Championship battles heat up as the Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series returns to Houston Raceway Park for the annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals presented by Pennzoil
With four races in the books, the 2021 Camping World NHRA Drag Racing season is beginning to take shape, and while it’s still early, there is already a sense of urgency for the teams that came into the season with heightened expectations, that have yet to be fulfilled. The same could be said for the pro racers who have already delivered victories, as they look to maintain momentum as the season heads into the summer months.
In an ironic twist, there are some tracks that haven’t been able to host an NHRA event in nearly two years, yet Houston Raceway Park crowned champions six months ago during the COVID delayed 2020 SpringNationals. Originally scheduled as a three-day event with a single Friday qualifying run, this race has been shortened to two days with two qualifying runs set for Saturday and final eliminations on Sunday.
In Top Fuel, Steve Torrence is fresh off a dominating win at last week’s NGK NTK Four Wide Nationals in Charlotte and he won the companion Four Wide race in Las Vegas earlier this season. The three-time and reigning Top Fuel champ was also a runner-up at last year’s Houston race, a loss that is especially galling for someone who values a win in his home state of Texas as much as anywhere else.
While Torrence has been dominant at times with his Capco Contractors dragster, there has been plenty of parity in the Top Fuel class at recent events. Top Fuel rookie Josh Hart accomplished a rare feat when he won in his class’ debut in Gainesville while three-time champion Antron Brown helped put the slump of 2018-19 well behind him with a victory in Atlanta, a hard-fought win that comes just a few months after he won the final event of the 2020 season in Las Vegas.
The list of drivers who have not won a race this year, but are expected to, includes teammates Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon, as well as Mopar-backed Leah Pruett, along with Brittany Force, Mike Salinas, Clay Millican, and last year’s rookie of the year, Justin Ashley.
One driver who has plenty of reasons for optimism is Force, who not only made the quickest run of last weekend’s Charlotte event with a 3.66 but also claimed back-to-back wins in Houston in 2018-19 in her Monster Energy dragster. Kalitta shares a similar rate of success with a pair of Houston victories in 2015-16 while Pruett, who is also competing in the Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown, won the 2017 SpringNationals.
Even before he won last week’s Charlotte event, John Force had to be among the favorites to win in Houston simply because he’s got a long history of success in the Lone Star State. Of his 152-career wins, Force has earned seven of them at Houston Raceway Park, but none since 2002. Force’s record in final rounds is 7-2, which means that when he gets to the money round here, he almost always delivers the goods.
Force’s teammate, three-time champion Robert Hight, has had a great car at almost every event this season but has been held out of the winner’s circle. Hight also has a solid resumé in Houston with three wins in five final rounds, so there is a better-than-average chance the trophy leaves with the JFR team this weekend.
Although the Four Wide race did not feature the result he was looking for, Bob Tasca III has every reason to feel great about this season since he’s got back-to-back wins in Las Vegas and Atlanta. Tasca has not been past the quarterfinals in his last three appearances in Houston, but in this case, past performance should not be an indicator of future potential.
Tasca’s lead in the Camping World NHRA Funny Car standings is a scant 17 points over J.R. Todd and just 31 over John Force, so he’s going to have to turn on a few win lights in order to maintain the lead.
Todd won the season-opener in Gainesville and has also performed well in the two four wide races which helps explain why the DHL Toyota has been at or near the top of the standings all season long. Todd also defeated Hight in the final round of the 2018 SpringNationals and he’d undoubtedly love to have a rematch this weekend.
And then there is the DSR team, which has been shut out of the winner’s circle this season after running the table last year. Teammates Matt Hagan and Ron Capps have run well at times but haven’t been able to find the winner’s circle. Capps is a four-time winner in Houston and he was in the final round here just seven months ago with his NAPA Dodge. Currently ranked No. 5 in the standings, Capps could use a get-healthy weekend in order to keep the leaders within sight.
When it comes to Pro Stock, there is perhaps more parity in the class than at any time in the last 50 years. While Greg Anderson has won two of the first four races, and four-time world champion Erica Enders has a win there has also been a first-time winner in rookie Dallas Glenn, who sealed the deal last week in Charlotte. Glenn will almost certainly not be the last first-time winner this season since Kyle Koretsky, Troy Coughlin Jr., Mason McGaha, and all three members of the Cuadra family are also primed for similar success.
Back to Anderson, he’s had arguably the best car in the class at all four events this season, and he recently inked a new sponsorship agreement with Hendrick Cars.com that is further cause for optimism. Anderson has four Camping World NHRA Championships to his credit but none since 2010. He also needs one more win in order to tie former mentor Warren Johnson for the all-time lead in the Pro Stock class. Anderson’s record includes three Houston wins, so this track has been good to him over the years.
Anyone who knows defending world champ Enders, realizes that her home track in Baytown is near and dear to her heart and nothing would make her happier than leave on Sunday with the Wally. Enders scored her first national event win in Houston in Super Gas and tallied back-to-back Pro Stock titles here in 2014-15 to go with a runner-up finish in 2018.
Another driver worth mentioning is Aaron Stanfield, who ran the table in Houston in 2020 when he won his first Pro Stock race and also won the Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown, clinching the title in the process. Stanfield is once again competing in both eliminators with his Janac Bros. entries, so a second double remains a possibility.
While Houston isn’t exactly a stone’s throw from Odessa, both cities are in Texas which means that Chris and Mason McGaha are each racing in their home state. Barely a year into his Pro Stock career, Mason has shown steady progress, including a second-place finish at last weekend’s Charlotte Four Wide race.
You can catch the action all weekend on FOX Sports 1 and NHRA.tv.
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Saturday, May 22, FS1 will televise qualifying coverage from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. (ET)
Sunday, May 23, FS1 will televise qualifying coverage from noon to 1:30 p.m. (ET)
Sunday, May 23, FS1 will televise final eliminations from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (ET)