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Night moves: Pruett, Hagan, Stanfield, and Smith lead Friday qualifiers under the lights in Denver

When it comes to must-see events in the Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series, not much can compare to nighttime qualifying runs at the Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals in Denver.
15 Jul 2022
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
Race coverage
Leah Pruett

When it comes to must-see events in the Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series, not much can compare to nighttime qualifying runs at the Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals in Denver.

On Friday, Bandimere Speedway was especially kind to Tony Stewart Racing teammates Leah Pruett and Matt Hagan, who grabbed the top spots in Top Fuel and Funny Car, respectively. Aaron Stanfield and Matt Smith also earned provisional No. 1 spots in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle in front of a near standing room only crowd.

Pruett hasn’t qualified in the top half of the field for the last four events but she’s halfway to her 13th career low qualifier award after a stunning 3.788 in her Dodge Power Brokers entry.

Pruett moved into the Top 10 for the first time since Pomona with her recent semifinal finish in Norwalk and is hoping to carry that momentum into the three-race Western Swing that begins this week in Denver. Pruett didn’t get down the track on Q1 but Hagan’s crew chief, Dickie Venables, provide some guidance that helped secure the top spot.

“This is extremely cool. I mean, you always believe it can happen,” said Pruett. “[Matt and I] said it all week. You have to be positive, and we talk about simultaneously parking our cars in winner’s circle and then we came out in Q1 and that was a gut punch. We were so wildly far off. That’s’ exactly what happened. Then Dickie came over and we put our faith in a lot of little changes.

“We were not trying to go No. 1. We were trying to establish a baseline,” Pruett said. “For us both to hold on to our No. 1 is a cool feeling, especially at our Dodge race. I’m so incredibly happy right now.”

Part-timer Greg Carillo, who historically runs well in Denver, made the second- best run of the day with a 3.824 in his Santiago’s Mexican Food dragster, which is tuned by Aaron Brooks. Clay Millican also turned in a very solid effort with a 3.826.

Championship leader Mike Salinas finished the day in the No. 8 spot with a 3.910 while Brittany Force is also further down the ladder than one might normally expect following an early shut off 4.198 best.

Hagan, the defending Denver Funny Car champion, began his title defense on a positive note with a strong 3.927 in his Dodge Power Brokers Dodge Charger. Hagan was also the top qualifier after the first session with a 3.968, showing the sort of consistency that has enabled him to make six finals in the first ten races this season including three wins.

“This mountain air is hard on these motors and hard on this fat kid in the driver’s seat,” said Hagan. “It takes me a while to get acclimated to this place. With the race car, we have to stay ahead of it. We have a good combination from last year and we just brought it off the shelf and made two strong runs in a row. We didn’t just come out and back into it into for one run.

“For everything we’ve done this year with TSR, I had a good feeling coming into this deal. I don’t know about weather for tomorrow, but if conditions are the same, we could go better. Nothing is said and done until tomorrow.”

Hagan has plenty of company at the top of the field as Norwalk winner Robert Hight is close behind at 3.936 while Tim Wilkerson also showed his prowess for high altitude tuning with a 3.973 in his Levi, Ray, and Shoup Mustang.

John Force (3.978) and Bob Tasca III (3.987) also found the three second zone during Friday’s second session.

Aaron Stanfield led the Pro Stock field after the first session with a 6.978, but as expected, the Friday night run yielded much better results for the Factory Hot Rod class. Regardless, the two-time Factory Stock champ managed to hold on to the top spot with a 6.946 in his Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro.

Stanfield has already enjoyed the benefits of being the low qualifier this year in Gainesville, Las Vegas, and Bristol. With 15 Pro Stock cars in the field, whoever eventually lands the top spot will get a bye run in the first round on Sunday morning.

“This is definitely a confidence booster,” said Stanfield. “I know I’ve got a fast hot rod. This is the first time I’ve raced Pro Stock on the mountain and those gear [changes] come really quick. I can’t thank my guys enough. We’re having a ball.

“The first three gears come up so quickly, this is different than anywhere else we race,” Stanfield said. “Thankfully, our crew chiefs have a lot of data here and that just helps all of us. Tomorrow, the goal is to clean up my shift points. They are not perfect yet. There’s always room for improvement.”

The Denver event usually yields a few surprises and so far, this has been no different as Fernando Cuadra Jr. is in the No. 2 spot with a 6.953 while Matt Hartford is third-quickest at 6.957. Cristian Cuadra also ran a 6.957, but his top speed was slightly slower than Hartford’s so he enters Saturday’s two sessions in the No. 4 spot.

The biggest surprise so far, comes from championship leader Erica Enders who is in the No. 14 spot after two runs. Enders shook the tires on both runs, with a best elapsed time of 7.008. Enders hasn’t been seeded lower than No. 4 at any race this season.

Reigning world champ Smith kicked off Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying with perhaps the most dominant performance of the season to date. Smith elected to park his Suzuki for the weekend in favor of last year’s championship-winning Denso Buell and he was rewarded with a track record 7.107 in Q1. Smith’s run was eight-hundredths quicker than the next bike, which happened to be his wife, Angie, with a 7.184.

Smith shut off early (intentionally) on his second run with a 7.226, but he remains well ahead of the rest of the field. Angelle Sampey moved to the second spot with a 7.171 while Steve Johnson moved to third following a 7.180. Eddie Krawiec holds down the No. 5 spot on his Vance & Hines Suzuki at 7.203 seconds.

“I guess we’ll see what Sunday brings but a lot of factors went into that decision [to race a Buell],” said Smith. “First, I don’t have spare parts and pieces for Suzuki. I’ve also never run a Suzuki up here and I didn’t want to take a chance to hurt it. I want to be able to race it next week in Sonoma if I decide to.

“Last year, I was No. 1 and won the race on my Buell,” Smith said. “This is basically the same package. This Denso Buell is hateful.”