The first day of the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals came with blue skies, pleasing temperatures, and a fast racetrack that allowed extraordinary runs for championship contenders and beyond. Justin Ashley, Bob Tasca III, Erica Enders, and Gaige Herrera were able to take best advantage of the conditions and make early moves at the first of six races in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
After an uncharacteristic puff of tire smoke in the first session, incoming points leader Ashley made a stellar pass in the second qualifying round. Ashley drove his Phillips Connect Toyota to a 3.68-second pass at 335 mph to move into the top spot. A six-time winner on the season, Ashley is seeking his third No. 1 of the year and fifth of his career. He enters the NHRA Countdown to the Championship as the No. 1 seed in Top Fuel and is off to a fierce start in pursuit of his first nitro championship.
“That was a great run for this Phillips Connect Toyota team,” said Ashley, who was runner-up in Reading last season. “We didn’t have a great run in the first session, and Mike Green and Tommy DeLago [co-crew chiefs] felt confident in our capabilities for this night run. This is basically a home race for me since I am from New York, and we have a lot of friends and family here. You want to do well to start the Countdown, and [those] three qualifying points are important. That run felt really good, and it was a great way to wrap up the first day of the Pep Boys Nationals. We have two more runs tomorrow and we will be able to use those to get ready for race day.”
In the early session of qualifying, Brittany Force and the Monster Energy Chevrolet dragster claimed three bonus points as the quickest of the session with her 3.74 at 335, and Force claimed two more bonus marks as second-best in the evening round with a 3.68 that was just two-thousands of a second off Ashley’s pace. Force is No. 2 heading into the second day of qualifying, while Doug Kalitta is No. 3 on his 3.69. Steve Torrence is fourth (3.69), Antron Brown is fifth (3.71), and Shawn Langdon is sixth (3.72). Defending event champion Austin Prock is No. 7 based on his best time of 3.72, and eight-time world champion and five-time Maple Grove winner Tony Schumacher rounds out the top eight with his 3.73.
Bob Tasca III continued what has been a career season as he powered the Motorcraft Quicklane Ford Mustang to the top in Funny Car. Tasca was second-quickest in the opening round with his strong 3.91, and he bettered it with a 3.87 at 334 to snatch the provisional pole from the hands of Cornwell Tools / AAA Chevrolet campaigner Robert Hight, the defending event champion. The two swapped places in the second session and each ended the day with a total of five bonus qualifying points. Tasca was the No. 4 seed in the Countdown entering the event.
“Every point matters right now, every run, now through the end,” said Tasca, who won this event in 2009. “Five bonus points, that’s big. This is my home away from home, to say the least. I love being here, and a win here is critical. We’re a couple rounds out of first place, and a good weekend really changes the game for us as we march on in this championship. To do it, you have to go toe-to-toe with the best. You saw that Mustang banging heads with Robert Hight in Q1 [and] Q2. I think you’re going to see a whole lot of that from now until the end of the year.
“We’ve shown we can go low e.t. on a hot or a cool track, and that’s what makes our team so dangerous. What really makes us a championship contender is, you’re starting to see our consistency. That’s what’s making our team a whole different-level program. I’m looking forward to tomorrow. We’re going to take one run at a time, get as many points as we can, and try to pull into Vegas and Pomona with a chance at the championship.”
Chad Green made a good move in the later session to move into third with a 3.88, and reigning world champion Ron Capps was just .001-behind for the No. 4 spot. Seven-time Reading winner John Force raced to a 3.89 for fifth place, while Tim Wilkerson scored sixth on a 3.90 and Alexis DeJoria and Blake Alexander each went 3.91 for seventh and eighth, respectively.
Incoming Pro Stock champion Erica Enders, driver of the JHG / Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro out of the Elite Motorsports stable, won in Reading last season and is eager to defend the title. She entered the first race of the Countdown as the No. 3 seed after making up major ground in the second-half of the regular season.
In the first round of qualifying in Reading, Enders wheeled her way to the top on a 6.50 at 210 that was .004-second quicker than teammate Troy Coughlin Jr., who ended the day in the No. 2 position. Enders improved with a very efficient 6.49 in the later round to protect the pole, while Elite compadre Aaron Stanfield’s 6.50 was good for third.
“That was good,” said Enders, who holds the track record for elapsed time at 6.465, which she set in 2014. “As much as we love Maple Grove, it has not really been a great track for us in the past – but being able to secure our first win here last year changes that whole feeling of rolling through the gates. We came off the trailer and went to the No. 1 spot that first session, and we nitpicked the run and felt like we could have gone high .48 low .49. We came back second session and did just that.
“We just have to put our heads down and go to work. This is a position we’re extremely familiar with, this is my 20th year in Pro Stock and we’re battling for our sixth championship. The competition is tough, but our mindset is just to focus on us – on our car, our lane, and just do the very best that we can, every single time. My dad told me, make it count, make every single run count and don’t leave anything on the table, from reaction times, to shift points, to keeping it in the groove. That’s our mindset, just be positive, put our heads down, and go to work because we can do this.”
Greg Anderson, who debuted a new car in Indy but is back in the HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro that won the championship in 2021, is No. 4 on a 6.51, with KB Titan Racing teammate Deric Kramer behind him by just .002 for fifth. Cristian Cuadra and Dallas Glenn each went 6.52 for sixth and seventh, respectively, while last year’s No. 1 qualifier Bo Butner is No. 8 with his 6.52.
With a booming 22 Pro Stockers on the property, Kenny Delco, Alan Prusiensky, Brandon Miller, Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mason McGaha, and Larry Morgan are on the outside looking in with two chances on Saturday to break into the tough field.
The Pro Stock Motorcycle pole is currently in the hands of Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki rider Gaige Herrera, as it has been eight times in the first nine races that make up the two-wheelers’ regular season. Herrera slid into the top spot immediately with a 6.71, 201 in the first session, and he improved to a track-record setting 6.678 at 202.45 to keep a firm grip.
“I was kind of shocked it ran 6.67, but Andrew [Hines, crew chief] isn’t,” said Herrera. “He said all the conditions are there to do it. To come out and be able to get the provisional No. 1 qualifier in the start of the Countdown and get as much points as we can – all those little points add up – I’m happy with today. That takes a lot of weight off mine and Andrew’s shoulders, knowing we have a bad hot rod and have that little step forward in front of everyone.
“Tomorrow is going to be good, and the weather is going to be a little bit better. Andrew said we’re going for the record, but then again, it’s the Countdown. We’ll see what happens.”
Hector Arana Jr. and his GETTRX Buell were closest to Herrera on the first day of qualifying. His 6.74 has him in the No. 2 position, and Rookie of the Year contender Chase Van Sant is making a good case with his 6.75 that has him No. 3 for now. Chip Ellis, aboard a Matt Smith Racing Buell, clocked a 6.75 for fourth. Angie Smith (6.77) is No. 5, while teammate Matt Smith, who closed the regular season with a crucial Indy win, is sixth with his 6.788. Steve Johnson (6.80) and Jianna Evaristo (6.84) round out the top eight.