Leaving the thin air of Bandimere Speedway, the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour now heads to California Wine Country for this week’s Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the second stop on the Western Swing.
Last week, Leah Pruett, Robert Hight, Matt Hartford, and Matt Smith scored wins in Denver, so they are the only racers capable of the elusive Western Swing Sweep. Hight came through as a favorite in Funny Car, and Smith was the No. 2 choice in Pro Stock Motorcycle. They’ll both be favored this week along with Mike Salinas in Top Fuel and Aaron Stanfield, who has been to four straight Pro Stock final rounds.
The favorite: His subpar outing in Denver notwithstanding, Mike Salinas has had arguably the best car in Top Fuel for most of this season, and because he’s racing at his home track, we’re going to give him the edge this week, albeit a very small one over a stacked Top Fuel field. Salinas still leads the championship standings, but he’s just 10 points ahead of Brittany Force, so it’s likely he’ll need to win a few rounds in order to stay ahead.
The contenders: The usual suspects here would include Brittany Force, Justin Ashley, Steve Torrence, and Austin Prock, but this time around we’ll also throw in Denver finalists Leah Pruett and Shawn Langdon. Force and Ashley already have wins this year, and Torrence is, of course, a four-time world champ. Prock has been consistent but could easily be the next winner. As for Pruett and Langdon, their success isn’t confined to just Denver; Langdon was in the Bristol final, and Pruett was a semifinalist in Norwalk.
The dark horse: Let’s take a bit of a shot in the dark here and go with Clay Millican. Why, you ask? Well, he’s hovering around the No. 9 spot in the standings, so he needs to pick up the pace to stay in the Top 10, especially with Doug Kalitta closing fast. Millican hasn’t won a round since Charlotte, but new crew chief Jim Oberhofer does seem to be making progress. The Parts Plus team qualified No. 4 in Richmond and No. 6 in Bristol, so the potential is there.
Dodge Power Brokers
The favorite: When it comes to racetracks, Denver and Sonoma could not be more different, but that should matter little to Robert Hight and the Auto Club team as they look to win the second leg of the Swing. Hight is having what is easily the best season of his career, and there isn’t much to make us think he won’t be able to carry the momentum from his Denver win into Sonoma. In fact, did we also mention that Hight hasn’t lost a round in Sonoma since 2017? The competition in Funny Car is still fierce, but right now, this is the best car in the class.
The contenders: By all accounts, Matt Hagan had the best car in Denver, at least in qualifying. Denver is such a unique animal that we won’t hold Hagan’s team accountable for the tire smoke that cost them a round-one win. In fact, with Sonoma being one of the faster tracks on the tour, expect to see some big numbers from the Dodge team.
We also need to take a long look at Bob Tasca III, especially after back-to-back finals in Norwalk and Denver. The Motorcraft/Quicklane team isn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboards, but they are earning win lights, and that’s what matters. Ron Capps has been a bit quiet since his Bristol win, but this is still a championship-caliber team, and he’s got four Sonoma wins to his credit.
Finally, John Force is the all-time leader in Sonoma wins, and it's not even close. The GOAT has eight wins in 14 final rounds, with the most recent win coming in 2016.
The dark horse: Prior to Hight’s three-year run as Sonoma champ, the last driver to win in Wine Country is J.R. Todd, who defeated Tim Wilkerson in the 2017 Sonoma Nationals final (remember, there was no 2020 event). Like the rest of the Kalitta team, Todd has shown improvement lately, so he’s probably not as big of an underdog as one might think.
Auto Club Chevy
Dodge Power Brokers Dodge
Bob Tasca III
Peak/Blu Def Chevy
The favorite: Erica Enders or Aaron Stanfield? This is about as close to a coin flip as we could have. Last week’s Denver debacle notwithstanding, Enders has been a powerhouse this season with five wins, but in the Camping World standings, she can’t seem to shake teammate Stanfield. If we had to pick one this week, we’re going to go with Stanfield, but our margin is very slim
The contenders: We’ve already labeled Enders as a co-favorite, but oddly enough, she’s never won in Sonoma or even been to a final for that matter. Regardless, this is the best car/driver combination in the class, and the Elite team will look to quickly rebound after a tough loss.
Behind Stanfield and Enders, we need to take a close look at Denver champ Matt Hartford, who was rock solid in his most recent victory. That could be exactly the sort of breakthrough he’s been looking for. Of course, we also have world champ Greg Anderson still chasing win No. 100, and it’s worth noting that Anderson has been to the winner’s circle six times in Sonoma.
The darkhorse: This is a good one, but how about Bo Butner? He has underperformed for most of the season, but a recent test session in Tulsa may have fixed most if not all of the issues plaguing the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage entry. Butner ran much better in Denver, but the true test will be in Sonoma, with conditions far more favorable. Another longshot with a reasonable chance of hitting is Butner’s teammate, Troy Coughlin Jr., for many of the same reasons. Both Elite cars looked much improved in Denver.
Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro
Total Seal Camaro
RAD Torque Systems Camaro
Harlow Sammons Camaro
Lucas Oil Products Camaro
Get Bio Fuel Camaro
Harlow Sammons Camaro
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
The favorite: After what he did in Denver, it would be hard to give top billing to anyone other than Matt Smith, so we’re going to do just that, but with a thorough explanation. First, Sonoma and Denver are not the same. We already know that. Secondly, there is a good chance that Smith will be riding his Suzuki, especially after a post-Denver weight adjustment. If he was on the fence about which bike to ride, the 15-pound swing between brands almost certainly tipped the scales in favor of the four-cylinder bike. No matter what he rides, Smith is going to be competitive.
The contenders: There’s quite a few here, actually. Let’s start with Joey Gladstone, who has been to the last two finals and is long overdue to win his first race. After Gladstone, Vance & Hines teammates Angelle Sampey and Eddie Krawiec are both more than capable and both have won in Sonoma, although Sampey’s last win here came in 2004.
Contender status should also be granted to Karen Stoffer, who is the defending event champion, and Angie Smith, although her Denso Buell will be five pounds heavier this week. She’s still got a bike capable of 6.7s at well over 200 mph.
The dark horse: Steve Johnson and Jerry Savoie have each won races this year, so it’s hard to label either of them as dark-horse contenders, but this is very much a “what have you done for me lately sport,” and Johnson hasn’t done much since Richmond while Savoie is coming off a tough loss in Denver. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see either of them win, but there are a lot of good bikes in the field.
Vance & Hines Suzuki
Reed Motorsports Suzuki
Vance & Hines Suzuki
White Alligator Suzuki
Big St. Charles Suzuki
Slick 50 Suzuki