It's the first Countdown to the Championship for reigning NHRA Rookie of the Year Justin Ashley, but the young standout is off to a great start, making the best run of his weekend in his opening round win against veteran Doug Kalitta. In a great side-by-side race, Ashley kicked off Sunday's eliminations at Maple Grove Raceway with a run of 3.703-seconds at 328.62.
Entering the Countdown to the Championship seventh in points, it was a huge boost of momentum for Ashley, who had just two round wins in his past three races. Knowing he'll need a big weekend to open the playoffs, Ashley got off to an ideal start.
"It's big. Every round is important. The guys have been doing a great job and the track is just awesome. Justin has been doing a great job driving, so we're looking forward to a long day," crew chief Mike Green said.
Of course, nothing will be easy and Ashley will actually give up lane choice to Clay Millican in the second round after Millican went a blistering 3.698 in his victory. There's also huge matchups galore in the second round, as No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force, who made the quickest round of the weekend with a 3.655 in her bye run, meets Leah Pruett, and Shawn Langdon takes on Billy Torrence.
Well, it's safe to say John Force and his team have it figured out. After struggling through each of the qualifying sessions this weekend, Force picked a perfect time to lay down a stellar run.
In his 2,000th round, Force tied No. 1 Cruz Pedregon with the quickest run of the weekend, going 3.875 at a weekend-best 334.65 to slip past Indy winner Tim Wilkerson, who went a strong 3.892. Wilkerson had plenty of momentum and qualified third, but Force had other ideas on Sunday. After not making a full pass in any of the three qualifying runs, Force looked picture perfect to open the Countdown to the Championship.
"(Crew chief) Daniel Hood and this team lit a fire under this old man. I got myself back in the game and we went down the racetrack, so we're excited," Force said.
Hood noted their tinkering this weekend finally stuck and Force suddenly looks like a genuine contender to win on Sunday, which didn't seem like the case less than 24 hours ago.
Thanks to Paul Lee, we've got our first Countdown to the Championship spoiler. Lee, who is not in the playoffs, looked strong at the perfect time, sending championship contender Bob Tasca III home early thanks to a small holeshot. Lee's 3.911 stood up against Tasca's 3.906 thanks to a .077 reaction time.
Tasca entered the Countdown to the Championship third in points, but that will take a major hit with six races remaining. J.R. Todd, Robert Hight and Matt Hagan (thanks to Tommy Johnson Jr. filling in for him this weekend) will all pass Tasca, who will drop to sixth in points leaving Reading.
For Lee, it's a great turnaround after some recent struggles, spurred by a strong fun in the final qualifying session where the team looked to get things together.
"We've been behind the last few races. We had a good run in Q3. It seems like we race Bob first round every race, and he's a great racer and a champion. We're just glad to get by this round," Lee said.
Added crew chief Jim Oberhofer: "Paul is a great driver. That Tasca team is great and he's tough to beat. We're not in the Countdown, but we're happy to be going rounds."
Angie Smith pulled the rabbit out of her helmet in the opening round of Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations, getting a lucky break in her first round matchup with Andrew Hines.
She ran into trouble on her bike, coasting to a run of 8.428, but was handed a win when Hines went red by a mere .001. It's a crushing loss for Hines, who continues to battle through a number of issues on the bike. He seemed to have taken some positive steps during the final qualifying session on Friday, and went 6.929 in the opening round, but was a tick too early to end his day.
Smith, who entered the playoffs eighth in points, will have a huge chance to take full advantage when she takes on Hines' teammate and U.S. Nationals winner Eddie Krawiec in the next round.
For the first time this weekend, Brittany Force didn't have the best run of the round. After doing it all through qualifying and during the first round of Top Fuel eliminations, Justin Ashley stepped up with a stout run of 3.697 to beat Clay Millican's 3.81. Ashley has simply gotten better during each run and it's been impressive to say the least.
