuel trophy, and Funny Car owner-drive Bob Tasca III, who broke through the Robert Hight-Ron Capps-Matt Hagan roadblock to the rest of the field. Event winners Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Matt Hartford (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) brought momentum into Friday’s start of the betway Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.
At this second Countdown race, the top seeds – the regular-season leaders – are out to regain their supremacy. Justin Ashley (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Dallas Glenn (Pro Stock), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) lost their lead in the standings. Ashey, Capps, and Herrera dropped to second place, but Glenn tumbled to fourth place. Matt Hagan took a couple of steps back in his pursuit of a fourth Funny Car championship.
Here’s how they stand after one Friday qualifying session at zMAX – along with an explanation of Fred Tigges’ Top Alcohol Funny Car accident and Tony Stewart Racing’s big news:
KALITTA TURNING ADVERSITY INTO ADVANTAGE – Maybe the most joyful and relieved racer at Maple Grove Raceway just four days ago was Top Fuel’s Doug Kalitta. He was happy that he continued his excellent qualifying performance this season, landing among the top four starters 10 times – but he wanted to win. He knew how – he had done it 49 times before, but he had been trying for No. 50 since the 2021 St. Louis race. But he broke his unwelcome streak, beating Steve Torrence in the Reading final for his 50th victory. With that, he not only became the 15th racer in NHRA history to win 50 times, but more relevantly, he improved from sixth place to third in the standings.
And he did it with a dragster that was brought out from the hauler and prepped on the eve of eliminations.
Something caused one of his rear tires to shred during his final qualifying run, and in turn that damaged the rear wing and chassis of his Mac Tools Dragster. So the crew resorted to its back-up car, which does not have a canopy like the primary car did. In eliminations, Kalitta registered four consecutive 3.60-second elapsed times for the victory.
“The canopy car we have – we kind of tore that thing up,” Kalitta said. “So we’re going to stick with this (back-up) car, which is definitely not going to hurt my feelings. Even if that thing wasn’t hurt, we’d probably still run this car. Alan [co-crew chief Johnson] was going to make the other car run just as well as this back-up car. It’s just a crazy coincidence we drug that thing out of the trailer and it’s doing what it’s doing. This car is probably about 30 pounds lighter [without the canopy], so I’m sure that doesn’t hurt anything. I’m just glad Alan’s happy, Brian [co-crew chief Husen] is happy, and my guys are happy.”
After Friday night’s run, Johnson said of the reserve car Kalitta called his “faithful” dragster, “We’re plenty happy with this one. It’s taken a year and three-quarters to get this thing in the shape it’s in. Hopefully we can keep it going and make a charge at the championship.”
That would be Kalitta’s first after an NHRA-leading five runner-up finishes.
“This will be a big momentum opportunity for us going into the next five [races],” Kalitta said, “and we’ll definitely carry it as far as we can. We’ll keep our heads down and obviously keep trying to hit the .60s and hit the tree as hard as we can. We’re definitely hoping to have a good run at the championship this year, and it looks like we have a pretty good opportunity, for sure.
“You just go up there for each round. It’s all about collecting round-wins at this point,” he said. “Each time you go up to the starting line, it’s a new opportunity. We want to stay towards the front. Qualifying is huge, and we’ve been qualifying up towards the front. So it can give you a little better opportunity to let things settle in on race day. Hopefully we can keep that up, but it’s drag racing – you never know what’s going to happen. I obviously have a great group of guys and great people behind me like Mac Tools, Toyota, Revchem, SealMaster and Future Energy Solutions, and getting that win was huge for all of us. Hopefully we can all just settle in and keep doing our jobs. There’s a lot of rounds left, so I just hope we can keep going rounds and be there at the end.”
Curiously, Kalitta said, “It never hurts to have a thrash. That’s what I always say. You’re about ready to roll up for the finals but have to do some crazy engine change or something like that – that’s what going to our back-up car kind of reminded me of. It really just shows the talent and the fortitude of my guys, being able to bounce back like that. They had that thing ready, and I’m super-proud of my guys. That’s probably the biggest thing. A good ol’ thrash every now and then, and that’s what we had.”
He's still on a roll. He ran a 3.665-second E.T. at 333.61 mph in Friday’s lone qualifying session for the provisional No. 1 spot in the order.
TORRENCE: ‘GAME ON’ – Steve Torrence, who lost the final-round match-up Reading but regained the points lead, declared, “It’s game on.” And he indicated that he knows that’s what displaced Justin Ashley and a handful of other racers probably are saying, as well.
“Justin, Doug [Kalitta] and Leah [Pruett] are right behind us, and none of them has won a championship. So they’re real hungry. They want it so bad they can taste it, and that makes them dangerous,” the four-time champion said. “Our advantage is experience. These CAPCO boys have been there before and won before. No surprises. They know exactly what it takes to be champions.”
The disappointment of making an outstanding – commanding – run at his first title still haunts Torrence when he thinks of how Brittany Force aced him out on the final day of the 2017 season.
