The NHRA Countdown to the Championship is officially here and it was hard to top the action that took place during a picture-perfect weekend at Maple Grove Raceway.
From incredible performances, memorable storylines and a fanbase that had the facility buzzing at last weekend’s Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil, these playoffs are off and running in spectacular fashion. With the next playoff race coming in just a few days, here are five things we learned at Maple Grove Raceway:
EVEN SUBSTITUTE DRIVERS ARE WINNING RACES IN A WILD FUNNY CAR YEAR
OK, so Tommy Johnson Jr. isn’t your typical fill-in driver. He’s a top driver with 22 previous nitro wins, but it furthers the point that Funny Car is incredibly deep this year. He became the ninth different driver to win a race through 14 races and one we certainly didn’t see coming just a couple weeks ago.
But that’s how it goes in this wild Funny Car year, which is as unpredictable as it gets. The points lead changed hands for the sixth straight race and with Hagan (thanks to Johnson’s win in Reading) and Ron Capps five and 15 points behind John Force, respectively, it won’t take much for it to change again following this weekend.
Heck, let’s just keep this theme going for the rest of the year. This class has been simply phenomenal all year and that action won’t be stopping anytime soon.
THINGS GOT INTERESTING IN A HURRY IN TOP FUEL
Steve Torrence could very well run away with things over the next six Top Fuel playoff races. It wouldn’t surprise a soul and it seems to be the most likely scenario based on his 2021 and his ongoing reign of terror.
But at least for the moment, there’s a little drama after Justin Ashley won a pedalfest against him in the semifinals at Reading. That put him in the top four, while Torrence’s dad, Billy, picked up the win to jump five spots in the standings. He’s now third, though he shrugged off his championship chances racing against his son.
Steve’s gargantuan points lead disappeared with the Countdown to the Championship and after Reading, there’s work to be done. Brittany Force bowed out in the semifinals as well, but she closed to 12 points thanks to her qualifying dominance, putting three drivers within 55 points of the three-time defending champ.
WE’RE DESTINED FOR A GREG AND ERICA DUEL
At least it seems that way.
While there’s plenty of deserved talk about the young guns on the scene in Pro Stock, Greg Anderson and Erica Enders may have made it a two-horse race in Reading.
With five races remaining, nobody has been removed from the conversation, but a strong weekend from each has made them the clear frontrunners. Aaron Stanfield and Dallas Glenn are already nearly 100 points back from Anderson, who won in impressive fashion on Sunday, which already puts them several steps behind.
A lot can change over the next handful of races, but veterans Enders and Anderson strutted their stuff at Maple Grove Raceway. Enders trails Anderson, who tied Warren Johnson’s all-time wins mark in Pro Stock with his 97th victory, by 41 points and if that’s the duel we get over the next couple of months, nobody — except maybe a handful of Pro Stock rising stars — will be disappointed.
HARD WORK DOES PAY OFF
Thoroughly disgusted with his performance through the first two days at Reading, there was Steve Johnson on the starting line well before eliminations on Sunday morning. He was on his pit bike and spent upwards of an hour — if not longer — just going through the staging lights, working on technique and visualizing a winning day.
It was a true testament to the dedication to his craft and desire to turn things around and, boy, did Johnson ever get his weekend back on track. He won for just the second time in his career in the Countdown to the Championship and he has the lead for the first time ever in the playoffs.
Johnson winning in Charlotte — where we’ll be starting on Friday — was a wonderful story earlier this year, but following up with a playoff win amidst powerhouses like Matt Smith and Eddie Krawiec proves it’s much more than a feel-good story. Johnson is a legitimate championship threat on his four-valve Suzuki and he’s willing to put in as much work as necessary to stay in the hunt.
FANS WERE STARVED FOR ACTION AT MAPLE GROVE RACEWAY
Racing fans in the Northeast love their drag racing, but after going without a NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series race in 2020, they were starving for it this year and that was obvious by about noon on Friday.
Fans were already flocking into the historic facility by then and they just kept coming. The stands were packed all weekend, and Saturday and Sunday were especially loaded to the gills. Traffic wrapped around the track, eagerly waiting to get in almost the entire day on Saturday and they were uproarious in their support throughout qualifying and eliminations. The energy was electric and impossible to miss, and it made the event that much more special.