He'll likely have to take another big step in the semifinals if he wants to beat points leader and three-time defending world champ Steve Torrence. The other semifinal will feature Billy Torrence, who went 3.719 against Shawn Langdon, and Force, who still impressed with a 3.704 to easily dispatch Leah Pruett.
Tommy Johnson Jr. was relaxed earlier this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway, noting he was in a no-pressure situation filling in for Matt Hagan to kick off the Countdown to the Championship with Hagan still sidelined with COVID-19.
Of course, that's not really true as Hagan will get the points earned by Johnson as he races for a second straight world title, and by the time eliminations rolled around, Johnson was eager to win as anyone in the field. He's now halfway there after dispatching Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the second round with a run of 3.892.
He'll face J.R. Todd in the semifinals with the chance to really make an impression as a stellar sub.
"It's such a great car and this team does such a great job," Johnson said. "I was relaxed earlier this weekend and there really wasn't any pressure on me, but that competitive spirit comes out and now you just want to win."
The other semifinal will feature teammates John Force and Robert Hight matching up. Force again turned heads by going 3.861 in the second round, making the quickest run of the weekend.
It's safe to say Troy Coughlin Jr. is ready for his first Countdown to the Championship appearance in Pro Stock.
The rising star has been dynamite on the starting line in the first two rounds, going .007 in the opening round and adding a solid .026 in the second round to keep Aaron Stanfield at bay in a huge matchup of championship hopefuls.
He'll have to be close to perfect in the semifinals, too, as Coughlin will take on points leader Greg Anderson, who who had the quickest car in each of the first two rounds. He went 6.585 to slip past Matt Hartford in the second round.
The other semifinal features defending champ and No. 1 qualifier Erica Enders meeting rookie Dallas Glenn.
It was a Torrence who took out No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force, but not the one many expected, and that was only the half of a surprising semifinal. Billy took out Force with a run of 3.725 at 328.46, making a clean run while Force had a cylinder out nearly the entire way, slowing to a 3.777.
It nearly set up a father-son matchup, but Steve Torrence got into all kinds of trouble against Justin Ashley, who recovered from early tire smoke to advance to the finals. He smoked the tires early in the run, but recovered and chased down Torrence, who pedaled it twice but didn't have enough at the finish line, as Ashley's 4.08 was enough to get past Torrence's 4.16.
"Justin did a great job there," crew chief Mike Green said. "We overestimated the track a little bit, but Justin and this team are doing a great job. We'll go back and see if we can get a win."
Welcome to the Funny Car bracket car semifinals, as the semifinals featured all four cars running 3.90. It was a thoroughly impressive display and Tommy Johnson Jr. and John Force were the duo who advanced to the final round.
Force and teammate Robert Hight ran identical 3.909, but Force had his car staged deep, like he normally does, and was first off the starting line to advance to the final round. Force will leave Maple Grove Raceway with the points lead, but after his turnaround Sunday following his struggles in qualifying, he certainly wants a win.
He'll have to get through Johnson, who went 3.902 to squeak past Todd's 3.905. All those points go to Matt Hagan, which is good news for the defending world champ, but Johnson most definitely wants the victory.
It's the heavyweight matchup almost everyone wanted in Pro Stock, as Greg Anderson and Erica Enders are set to duel again. Enders, the No. 1 qualifier, will look for her first career win at Maple Grove Raceway after beating rookie Dallas Glenn in the semifinals with a 6.602. It was actually a better run than Anderson's 6.614, as he got the jump on Troy Coughlin Jr. (.026 to .028) to get the victory. Enders won in Norwalk in a great final round in June, and Anderson will look to exact revenge as he looks to tie Warren Johnson for the most wins in Pro Stock history.
The winner will also leave with the points lead.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Steve Johnson has clearly found something, vaulting past Angelle Sampey with a 6.804, advancing to the finals and giving himself a chance to leave Maple Grove Raceway with the points lead. He'll take on Eddie Krawiec, who ran 6.906 to defeat Matt Smith. The defending champ's bike ran into trouble and slowed to a run of just 187 mph.