A lot changed during on Saturday at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals including the low qualifier in Top Fuel as Brittany Force took the top spot while Friday leaders Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Aaron Stanfield (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) held on to lead their respective classes.
After struggling on Friday, Force and her Flav-R-Pak team made the necessary adjustments and rallied with two strong runs on Saturday including a 3.758 that was enough to take the top spot away from Justin Ashley, who ran 3.765 minutes earlier. Friday leader Leah Pruett was pushed to third with her consistent 3.788 and 3.771 runs.
For Force, it marked the fourth time this season that she’s has led a Top Fuel field and it provided a shot of confidence as the 2017 world champ looks to win her first Western Swing event.
We’re excited about our runs today,” Force said. “We struggled yesterday with problem after problem. I came to the track today sitting on bump and that’s nerve-wracking. There are 17 cars here and we want to be top four or five. We made a good run in the heat with a 3.81 and finished with a 3.75. I’m feeling good. We’re in a great position.”
Qualifying solidly has rarely been a problem for Force, but finishing the job on Sunday is historically a bit trickier. That figures to be the case in Denver as the weather forecast calls for some of the hottest conditions of the week.
“Tomorrow is a whole new ball game,” Force said. “It’s going to be hot and we have to adjust for that. Being the low qualifier means more points and we need them to get back to the top. That’s where we want to be but I’ve never won in Denver or anywhere on the swing. The plan is to start tomorrow end up in the winner’s circle and a sweep is the ultimate goal.”
Pruett didn’t hold on to the top spot, but she also improved slightly, with a 3.771 that was four-thousandths of a second quicker than Friday’s run and displays the sort of consistency that had previously been absent with the Dodge Power Brokers team.
Mike Salinas made a big move to the No. 4 spot with a 3.783 in his Pep Boys dragster while the surprise of the field is Greg Carrillo who is No. 5 with a 3.794.
Saturday’s first qualifying session was interrupted by a quick rain shower, but the NHRA Safety Safari quickly went to work to restore the racing surface and the huge crowd at Bandimere Speedway enjoyed a first class show from Camping World Series pros.
The Funny Car field got tighter and more competitive, but no one was able to dislodge Friday leader Hagan from the top spot. Like many others in the field, the defending Denver champion improved with a 3.908 in the early afternoon and held on through Q4, even though a rare driving mistake on the burnout cost him a chance to improve.
“I was impressed that we ran that 3.90 in the heat,” said Hagan, who was one of the few drivers not to get down the track on Q4. “The rain cooled everything off but there was still a lot of water grains in the air and the crew chiefs had to make some calls.
Then tonight was a bummer [in Q4] I came through the water and tires spun faster than normal and it got sideways. I can’t hit the throttle with the front end looking at the wall and by then the water dried off the tires and the clutch got hotter. It was not going to be what we were looking for. I mean, we stayed in the No. 1 spot, but we should have run in the 3.85-3.87 range. If you take the last run out of it., we got a good car on Sunday. This is a Dodge car at the Dodge event. We’re expected to do well and have a shot as much as anyone.”
The top half of the Funny Car field is tight with less than six-hundredths separating the top eight racers. Behind Hagan is Robert Hight with a 3.929, John Force at 3.930, and Bob Tasca III with a 3.963.
The Pro Stock field features a few surprises, but Aaron Stanfield was able to remain the top qualifier in his Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro. Stanfield ran a 6.946 on Friday and he picked up two more bonus points on Saturday with a 6.989 but he briefly surrendered the top spot to Erica Enders in Q4. Enders ran a 6.938 but Stanfield quickly retaliated with a 6.934 to seal the top spot. He’ll get a bye run in the opening round due to the short field.
“I knew we were capable of running better than new did in Q2 so [the pole] was not out of the question even after I saw Erica’s run,” said Stanfield. “Everyone thought the field was set and then rain came and changed things up. We got to wait until later in the and day cooled off a little bit. We made that work in our favor.
This is really cool for all of us at Elite. It shows how hard they’re working. I can’t thank them enough.”
Stanfield previously noted that he’d struggled to adapt his driving to the unique conditions in Denver, but he showed no ill effects on Saturday.
“This track is great. The stands are packed, and they put on a great show here but it’s different behind the wheel,” Stanfield said. “I struggled yesterday, but I cleaned up my shift points a little and did a better job of driving today.”
Not to mince words, but Enders was dreadful in the first three sessions as her Elite/Melling team struggled to adapt to Denver’s unique conditions. The fourth time was the charm as the four time champ made her best run of the weekend to secure the No. 2 spot and a race against Mason McGaha in round one.
The rest of the top half qualifiers include Cristian Cuadra, Chris McGaha, Troy Coughlin Jr., Fernando Cuadra Jr., Matt Hartford and Bo Butner.
Greg Anderson, the only driver in the field who has raced in a Denver final, finished as the No. 9 qualifier and will race fellow world champ Butner in round one.
When Smith shocked the Denver crowd with his track record 7.107 on Friday, it wasn’t hard to believe that he’d already locked up the top spot. The reigning and five-time champ returned on Saturday to post a 7.149 to secure three more qualifying bonus points but as it turns out, that was just a preview for Q4 where Smith re-set his own record with a 7.090. Smith also set the track speed record at 189.79 mph.
Smith had previously said he might shut off early on both runs on Saturday in order to conserve parts, but he abandoned that strategy.
“The biggest thing is that I saw the Suzuki’s stepping up and I thought Angelle [Sampey] or Steve [Johnson] might go a 7.13 or 7.14 so I tried a new tune-up and went all out,” said Smith, who will have a free pass in tomorrow’s opening round of eliminations. “There might be a little more left. I tried a different tune-up. We played with it on Angie’s bike and it kept responding so I put it on my bike and it worked. I learned something.
“I’ve always loved coming up here [to Denver],” Smith said. “I won two races here in 2007 and 08. Then I had a big break of not winning. We always come here to win the race. That’s the whole reason for bringing the V-twin. I wanted to bring something out and be more competitive.”
For the second-straight year, Smith and his wife, Angie, swept the top two spots in qualifying. Angie clinched the second spot after a 7.150 on her pink Denso Buell. Smith will race against Jianna Evaristo in round one and the winner of that bout will receive a bye run into the semifinals.
Eddie Krawiec used a 7.164 to secure the No. 3 spot while Angelle Sampey, Steve Johnson, Joey Gladstone, Marc Ingwersen, and Karen Stoffer round out the Top 10.