The NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway hosted a double-header weekend, and Top Fuel's Justin Ashley came in like a freight train to scoop up every accolade on the table. Reigning Funny Car world champion Ron Capps finally claimed his first win of the season, as did Pro Stock champ Erica Enders and Steve Johnson dethroned a king to cap a fruitful weekend in Thunder Valley.
Justin Ashley arrived at Bristol Dragway No. 4 in the Top Fuel standings and fresh off a not-so-sweet first-round loss in Chicago, and he was eager to turn the tides. There could be no better opportunity than the double-header slated to take place at Bristol Dragway after the New England Nationals in Epping were completely rained out the weekend prior.
During qualifying for the Thunder Valley Nationals, the New England Nationals were also contested. En route to locking into the No. 4 position on the Bristol qualifying sheet, Ashley secured the first leg of the double-up win in his Phillips Connect dragster, and as he hoisted the Epping trophy on Saturday evening, he also stood next to the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge hardware as the winner of that event was also crowned the winner of the bonus event.
On Sunday, Ashley began his quest with a first-round victory over Doug Foley and recorded a .040-second reaction time with a 3.76-second pass at 328.70. mph to earn lane choice over Josh Hart in the second round. There, he was again efficient at the tree with a .048 start to Hart's respectable .054 in the R+L Carriers dragster, and a 3.75 got it done over a 3.78.
Austin Prock and the Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Top Fueler had lane choice in the semifinals, but he fell into a ton of tire smoke as soon as he hit the throttle to all but hand Ashley a shot at the double and a chance to defend the title he won in Bristol last year. Ashley clocked a 3.72 in his victory lap for lane choice over Toyota Racing teammate Antron Brown in the final.
Brown won on a holeshot in a close match with Brittany Force in round one, 3.76 to 3.74, then laid down a consistent 3.76 in his Matco Tools rail to defeat a tire-smoking Tony Schumacher. Tire smoke for Doug Kalitta in the semifinals was no match for Brown's 3.73, and he earned the 800th round win of his career.
The two were nearly identical as they left the starting line, but Brown was up in smoke immediately. Ashley thundered to a 3.71 at 336.49 that reset the Bristol Dragway track record for speed and brought him his fourth win of the season and ninth overall in Top Fuel.
"Mission accomplished, no pun intended," said Ashley, who is now No. 1 in the Top Fuel standings. "It's been a fantastic weekend. It was going to be hard to do what we did in Pomona and even replicate that, but this is definitely just an incredible weekend – certainly, the best weekend of my racing career.
"The key word for this weekend is team. It was a team effort to be able to throw out eight win lights in a row like that, and to leave one weekend with three victories is amazing, it's something I didn't know was possible. Just Mike Green, Tommy DeLago and the guys – all weekend they worked hard to make something happen. We came in with that objective, to leave with all the wins, and it's not an easy thing to accomplish. But we got it done today."
Ron Capps claimed his first win of the year in his fourth final on the season with a final-round defeat of Alexis DeJoria. Capps successfully defended the title he earned there last year and drove the NAPA Toyota to a record seventh win at Bristol Dragway, more than any driver in any other professional class.
In the first round, launched ahead of Dave Richards and clocked a winning 3.96 to 4.22. That set him up for a second-round meeting with John Force, a driver he had raced 121 times before. Force smoked the tires early in their meeting and had to shut off, and Capps sailed to his quickest pass of the weekend, a 3.94, to advance to the semifinals.
His semifinals match with Chad Green ended with the win light flashing in his lane and a 3.91 on the scoreboard to beat his challenger's 4.00. That sent Capps ahead to the 144th final round of his career.
Final-round opponent Alexis DeJoria made her best pass of the weekend in the opening round, a 3.98, on a bye run after Cruz Pedregon had trouble on the starting line and had to shut off. DeJoria and her Bandero Tequila Toyota had trouble of their own in the second round, but so did opponent Bobby Bode. Bode got out of the groove and made contact with the left guardwall, and DeJoria got the win light just as her engine gave way.
In the semifinals, No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight was in trouble as soon as he hit the throttle, and DeJoria clocked a 4.15 to get a ticket to her seventh career final and her first of the season. She had won Bristol in 2021.
Capps and DeJoria were well-matched in the final, but the nod went to Capps on his 3.998 to her 3.999.