“That was a punch to the gut,” he said. “We dominated all season, won Indy, won the Traxxas Shootout, won the regular season – but then it all went away. In the end, it was the best thing that happened to us, because none of us ever wanted to feel that way again.”
And he made sure no one could do that to him the next season, sweeping all six Countdown races in unprecedented fashion and winning the next three championships to boot. In 2018, Torrence finished 404 points (20 racing rounds) ahead of Tony Schumacher. So today he said, “Four hundred points or four points, it doesn’t make any difference. As long as you’re ahead at the end, it all pays the same.”
He’s 12th in the tentative order overnight, with two more chances Saturday to improve before fields are set for Sunday eliminations.
SCHUMACHER ON ‘CUTTHROAT TIME’ – Vaulting from 12th place into ninth with a semifinal showing at Maple Grove last weekend, Tony Schumacher is ready to pour on the coals in the same way he did when he won six consecutive Top Fuel championships and eight overall.
“We’re getting down to cutthroat time with just five races left in the season,” the SCAG Power Equipment Dragster driver said before running 3.7 seconds flat to grab the No. 4 spot in the provisional line-up Friday. “Right now, we’ve got to make moves. Our SCAG Dragster performed so great last weekend in Reading. I’ve been saying all year long we’re going to get it figured out. It’s not a matter of if, but when. We have a lot of confidence going into this weekend, and we all feel really good about these last few races of the year.”
Crew chief Mike Neff said following Friday’s pass, “We were hoping for a .699.” So that hints that Schumacher’s car has more in it for Saturday and race day.
Schumacher has won this race twice, in 2008 and 2014. He has 550 events and a class-record 86 victories in hand.
ASHLEY NOT PANICKING – Six of Justin Ashley’s 11 career Top Fuel victories have come this season, and he has led the standings for virtually all season. But he traded places at Reading with Steve Torrence and found himself No. 2 entering this weekend.
The even-keeled Ashley put the discouraging news in perspective: “Our Phillips Connect Toyota team performed very well at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals in Reading last weekend. We came up just short in a close race but gathered a lot of data and information that we can apply in Charlotte. We’re looking at each round in its own sphere and trying to regain our number one position in points as a result.”
He said, “Our approach is going to stay the same throughout the entirety of the Countdown, regardless of the results. We are in this position for a reason. We have a process and routine that works well for us. Mike Green, Tommy DeLago and the team are focused. We have had a quick and fast race car at zMax Dragway the past two years, and I feel confident that we can continue that trend. Everyone on this team works really well together, and it shows on the racetrack. We are going to continue concentrating on ourselves and finding ways to improve.”
HIGHT’S CAR BLOWS UP – Following his Reading triumph that gave him the Funny Car lead and knocked Ron Capps off the puck, Robert Hight said, “We’re on a good roll right now. But we have to stay humble.”
His own Cornwell Tools Chevy Camaro made sure he stayed humble Friday night. It delivered a massive explosion even before he passed the Christmas Tree in the only qualifying chance of opening day on the Concord, N.C., 1,000-foot course.
“All good,” he reported at the top end of the racetrack when asked if he’s feeling all right after the fiery engine concussion. “My feelings are hurt a little bit. Trying to go out there and make a good run,” he said.
Acknowledging Matt Hagan’s low-qualifying pass of 3.825 seconds at 333.49 mph, Hight said, “I’ll be honest – I don’t think we had anything for Hagans’ .82. That was pretty stout. We were probably trying to push for an .85, something in that range, which would have been very respectable.
“After we did the burnout and we were just getting ready to put the body down, I heard it. And it sounded like a hot cylinder, like it needed more fuel,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’ll drive it, and downtrack if it isn’t right, I’ll lift.’ That way it [wouldn’t] throw the rods out. I didn’t think it was something like this.”
Hight said, “It had to be a valvetrain failure or something to blow up like that that fast.”
Before action began Friday, Hight said, “Last weekend was great, but it could have easily gone another way.” And it did Friday night. But his team knows how to rebound.
Even before this incident, Hight said, “This Cornwell Tools team has to keep working hard. This is the toughest Funny Car has ever been, and it’s going to take major, major work to win this championship. I said it before, but I think we’ll need three or four wins to win the championship. We have one down, and I’d give us an A+ for last weekend. But we’ve got five to go, and we have to put last weekend behind us.”
HARTFORD’S PATH FULL OF SURPRISES – Matt Hartford took the No. 8 spot in the Pro Stock class’ provisional order Friday night. That might not be the place anyone would expect the U.S. Nationals winner and Reading winner to wind up at the next race. But Hartford, who won those races, respectively, from the No. 1 and No. 15 positions, proved he can win from any starting spot – and in spite of all kinds of trying circumstances.
His Total Seal Chevy Camaro, which he argues has been the best car this year (while contending that Dallas Glenn has been the best driver throughout), has been known to give him fits before complying and carrying him to those two key victories. He and his Eddie Guarnaccia-led crew chased a gremlin, even taking the car off site in Pennsylvania this past weekend during a qualifying day to test it privately. All that stress came on top of the fact that Hartford was recovering from an emergency appendectomy mere days before (between thr Indianapolis race and the Countdown kickoff).
