One of the worst things that could have happened for the NHRA Top Fuel field transpired last June when the tour rolled into Bristol, Tenn., for the Thunder Valley Nationals. A crowded schedule of two races in one weekend enabled driver Justin Ashley to get in a zone. 

There's a good chance lightning could strike twice. 

Ashley comes into next weekend's NHRA Arizona Nationals with a chance to win the rain-delayed NHRA Winternationals from Pomona, a Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, and the actual race scheduled at Firebird Raceway. Ashley is the defending champion from Phoenix, and if he can pull off the final round win from Pomona, it will make three in a row for that event. 

"It really is a great opportunity," Ashley said. "It's a unique opportunity. We have a lot on the line. This could be three NHRA Winternationals wins in a row for our team. It could be back-to-back NHRA Arizona Nationals wins for our team. On top of that, we have the Mission Foods challenge. 

"I don't know that we've ever actually gone into a national event and had every round from qualifying through race day be so meaningful and so important. Because it all starts in Q1, and if everything goes according to plan, we have the Mission Foods final in Q2, and then the Winternationals final in Q3 late in the day Saturday."

There's no pressure at all for the driver who has made a living at being brutal on the starting line. Read through the sarcasm of the statement, and one will see the youthful driver from New York's Long Island has a monumental challenge ahead of him. 

"All we have to do is turn on seven straight win lights, which sounds easy on paper, but it's such a difficult thing to do, especially with the depth of the Top Fuel field this year and how good it really is," Ashley explained. "You've already seen it this year. Only a few races in, so it's going to take a lot of toughness both physically and mentally from our team top to bottom to try and capitalize on every opportunity that we have."

Well, Ashley has been there, done that last year in Bristol, and came out smelling like a rose. From the moment Ashley rolls to the line in Friday's opening session, he will have to be in competition mode.

"I don't know that it's necessarily an advantage," Ashley said. "I will say this normally under normal circumstances: you go out into the first round on Sunday, and it's your first time really having something aside from qualifying on the line where you have to be the first across the finish line, so you're in that mindset, and it's the first time you're in that mindset all weekend. Whereas now, that mindset starts Q1.

"I don't know that it's necessarily an advantage, but I think there is something to be said about having the opportunity to already come Sunday, have been in that mindset, and been there at least once or twice before between the Mission Foods challenge and then obviously the NHRA Winternationals finals. So I don't know if it's an advantage, but I would certainly say it's something that's worth taking into consideration. I think it will be interesting to see how it all plays out."

For Ashley, the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge has been a godsend for his competitive nature. He won the qualifying/specialty race six times in 2024. 

"It was the first real serious opportunity that we had to get into race day mode on Saturdays and the day before," Ashley said. "For whatever reason, we won a Mission Foods challenge, and we won another one, and we won another one, and it just kind of kept rolling. And what it did was it helped our team to build confidence. It helped our team to gain more data and information. And also, it kind of helped to create that winning culture. All of that winning, whether it's national events, whether it's shootouts or whether it's the Mission Foods challenge, it all helps.

"You saw the conversion from success on Saturday in that challenge to success winning national events on Sunday. So it was a really unique experience, something now that we get to go around and do it again for the second time throughout the entirety of the year, at least if we do our job. So, it will be exciting. It will be fun. I think it's something that's really good for the fans, and I think it's something that they enjoy. I also think it's great for the teams because it gives us an opportunity to compete at a high level really throughout the entirety of qualifying and then throughout race day."



Ashley admits he doesn't need the first run to find out where he is with the tuneup, as the team's extensive notebook and a strong resource have him dialed in before the car even warms up in the pits on Friday. He believes wholeheartedly his tuning duo of Mike Green and Tommy DeLago have the situation well in hand. 

"We go to Phoenix to finish it," Ashley said. "We have different weather conditions, a different track surface, different time and temperature. So all of that is going to play a role. But it's funny; it just reminds me that we did this last year between Epping and Bristol, and then the first Top Fuel final I ever competed in was the first Top Fuel win I ever had in 2020. We made it to the finals, and then we didn't finish that round against TJ Zizzo something like 48 days later at the U.S. Nationals.

"I think a big part of that, to be transparent with you, is our relationship with Toyota Gazoo Racing North America. They're a really big help for us in terms of getting the data and information that we need from their engineering team at all these different racetracks. So we got that information in Pomona, and now we'll get that information to Phoenix. I think that has helped us a lot, and that'll continue to help us a lot transitioning from track to track. And then I think mentally, you just have to have a short memory. It's like a quarterback that throws an interception. No matter what happens, good, bad, or indifferent, you have to put the race behind you in the past and only focus on moving forward into the future.

"All we can do is control what we can control, and right now, that's being patient, waiting it out as much as we want to get this final round in, and knowing when the time is right, the opportunity will be there for us to capitalize on it."

In Pomona, the final round whittled down to Ashley and Tony Schumacher. It's a rematch of the final round from last year's Epping event, which Ashley won in Bristol. 

Over the offseason, Ashley's team was acquired into the new SCAG Racing team, and Schumacher remained with JCM Motorsports. There have been some who have tried to turn the transition into a rivalry, but as far as Ashley is concerned, he's not going to fake what some are trying to turn it into. 

The whole narrative is noise; at least, that's how he sees it. 

"I'm sorry to disappoint," Ashley said. "Here's the truth. I know that [rivalry] would be better for the sport. I know that it would be better for NHRA if there were some drama. But I have to be transparent, and I have to be honest with you; there is no drama. I have a lot of respect for Tony. I think he feels the same way about me and about our team. 

"Look, he's the winningest Top Fuel driver of all time. He's won championships. I grew up watching him win championships. I remember the run in Pomona as if it were yesterday. And then, he has a relationship with Mike Green.

"Obviously, some things happened in the offseason. We probably prefer to keep that a little bit closer to the vest than internal. But we're all on good terms. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tony and the kind of driver that he is. And like I said, I think that the feeling is mutual. And it's going to be an incredible, incredible final round for a number of different reasons, especially because the wait in between and it's going to add all that much-needed anticipation to it.

"But I think in terms of extra motivation or anything like that, a rivalry, there's no such thing because we're at the final round of the NHRA Winternationals. If you can't get up for that, you can't get up for anything, no matter who's in the other lane. So no matter what happens, I know both teams are going to put their best foot forward, and it should be a really good race."