It was a day of firsts as Justin Ashley, Ron Capps, and Gaige Herrera collected victories in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge, which took place during Saturday qualifying at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Peak Performance. Ashley became the first two-time winner in Mission Challenge history, Herrera the first Pro Stock Motorcycle winner in the new series, and Capps got his first Mission Challenge win.
The Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge brings competitive racing to the qualifying schedule at 12 regular-season events during the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series campaign, pitting semifinalists from the previous race — in this case, the nitro semifinalists from Pomona and the Pro Stock Motorcycle semifinalists from Gainesville — against each other in a series of rematches, with the two winners then matching up in the final qualifying session.
The Top Fuel final was a rematch of the Winternationals final that got them here, and Ashley repeated that victory over Austin Prock, powering his Maynard Ashley Racing/ Phillips Connect dragster to a 3.728, 331.12 to defeat Prock’s 3.742, 325.37 in the Montana Brands entry.
“It's very exciting; this deal does mean a lot to us,” said Ashley. “It's a new deal and we're really grateful for Mission Foods and how they've put on this Challenge. Anytime you add an additional opportunity to race and collect bonus points along the way I think it's special and I think it means a lot, not to mention the $10,000. That always helps as well.
“Really exciting day, a great day, and I think we did a good job of running well and setting the tone for ourselves going into tomorrow. Tomorrow is a new day but I'm really proud to be able to represent Mission Foods and Phillips Connect and Toyota and our whole team today.”
In the opening Top Fuel round, Pomona champ Justin Ashley, bettered his outstanding season rection-time average with a stellar .033 light against Antron Brown and advanced to the final on a 3.746 to 3.736 holeshot. Prock, winner of the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, squared off again with his John Force Racing teammate Brittany Force and, as he did in Pomona, defeated her, this time of a 3.737 to 3.765 count. It was the first time in nine attempts over three Mission Challenge events that at least one of the previous race’s outcomes was not reversed in the semifinals.
The Funny Car final turned out to be a solo pass for Capps and the world champion NAPA Auto Parts Toyota as the engine in Terry Haddock’s Priority Systems Ford unexpectedly shut itself off after the burnout. Capps raced to the title, his first Mission Challenge win, with a 3.941 328.30.
“Since NHRA even came around and talked to the drivers and owners last year about the possibility of running a program like this, I can tell you, everybody I've talked to, every driver, every crew chief was pumped,” said Capps. “It took a Saturday of qualifying and made it insane. We've always concentrated on raceday on Sunday and Saturday being a qualifying day. It completely flipped everything upside down in a great way. Thank you, Mission Foods for doing it.
“It really drives you. If you're in the semifinals at whatever race, you have this little bit of you that knows you're going to be in the next #2Fast2Tasty event. It's a great program and, honestly, I probably speak for most. When I saw the first one happen, and we weren't in it, we were bummed. I forgot there was money. Everybody is so enticed by the points. We won the world championship last year by less than a handful of points, so I can tell you firsthand how important those points are. I've lost world championships probably close to a handful by less than a handful of points in the past. These points are huge. The fact. That NHRA and Mission made a point of making those points go into our bank once the Countdown starts changed everything. Such a great program and so excited we finally got in a winner's circle.”
The first round of Funny Car kicked off with a huge upset as Winternationals champ Matt Hagan lost traction at halftrack, allowing longshot Terry Haddock — who had lost to him in the semifinals in Pomona in just Haddock’s second career semifinal appearance — to advance to the final round with a 4.04. Right before the round, Haddock’s Johnny West-led team had found a broken motor mount in the staging lanes and, against all odds, were able to replace it in time to make the round,
The other half of the Funny Car semifinals repeated the outcome of the Pomona semi with Capps advancing over Bob Tasca III, who also smoked the tires at midcourse in the right lane.
Hererra probably couldn’t have had a better day, winning his sponsor’s event and running his string of 2023 win lights to nine as the winner of the Gatornationals and Charlotte Four-Wide Nationals won both of his rounds Saturday aboard the Vance & Hines/Mission Foods Suzuki to become the first Pro Stock winner in Mission Challenge history with a 6.672 to 6.785 final-round victory over class rookie Chase Van Sant on the Trick Tools entry. Herrera’s pass was the second quickest in class history behind Karen Stoffer’s 6.665 national-record run in Gainesville in 2022. It also was pretty much a hometown race for Herrera, who lives just about an hour away from Route 66 Raceway in DeMotte, Ind.
“It means a lot, obviously,” said Herrera. “Mission is a big sponsor for us, and for Mission to put this on and to be part of it is just a big deal alone but to be able to get the win means a lot to the whole team and myself to be able to do that for Mission.
“We knew the conditions were there. I was more worried about the wind. We were all concerned about the wind because it was coming and going across the bleachers. I didn't think I was going to go faster than my Q1 and Q2 passes because I was all over the bike. It was going left, it was going right so for it to be able to run that I was definitely surprised. But Andrew's got that thing on rails and it's the baddest bike out here. It's showing. They're flexing their horsepower, for sure.”
In the opening round of Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hererra defeated Jianna Evaristo in a repeat of their Gainesville semifinal, powering to a stunning 6.677 – the third-quickest pass in class history – to win easily after Evaristo had to roll back the throttle early to an 8.92. The other half of the semifinal battle flipped the results of the Gainesville outcome with Van Sant defeating Angie Smith, 6.80 to 6.83.
Ashley and Capps each pocketed $10,000 while Herrera netted $3,300. Each challenge winner also earned three bonus points that will be added to their point total to begin the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. The runner-ups (Prock, Haddock, and Van Sant) got two points and the quickest losing semifinalist — Brown in Top Fuel, Hagan in Funny Car, and Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle — earned one point.