Finally! Kalitta prevails in winner-take-all final; Green, Stanfield and Herrera also claim wins at wild season finale
Doug Kalitta defeated Leah Pruett in a winner-take-all Top Fuel final round for the 2023 Top Fuel world championship, ending one of the most notorious streaks of frustration in the sport’s history. Kalitta, a six-time championship runner-up, powered to a 3.67 to beat Pruett’s 3.72 and prevent her from joining her Tony Stewart Racing Funny Car teammate Matt Hagan as a 2023 champ.
The final round of the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals evoked memories of the 1990 Finals, where Joe Amato won a winner-take-all championship from Gary Ormsby in Pomona and brought the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season to a fittingly dramatic finish, with Chad Green (Funny Car), Aaron Stanfield (Pro Stock), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also collecting event wins.
The win was Kalitta’s third this season, following wins in Reading and Charlotte during the playoffs, and the 53rd of his great career that began in the late 1990s.
"It's incredible the way the points thing worked out to come down to that last run," Kalitta marveled. "I just stay focused, It was obviously a big round for us and it played out just perfectly. It's just one of those deals get to the end of the track and I cannot believe these guys are cheering and high-fiving as I get around the corner because I missed seeing the win light.
"When we got to semis with the cars still in, you're just wishing and hoping for the best really. Fortunately, we had lane choice the first three rounds, so that gives you a little bit of confidence with the lane and this track really came together, both lanes were in great shape. This is one of the coolest places to run, with the museum and just the history of the NHRA, and I've heard all the stories back in the day with Connie, and this is just like the pinnacle for me."
Kalitta began his run to his 112th career final round with a 3.70 victory over Dan Mercier then belted out runs of 3.73 and 3.72 in the heat of the day to get past Josh Hart and Justin Ashley.
Pruett helped her own fate by defeating points leader Steve Torrence in the semifinals to give her and Kalitta the chance to race for the crown. Before that, the driver of the Dodge Direct Connection machine defeated former world champs Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown.
Green will long remember the 2023 Finals as not only the site of his first career Funny Car win but also the chance to share the winner’s stage with his son, Hunter, who won in Top Alcohol Dragster. Green, a former winner in Pro Mod and a two-time Funny Car runner-up in this breakthrough season, beat Tim Wilkerson on a holeshot, 3.91 to 3.90, in a car tuned by Wilkerson’s son, Daniel. It’s just the 49th race of Green’s Funny Car career.
"First off, it's been an amazing season," said Green. "This has been a dream season for us. We've done so good all year long. I couldn't be more proud of my guys. They've really come a long way in the last few years, and they've stuck with me. We've been trying all year to get this Wally and have been close a few times, and I can't think of a better way to top off a season by ending like this with a win at the last race.
"As the day went on, and I saw Hunter progressing through the rounds and saw what was happening with him and I saw what was happening with us and saw that some of the big dogs go out, and I was like, 'Yeah, we've really got a chance to win this thing.' To tell you the truth. I've had a good feeling about this race all week."
Green and the Bond Coat team enjoyed a couple of retribution wins in the first two rounds, defeating J.R. Todd and Robert Hight, who had defeated him in his only other career Funny Car finals earlier this season, in Somona and Reading, respectively, and his shocking win over traction-plagued Hight in round two decided the season championship in Matt Hagan’s favor. Green then reached the final round on a 3.961 to 3.960 holeshot win over Blake Alexander.
Wilk and his Scag Power Equipment team began their run to the final round by sending outgoing world champ Ron Capps home early, then took out the sport’s all-time winner, John Force, in round two and reached the final with his best pre-final run of the day, 3.92, to defeating reigning event champ Cruz Pedregon to reach his 53rd career final.
Stanfield had a monster season in the FlexJet Factory Stock Showdown with his third world championship, but Pro Stock has been a different story. Through the first 17 events of the season, Stanfield, who is universally considered one of the class’ best natural talents, had just a single runner-up finish to show for his efforts.
That all changed in Pomona when Stanfield drove his Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro to the Pro Stock title. Stanfield won the race with his clutch foot, leaving ahead of opponent Matt Hartford and claiming a holeshot win, 6.534 to 6.519. For Stanfield, who is expecting his second child with wife, Jolie, any day, the win was his eighth in 75 Pro Stock events.
"We certainly struggled this year but to end the season with a win is awesome," said Stanfield. "I know our team did a good job. They were hungry to get this win.
"This is a nice [baby] gift,” said Stanfield, clutching the Wally trophy. “My wife is ready to pop at any moment. It’s special to get it done at the last race of the year. In the final, I asked Matt if he was cooled down and gassed up because I thought it might take a while for us to stage. Actually, Matt is a good friend and we do a lot of business with him. We have a lot of fun racing him. It's just not as much fun when he beats you. I have to thank the Janac Brothers and J3 Energy and the Elite team. They give me the best thing they can give me. And I’m just very thankful.”
Stanfield was the No. 5 qualifier in the quick field with a 6.501 and rolled through eliminations with wins against Deric Kramer, Troy Coughlin Jr. and championship runner-up and low qualifier Greg Anderson. Stanfield admittedly got a bit lucky in that round as Anderson fouled away one of the quickest runs of the event with a 6.506.
With the win, Stanfield moved from No. 5 to No. 4 in the Pro Stock standings.
Despite the loss, Hartford should be able to pull a lot of positives out of the 2023 season as he wheeled his GETTRX/Total Seal Camaro to three wins in five final rounds. Hartford drove through a tough roster of opponents on Sunday including Dallas Glenn, Kyle Koretsky, and newly crowned six-time world champ Erica Enders, who shook the tires. With the runner-up finish, Hartford was able to grab the No. 3 spot in the Camping World standings.
Herrera has been making history in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class all season, and he made more of it in the Pomona final with a record-setting 11th win of the season. Herrera, who locked up the season championship simply by qualifying for the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals, raced his Vance & Hines/Mission Foods teammate for the fifth time this season and remained perfect with a 6.721 to 6.796 victory.
Herrera finished the season with an other-worldly 50-4 record in elimination rounds following victories against Blaine Hale, LE Tonglet, and Steve Johnson.
"This whole year has been surreal. I have to give it up to my whole team, especially Andrew [Hines, crew chief] He really deserves this," said Herrera. "Last week, he texted me and said he was ready to go to Pomona and get this deal done. It’s so cool to get a text like that from someone like him.
In the final, Ed and I were just having fun. I knew he wasn’t going to stage first. He rapped the throttle a couple of times and I was tempted to look over at him but I figured if I did, he’d quick stage and I’d get timed out. I really want him to win his 50th race but I just can’t give it to him. He wants to earn it and I don’t blame him. I’d feel the same way.
Today, it was a little hard to get into race mode,” Herrera said. “We celebrated a bit last night but I love to race and I was just able to put everything in the back of my mind and come out and race.”
Krawiec, has also had a great season despite going winless. He finished the year with four straight runner-up finishes as he continues to seek his landmark 50th career win. The four-time world champ stopped Chris Bostick, Marc Ingwersen, and Hector Arana Jr. to reach his 96th career final round.