The 2021 season isn’t over yet, but we can see the finish line on the horizon which means it’s not an exaggeration to call the NHRA Midwest Nationals one of the most important events of the year. Not surprisingly, this year’s edition delivered a lot of drama and excitement. With three races down and four to go in the Countdown to the Championship, here are five things we learned from the St. Louis event.
SOMETIMES, SECOND PLACE ISN’T THE WORST PLACE TO BE
All three pro winners; Steve Torrence, Matt Hagan, and Erica Enders came to St. Louis ranked second in the standings and each did themselves a huge favor by winning the event. Torrence has led the Top Fuel standings for most of the season but took a step back a week ago in Charlotte. Clearly, the reigning and three-time champ didn’t enjoy the view so he whipped up his ninth win of the season to move back in front of Brittany Force.
Hagan was just five points behind leader and teammate Ron Capps when he arrived in the Gateway City and he immediately went to work gaining qualifying points. By the end of the weekend, Hagan had won his 38th career national event and perhaps more importantly, he stretched his lead over the rest of the field to 59 points. That’s certainly not insurmountable, but it likely makes for a good night’s rest until the chase resumes in Dallas.
Pro Stock winner Enders didn’t pass incoming leader Greg Anderson, but she did apply maximum pressure with her third-straight Gateway win. Both drivers are gunning to win a fifth season championship and one of them is likely to get it. With 16 rounds of racing remaining, they are separated by just 17 points.
THE ROAD TO THE FUNNY CAR TITLE GOES THROUGH MATT HAGAN
Just two weeks ago, the Funny Car championship was very much up for grabs with seven or eight drivers legitimately in the hunt for the Camping World title. Mathematically speaking, that may still be the case, but with his win in St. Louis, three-time champ Hagan has made the road a bit tougher for everyone else.
Hagan turned a five point deficit into a 59 point lead following his latest win, which comes just two races after he was sidelined by a bout with COVID-19. Hagan’s performance in St. Louis means John Force is now 72 points back while Cruz Pedregon trails by 99 and J.R. Todd is 115 points out of first. Even with his runner-up finish, Bob Tasca III is 120 points behind Hagan. It’s entirely possible that one or more of these drivers could get hot over the last four races and make a run at a title, but it’s equally possible that Hagan has another solid outing and begins to close the door.
ERICA ENDERS LIKES RACING IN THE GATEWAY CITY
Honestly, Erica Enders can win just about anywhere so maybe their three-year win streak at World Wide Technology Raceway isn’t such a big deal. Then again, there are some tracks that favor certain drivers and that certainly applies to the Elite team and St. Louis.
Enders has now won 12-straight rounds in St. Louis dating back to the 2019 season. Interestingly enough, she hasn’t really had the dominant car at any of those events, but her driving has been top-notch. If you like stats, you’ll love what Enders has accomplished in St. Louis. Since the track returned to the NHRA tour in 2012, she’s been to six final rounds and won five of them. She’s also qualified fourth or better seven times with two poles in 2014 and 2019.
During her media center interview following her latest win, Enders noted that her history with the Gateway city goes back to the days well before she ran Pro Stock. Enders along with fellow Texan Steve Torrence used to race their Super Comp dragsters in St. Louis and they’re quite familiar with the track and surrounding areas.
JOSH HART IS IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Okay, so we learned this last week in Charlotte when he won for the second time this season, but Top Fuel rookie Josh Hart put together another solid outing by driving his Ron Douglas-tuned R&L Carriers dragster to the semifinals. Hart didn’t’ qualify for the playoffs, largely because he had to skip the Brainerd race but if he had, he’d be in the thick of the points battle.
In St. Louis, Hart defeated Justin Ashley in round one and then delivered a potentially crushing blow to Brittany Force’s championship hopes in the quarterfinals with a holeshot win. Force and Hart also raced in the Charlotte final with the same result. Hart was surprisingly subdued following his breakthrough win in Gainesville, but he’s since become more animated and has a budding rivalry with the Monster team.
“That was almost as good as winning the race,” Hart said. “I just had to prove I could do it and that Charlotte wasn’t a fluke.”
In addition to causing chaos in the Top Fuel battle, Hart is also running neck and neck with Pro Stock runner-up Dallas Glenn for the Rookie of the Year award.
AARON STANFIELD IS A NATURAL TALENT
Aaron Stanfield is still a young man and doesn’t have nearly the experience that some of his competitors have, but he’s already got a resumé that most experienced racers would be jealous of. Let’s first consider that Stanfield’s father, Greg, has won 13 national events to go with his four Super Stock world championships. At this point in his still young career, Aaron has 16 National event victories. The third-generation Stanfield has won in Super Stock, Top Dragster, and Pro Stock, but he’s done most of his damage in the Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown.
In St. Louis, Stanfield locked down his second-straight Factory Stock championship in the best way possible, with a final round win against Leonard Lottig. Stanfield came into the event with a sizable lead over comparably talented David Barton and clinched the title when Barton dropped his round one race against Scott Libersher.
Stanfield didn’t spend much time celebrating. He knuckled down with a string of low 7.8s to win his seventh career Factory Stock event, and first since the season-opener in Gainesville. For good measure, Stanfield won his opening round Pro Stock race against Kenny Delco and put up a solid fight in the quarterfinals against eventual winner Erica Enders. He’s currently No. 5 in the Pro Stock standings.