The Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals was the second race of the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, an event filled with drama, upsets, and a lot of emotion. Here are five big takeaways from the event.
DON’T GIVE RON CAPPS BULLETIN BOARD MATERIAL
For the second time this season, Ron Capps took umbrage with our "Five Things We Learned" column, both times because he felt we'd prematurely left him out of the championship conversation. It happened the first time after the NHRA New England Nationals, when Robert Hight and Matt Hagan looked like they might be ready to run away with the regular season race because second-place Hight had a six-round lead on third-place Capps. The second time was just last week when we proselytized after the Reading event that Hight looked like maybe he could run away with the Countdown playoffs.
How did Capps react to these perceived slights? Both times he won the very next event.
“Whoever wrote the ‘What We Learned’ from the [Reading] race, that's dumb, but I want to thank him because it was locker room material again,” he said in the Charlotte media center, a little grin creeping across his face. “They made some statement about how Robert had closed the door on the championship with his win, and he was 80 points out, and I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me. How stupid [to write] that the first race of the Countdown?’ I mean, they've dominated, they ran well, but there's too many good talented Funny Car teams, so I used that [for motivation]. I thought, ‘Man, I can't wait [to talk about that],' and then we win, so now I get to finally say it. So, there you go.”
DRIVERS ARE PEOPLE, TOO
It’s easy to picture the superstars of our sport as racing robots beneath their Nomex suits and helmets, laser-focused on the straight-line path ahead, but we all know them as much more than sponsor-spouting speedsters, as men and women with families and emotions that run well beyond the 300-mph world, as we saw that in the media center Sunday night as both Antron Brown and Ron Capps poured their hearts — and tears — out after their victories.
For Brown, it was sharing the esprit de corps of his tight team, the brotherhood that exists among his team, and the three-time world champion was brought to tears talking about the support and kinship between him and crew chief Brian Corradi, how each helped and lifted the other in a time of grief. For Brown, it was losing his grandmother, for Corradi his mother. Brown talked about how they helped one another manage and cope with the losses, with tears streaming down his face, and having to pause to regain his composure, not something that you normally see from the ever-effervescent Brown. We were all deeply moved.
Capps also raced with a heavy heart after learning Friday of the passing of a young and ardent fan of his, Balin Hewson, the son of Phoenix-area NAPA store owner Brett Hewson, to whom Capps had become very close, and both also acknowledged the recent passing of Abigail Bucher, daughter of fellow nitro racer Mike Bucher.
There’s life outside the racetrack, and lives that very much touch and affect our heroes.
RUNNING THE COUNTDOWN MAY NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN
Steve Torrence won the 2018 Top Fuel championship with an amazing run of six straight races, capturing every single event victory during the Countdown to the Championship. It was the first time that’s ever happened and likely to be the only time.
The last couple of races have reminded us just how deep and talented all of the fields are. Justin Ashley has thrust himself into the spotlight in just his second Countdown, but everyone behind him in Top Fuel is a proven winner. Antron Brown has won two of the last three races and three of the last five. Austin Prock found his footing in Reading. And we all know what Brittany Force and Mike Salinas are capable of. And, oh, you think Torrence is going to stay down long? Ha! It’s going to be a fight to the finish, and will probably stay that way for years to come.
Funny Car is the dogfight of all dogfights. Robert Hight has had a dominant season in Funny Car but, as we found out, despite how bulletproof he looked in Reading, nothing is that easy anymore. We had eight cars qualify in the 3.80s in Charlotte, and the lineup behind Hight, from Capps to Matt Hagan to Bob Tasca III to John Force on down through the list, is just a murderer’s row.
Pro Stock has always been tight, and, sure, based on Reading and even qualifying in Charlotte, Erica Enders looked like she very well could sweep the Countdown, then tire shake reared its head and Aaron Stanfield regained his championship style. And then there's Troy Coughlin Jr., Greg Anderson, Kyle Koretsky, Dallas Glenn, and sudden bad-ass Matt Hartford. As Stanfield himself admitted Sunday night, "It's a hard game."
AARON STANFIELD: HUMBLE, SILENT ASSASSIN
You’ll never see him hooting and hollering after a big win, but inside Aaron Stanfield is a stone-cold assassin. We saw that earlier this year when he notched a runner-up and a win at the season’s first two races and briefly led the points, but kind of dropped off the radar — hard to say when he was still in second place — thanks to teammate Erica Enders’ heroics.
But he’s back in business now, having addressed what he thought were some issues with his own driving and had what he called his best driving weekend of the season. He took full advantage of Enders’ early loss to close the gap on her but didn’t really want to talk championship. Yet.
“It’s just in my DNA,” said the son of five-time world champion Greg Stanfield. I just want to be the best. I'm just more worried about winning races and going rounds and being consistent as a driver. Every time I seem to start focusing on points, I started to think about it too much. So I just want to continue to do good and produce consistent results and win races.
“This year, I've struggled a little bit [with some driving issues], and I can't say I've overcome them. We just did well this race. But it’s a hard game. It's all about perfection.”
DAN FLETCHER STILL KNOWS HOW TO WIN
There was a time, not that long ago, when Dan Fletcher was unstoppable, regularly winning four of five times each season — nine times in 2009 — in a multitude of classes.
He crested the magical 100-wins mark in Chicago in 2017 and quickly added Nos. 101 and 102 that year, then 103 and 104 in 2018. It took another three years — to the fall Charlotte event last year — to get to 105 and tie Frank Manzo as the sport’s second-winningest driver, and with his Stock win at this year’s event, he now holds that lofty mantel alone with career win No. 106.
He might not win as often as he used to — in part due to a smaller schedule — but there’s no doubt that Fletcher is and will remain one of the sport’s greatest drivers and winners, regardless of class.