"We kept at, and we've been close – three final rounds – but there should have been a win already," said Capps. "This is probably the most demanding racetrack there is to drive a Funny Car and I think anybody will tell you that that drives one. I probably cost us a couple qualifying runs, I just couldn't hold onto it and keep it in the middle, but thankfully I got my act together on Sunday and "Guido" [crew chief Dean "Guido" Antonelli] was able to lay it down. It's such a relief to see that Wally again. You never know if you're going to see it again. That's how tough it is."
Enders had a tough season before arriving at Bristol Dragway. The reigning and five-time Pro Stock champion had won just two rounds of racing in 2023 and had fallen to No. 14 in the standings, but it was as though a light went on in Bristol, a track where she had previously claimed two wins. Her Johnson's Horsepowered Garage Chevrolet Camaro was a thing of beauty and carried her to the 30th No. 1 qualifier award of her career.
On Sunday, Enders utilized a 6.65 to defeat Mason McGaha's 6.72, then tucked away a holeshot win over Kyle Koretsky, 6.677 to 6.671, to keep the momentum flowing. In the semifinals, Enders was unchallenged as Greg Anderson's wounded engine necessitated a shut-off before the tree came down. Enders clocked a 6.72 on the way to the 74th final of her career.
Deric Kramer and his GetBioFuel.com Chevrolet tucked away a win over Troy Coughlin Jr. in the opening round, 6.65 to 6.69, then got a freebie in the second round when Aaron Stanfield's Pro Stocker died on the starting line. In round two, Cristian Cuadra rattled the tires hard and watched Kramer clock a 6.68 to advance to his fourth consecutive final of the season and 11th of his career.
Enders was better at both ends of the racetrack to earn the 44th Pro Stock win of her career and the first for sponsor Jason Johnson and JHG. Her .015 and 6.680 beat a .042 and 6.727.
"This is super gratifying, and I don't know if people truly understand what it means," said Enders, who moved up to No. 8 in the standings. "Yes, we've won a lot of races, but to finish the year we had last year in the fashion that we did and then to start the year as horribly as we did is a real gut-check. It's one of those things you have to battle through. But my team owner always reminds us that winning races doesn't define us. We're winning races off the racetrack, too. Even though we go through these valleys, you just have to put your head down and go to work.
"We've struggled with our racecar, but I've struggled mentally as a driver as well. It definitely takes a toll on you, and you question a lot of things and lose your confidence and maybe a little of your swagger, but my dad told me to just put my head down and remember who I am, a five-time champion. It's refreshing to know that so many people believe in me, I just have to remember to believe in myself."
Gaige Herrera himself had said that it was only a matter of time before he was knocked down from the top in his total domination of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, but no one suspected that it would come at his own hand on Sunday afternoon at Bristol. Herrera left the starting line -.011 too soon in the final next Johnson, who was wheeling a brand new Suzuki Hyabusa body at the event. Johnson won with a .053 reaction and 7.17.
Johnson's defeated a troubled Joey Gladstone in round one, 6.88 to 6.93, then mustered a quick .028 light in round two to beat Eddie Krawiec on a holeshot. Krawiec was .065 at the tree and 6.87 at the finish line to Johnson's 6.88. In the semifinals, Hector Arana Jr. reacted quickly, .006 to Johnson's .060, but his bike bogged and Johnson advanced to his 31st career final on a 6.89.
Herrera earned decisive victories over Ron Tornow, who left before the tree was activated; Chase Van San, who gave it a good shot with a .008 reaction; and Angie Smith to gain access to a fourth consecutive final in his first full season with Vance & Hines aboard the Mission Suzuki.
"The Suzuki Hyabusa Gen 3 body is the newest coolest thing in Pro Stock Motorcycle racing," said Johnson, who scored the 12th win of his career. "We got it, it's the 25th anniversary of Suzuki next year and we're really into trying to promote it. It's totally different. It looks the same, but the feel and how the motorcycle rides down the track it's totally different.
"The first round was exciting and second round was really exciting to beat Eddie, especially on a holeshot. Third round, we got lucky – but in the finals racing Gaige, he's got a really, really fast Suzuki and I was like, okay, what do you want to do? We talked about timing, jetting, all these things, but it was like, we just have to throw the kitchen sink at it. But we didn't have one. So, we said we'll just do what we can. We did some stuff that probably wasn't right, but I looked up and saw our win light, and I let off to save the parts. I was pretty happy with it, but it's pretty shocking."