So who knows in which direction Hartford is traveling this weekend? Everyone – probably including him – will find out Sunday when eliminations unfold. For now, though, he’s the points leader, having overtaken Glenn and being in that position for the first time in his career.
TASCA PART OF TITLE TALK – Bob Tasca, owner-driver of the Motorcraft/QuickLane Ford Mustang, improved only one position from the close of the Indianapolis race to the end of the Reading event. But that move up is significant, even though he had a semifinal finish at Maple Grove. The fact is Tasca has advanced to the semifinals or better (with a victory at Topeka) at three of the past four races. During that span, he has started no worse than fourth on the ladder, and he led the field at Reading. Tasca, who’s seeking his first championship, barged ahead of three-time champ Matt Hagan following the Reading race. And he definitely is part of the title talk – something he promised the Ford Motor Company he would achieve if it returned to drag racing.
Funny Car’s Matt Hagan – who has won four times in six final rounds this year – was one of the racers who lost the most at Reading. He slipped from second to fourth place in the standings. But Hagan reasserted himself Friday night at zMAX Dragway, leading the way in Funny Car with a 3.825-second, class-best 333.49-mph performance.
“All greatness comes from God,” Hagan said after exiting his car. “It’s just a great day.” It started out with news that Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage (JHG) has extended its partnership with Tony Stewart Racing as primary sponsor for Hagan’s Dodge Charger Hellcat Funny Car for a minimum of six events in a multi-year agreement.
“What a lap to lay down there,” he said. “It chattered a little bit early, and I thought, ‘Oh, no. It ain;t goin’ to make it.’ And it tried to pull me to the wall. When they’re on a run like that and they’re diggin’ and floatin’, they’re a handful. And that’s why we love driving these things.”
It’s quite a contrast from five days before when he posted the second quickest run of the Pep Boys Nationals (3.859 seconds) – but lost in the second round to Robert Hight, who posted low E.T. of the meet (3.852). Hight’s margin of victory was .0001 seconds – one 10,000th of a second, or about one inch.
Of that costly defeat, Hagan said Friday, “That last race, it did hurt me. Robert Hight, hat’s off to you, brother. But hopefully, we’ll come for him, know what I mean?”
Team owner Tony Stewart said he has known all along that crew chief Dickie Venables and driver Hagan have “been the right people.”
TSR, JHG BLEND ALPHABET SOUP – Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) and Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage (JHG) have formed an NHRA alliance that benefits the Funny Car team of three-time champion Mat Hagan. Tennessee-based JHG has pledged to sponsor Hagan’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat for a minimum of six events in a multi-year agreement that will start in 2024.
JHG already had been on board with TSR as primary sponsor for two events in 2023 – this event and the July Sonoma, Calif., race.
Next year, JHG will serve as Hagan’s primary sponsor at the Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.; the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn.; the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn.; the betway Carolina Nationals; and the Texas FallNationals at Ennis, Texas. The red car design will feature JHG on the hood and side panels of Hagan’s 11,000-horsepower car. For all other races, JHG will be featured in an associate partner position.
JHG Owner and President Jason Johnson said, “We are very excited to be sponsoring Matt Hagan’s TSR Funny Car and continue our growing relationship in the upcoming seasons. Our continued sponsorship with Elite Motorsports, and now the new Mountain Motor program only add to that. Tony [Stewart] and Richard [Elite Motorsports owner Freeman] both have great race programs and are the future of this sport.”
Formed in 2021, JHG brings a passion and flare to the automotive industry. They aim to inspire, drive, and celebrate progress, the company said. JHG includes Jason Johnson’s car collection, which features more than 200 sought-after vehicles, from classics to hot rods and supercars. The vehicles are driven to and displayed at events by Johnson and his team with the goal of growing interest and keeping car culture thriving. Johnson’s history in the industry began with Mather Auto Dismantler, Mather Mini Trucks and U-Pull It in Northern California. He later played an instrumental role in the growth and success of Copart, Inc., a global provider of online vehicle auction and remarketing services. JHG also serves as a primary sponsor of Elite Motorsports in the Pro Stock class.
Stewart said, “We’re excited to have Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage expand their partnership with our race team. 2023 has been a great season with them, and we’re looking forward to all we can accomplish together in the years to come. We share the goal of wanting to keep the car culture thriving for generations.”
Hagan was equally supercharged: “It’s so exciting to have Jason Johnson come over to TSR as a multi-year partner. It speaks volumes on what he’s wanting to accomplish out here in the motorsports world. He’s changing the sport by making it a full event to come to by bringing bands out to the track and bringing out new people. Jason’s car collection is unbelievable, and it’s really fun watching his desire to grow the sport. He’s heavily involved in Pro Stock, and we’ve been able to develop a close relationship over the last few years. He’s a great guy, and his family is great. I love their energy and want to get them a lot of wins in the years to come.”