The Western Swing typically offers up some of the most dramatic moments of each NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, and the first race at Bandimere Speedway certainly did not disappoint. Here's five big things we learned in Denver.
TONY STEWART IS COMMITTED TO BUILDING A WINNING TEAM
From Indy cars to NASCAR stock cars to sprints and midgets, Hall of Famer Tony Stewart has been successful at everything he’s ever tried, so there was no reason to think Smoke wouldn’t make an immediate impact when he decided to enter the world of NHRA Drag Racing.
Stewart’s Funny Car team was a known commodity with Matt Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables combining for multiple championships, but The Top Fuel team, featuring Stewart’s wife, Leah Pruett, and tuner Neal Strasbaugh figured to be a work in progress. Pruett won just a single round in the first seven races, but no one tried to deviate from the plan. They simply worked hard to improve and now, after their win in Denver, it’s not hard to argue they’ve got a team capable of contending for the championship.
At one point, Pruett was ranked 13th in the Camping World standings. Today, she’s climbed to No. 6 and is just 42 points behind No. 5 Josh Hart. As for Stewart personally, his level of dedication is obvious. On Saturday, he won the SRX event in Peavley, Mo., and then hopped a late-night flight to Denver to support his teams on Sunday. Not afraid to get his hands dirty helping his crew, Stewart is clearly no ordinary team owner.
MATT SMITH DOESN’T MISS A TRICK
When your father is nicknamed “Trickie Rickie” and happens to be one of the best doorslammer racers of all time, it's not hard to understand why Matt Smith is a five-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion. Smith rarely misses an opportunity to get one up on the competition, and in Denver, he pulled off perhaps the most impressive performance of his career.
Not completely comfortable racing his new Suzuki entry in Denver’s thin mountain air, Smith reverted to last year’s Denso Buell and routed the field. With the exception of one qualifying pass, where he intentionally shut off early, Smith had the quickest bike on every run, and he made the first 7.0 second and 190-mph runs at Bandimere Speedway.
Now Smith faces a dilemma. When he arrives in Sonoma, will he race a Buell or a Suzuki? He’s committed to the Suzuki program that he shares with the Scrappers team, but then again, he ran 205 mph last year in Sonoma on his Buell.
ERICA ENDERS IS APPARENTLY HUMAN AFTER ALL
Just when it looked like Erica Enders and the Elite team might run the table in Pro Stock, the wheels came off in Denver. Enders came to Bandimere Speedway riding a huge wave with wins in four of the previous five events. Her only loss was the Bristol final, where her engine came apart in spectacular fashion.
In Denver, Enders struggled on Friday but came back to claim the No. 2 qualifying spot behind teammate Aaron Stanfield, and it appeared all was right with the world. On Sunday, Enders did nothing wrong with a very competitive .022 light and a 6.951, the quickest pass of the round. The only thing missing was the win light.
In the other lane, Mason McGaha, perhaps the only New York Yankees fan in the state of Texas, left with a .003 light and ran a 6.965 that was just enough to get the job done. Enders was naturally disappointed, but she is still the points leader and a solid favorite to win the championship. It might be a bit hard to find at times, but there really is parity in Pro Stock.
THERE IS STILL ROOM OUT HERE FOR THE LITTLE GUY
When NHRA fans walk through the pits at a NHRA Camping World event, what do they see? Row after row of semi-trucks and other support equipment that represents drag racing at its highest level. Then again, in a world fueled by big-money corporate sponsorships, there is still room for the little guy, and Jack Wyatt proved it in Denver.
Wyatt has been racing nitro cars for more than three decades. He typically makes four to six races with his Dodge Charger-bodied entry and generally puts on a good show. Wyatt was 14th quickest out of 14 cars in Denver, but on Sunday, he took advantage of a rare miscue by three-time champ Matt Hagan to reach the semifinals for just the second time in his career.
The Denver event seems to have a history of upsets and little-guy triumphs. Remember 2021, when Joey Haas went to the Top Fuel final? How about Blaine Hale’s upset win in Pro Stock Motorcycle in 2003, or if you want to talk ancient history, the 1979 event where Randy Humphrey outlasted world champs Bob Glidden, Ronnie Sox, and “Dyon Don” Nicholson to score his lone Pro Stock victory?
ROBERT HIGHT IS SERIOUS ABOUT WINNING ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP
While he freely admits that the last six races of the year are far more important than the first six or even first 12, Robert Hight has the feeling that there is something special brewing with his Auto Club Chevy team this year, and based on his first-half stats, who could argue with him?
While Matt Hagan and Ron Capps have had their moments, Hight is dominating the stats sheet with five wins and two runner-up finishes in the first 11 races. Following his most recent win in Denver, Hight has a record of 30-6 in elimination rounds. (Ironically, two of those losses have come against Chad Green.)
In Denver, Hight walked back a recent statement he made about sweeping the Western Swing, a rare feat that’s only been achieved once in the Funny Car class (John Force, 1994). Hight was careful not to provide his rivals with any extra motivation, nor to put undue pressure on his team. Then again, he was quick to point out that one can’t sweep the Western Swing without winning in Denver.