It was a dominant start for John Force Racing to open the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, as Top Fuel’s Austin Prock and Funny Car points leader Robert Hight powered to wins on Sunday in front of a capacity crowd at Maple Grove Raceway at the 37th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals.
Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Joey Gladstone (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also picked up wins at the first of six races in the Countdown to the Championship during the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.
Opening the postseason from the 12th position, Prock drove to his second career win and first of the season with his run of 3.755-seconds at 329.67 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist dragster in the final round against points leader Justin Ashley. Prock also jumped six spots in the standings with five races remaining in 2022. His day started with round wins against Doug Foley, Steve Torrence, and Indy winner Antron Brown, outdueling Brown on a spectacular pedalfest in the semifinals. From there, he won a thrilling side-by-side race with Ashley to finish off a monumental weekend.
“It’s awesome and we’re right back in the hunt of this thing,” said Prock, who became the ninth different winner in Top Fuel this year. “If you come out and win Reading, you’re right back in it. This is unbelievable and it was just one of those days where everything was going our way. I’m so proud of this team and thank you to John Force for giving me the opportunity. This was exactly what we needed.
“We came into the Countdown sitting 12th, and if we wanted to play for the big trophy, we knew we had to win this weekend. Everybody kept their heads down and still believed in themselves, and that attitude is how you win a Wally. I was really proud to win four rounds; it was the first time in a long time that I've been able to do that on Sunday. It's super cool that we came out on the good side of a close race.”
To reach the final round for the fifth time this season, Ashley, who took over the points lead, knocked off Jeff Chatterson, Doug Kalitta and Mike Salinas. Ashley jumped past Brittany Force in the points standings on Sunday and will take a nine-point lead to Charlotte.
Hight continued his spectacular season, racing to his seventh win this season and the 60th of his career, making a pass of 3.937 at 328.38 in his 11,000-horsepower Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS against Tim Wilkerson in the championship round. Hight and his team were again impressively consistent throughout eliminations, knocking off Cruz Pedregon and Matt Hagan to reach the final round. Wilkerson left early against Hight, who picked up a milestone victory and remains the favorite to win a fourth world championship as his points lead stretched to 81 points over Hagan.
"This is exactly how we scripted it,” Hight said. “The only problem is, it's really easy to script a weekend and a lot harder to get the job done. We needed to qualify well and get bonus points every run because, at the end of the year, those bonus points can be the difference.
"This is just hard to believe, what we're doing. I would have never guessed somebody would win seven Funny Car races. It's dog-eat-dog out there, so this is amazing. This is huge, to start out like this, but it's one down and five to go. We're going to have fun today and then go focus on Charlotte and try to get it done next week. If we can do that, we'll really be in a good position."
Tim Wilkerson overcame a fire in the semifinal round to advance to his second final round this season and the 49th in his career. He also picked up round wins against Alexis DeJoria, defending world champ Ron Capps and John Force, who was making his 800th career start on Sunday.
Enders also continued her dominant run in Pro Stock, avenging a loss to Troy Coughlin in the final round at Seattle with a stellar run of 6.582 at 209.72 in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro on Sunday at Maple Grove Raceway. Just like her incredible start to the year, Enders opened the Countdown to the Championship playoffs in perfect fashion, collecting her seventh win this season and 40th in her career. Her standout Sunday included round wins against Alan Prusiensky, Matt Hartford, and Kyle Koretsky, wrapping up eliminations with her first victory at the facility. Her lead also stands at 81 points over defending world champ Greg Anderson after the first playoff race.
"It was an amazing day, but really, ever since we set foot on the property it's been great,” Enders said. “Bo Butner went to No. 1, and we were No. 2, but after that, we were low every time we went down the track. This Countdown is going to be a dogfight, as it is every single year. We have to capitalize on every moment and execute perfectly from here.
"This is definitely special. A goal that I wrote down on January 1st was that I wanted to win at the tracks we haven't won before, and we started off on the right foot in Pomona. We won the 900th Pro Stock race and Sonoma has been on my list every year. We got it done, then we came here to Reading and got it done as well.”
Coughlin reached the final round for the fourth time this season, knocking off Cristian Cuadra, No. 1 qualifier Bo Butner and Anderson in the semifinals.
Joey Gladstone jumped back into the points lead in Pro Stock Motorcycle, capping off a memorable day at the track where he grew up with a win in the final round against Angie Smith, who went red. Gladstone put together a strong run of 6.835 at 196.93 to cap off his day and pick up his third win this season, with all of them coming in the last four races for the category. After Matt Smith jumped into the points lead with his Indy win, Gladstone grabbed it back to open the Countdown to the Championship, knocking off Hector Arana Jr., Matt Smith in a pivotal second-round matchup, and then Marc Ingwersen to reach the final round. His points lead now stands at 29 over M. Smith and Gladstone was sure to soak in the victory in what’s been a breakout season.
"This is the playoffs, so that win is big. Matt [Smith] has been a strong force, so to be able to get a good edge is awesome,” Gladstone said. “We'll need it because he hauls butt. Everyone in this class is so tough, everybody is a contender, and any day you can beat one Smith is a good day – but two Smiths? That's a big deal. I'm proud of my team and proud of my tuner. Today is my daughter, Olivia's, birthday. It was a really special day, and how memorable is it to do this on her birthday."
Smith reached her second final round this season thanks to victories against Ron Tornow, Eddie Krawiec and defending event winner Steve Johnson.
The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series returns to action on Sept. 23-25 with the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte.