St. Louis marks the mid-point of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, and what happens this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway could very well prove pivotal to the final outcome of the season.
Looking back, Steve Torrence, driving his CAPCO Contractors Top Fuel dragster, gave himself a fighting chance in last season's championship chase by winning the St. Louis event. The defending event champion enters this year's rendition of the Midwest Nationals sitting No. 2 in the standings, some 63 marks behind incoming points leader Doug Kalitta. It was only last weekend in Charlotte that Kalitta took the points lead, and he did so in the first round of eliminations when he himself sent Torrence home. For Kalitta, the win light three rounds later signified a remarkable victory as it marked his second in a row and moved him into the points lead for the first time since 2020.
Justin Ashley, after having an incredible go at the regular season, hasn't yet hit upon the desired outcome during the Countdown. He was out in the second round in Reading and lost first round in Charlotte, which dropped him down to No. 3 in the points. That being said, it would be a tremendous understatement to say that Ashley has been steady at the starting line. His reaction times are consistently incredible, and that can only help his cause at this midway mark in the playoffs.
Two to watch: Leah Pruett and her Dodge Direct Connect dragster – she's scooped up a generous amount of points during the Countdown with back-to-back semifinals performances – and Antron Brown, a five-time winner in St. Louis. He has a fierce racecar that should not be counted out and went 299 mph to the 1/8th mile marker in the Charlotte qualifying session in which Mike Salinas became the first to reach it at 300 mph. Pruett is No. 4 in the points at present, while Brown is just behind in fifth. Reigning champion Brittany Force is No. 6. She's not yet won St. Louis, and this weekend would be the ideal time to do so and make up some ground.
Robert Hight's spectacular recovery from a massive blow-up in Charlotte qualifying sent him to the final round on Sunday, and although he didn't quite have the recipe to take down winner Bob Tasca III and his Motorcraft Quicklane Ford (who is No. 2 in the points with a car and crew that nobody is eager to race) Hight showed that he and his team had the tenacity and mettle required to chase a fourth world title. The AAA/Cornwell Tools Chevrolet Funny Car leads the points entering St. Louis, where Hight has won three times before.
The most winning Funny Car driver in St. Louis is reigning champion Ron Capps, and his four wins here are spaced neatly over a decade. His first St. Louis win was in 1997, and he won twice more at the famed facility before his most recent victory, which took place in 2017. Capps and his NAPA Toyota experienced an unsettlingly early exit last weekend in Charlotte that bumped him down to No. 3 in the championship standings, but it came on the heels of an upsurge – back-to-back wins and a semifinals finish – that he hopes to resume in the shadow of the St. Louis arch. Matt Hagan and his Direct Connect Dodge are tied with Capps for third at the moment, and a second St. Louis win (following his 2021 title) would be a tremendously positive mark on his scorecard at this critical juncture.
To the chagrin of those who possibly didn't see it coming, the Pro Stock points leader remains Matt Hartford. His Total Seal/CIP 1 Chevrolet was flying the flag of Bass Pro Shops in Charlotte and aiming for a second-consecutive Countdown win, but a second-round finish struck threat to his position at the top. KB Titan Racing teammate Greg Anderson halted Hartford's biggest immediate threat, defending Pro Stock champ Erica Enders, in the semifinals. While Anderson went on to win the race in his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, Dallas Glenn – the winner of the regular season – kept his own championship hopes alive with a runner-up. He's currently No. 3, and Anderson is fourth.
Notably, Enders has some kind of cosmic connection with World Wide Technology Raceway and has won here six times total – including in each of the last four seasons. It's been an unusual season for Enders and her Elite Motorsports-powered JHG Chevrolet, but she battled hard to climb from 14th (before Bristol) to now second in the championship standings. St. Louis has been a momentous event for her in the past, and that might make it a little scary for those who hope to hold her at bay.
Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki rider Gaige Herrera was quick to snatch the points lead back from back-to-back winner Matt Smith (a five-time winner in St. Louis), but after a hard hit on the engines he brought to last these three-in-a-row races, Smith is temporarily back on the Pro Stock Motorcycle he won his sixth championship with last season. Smith, who rode his DENSO Suzuki to wins at the U.S. Nationals and Reading to take the points lead is now back at the helm of the well-decorated "Red Rocket," while wife Angie Smith's sparkling pink DENSO Buell is in the hands of Joey Gladstone (Matt Smith Racing Countdown rider Chip Ellis couldn't make the event). Gladstone's bike is being ridden by teammate Cory Reed in St. Louis, while Angie is on the carbon fiber black bike Ellis rode to the final round in Reading. Got it?
Eddie Krawiec hopes to move up from the No. 4 position in which he currently resides with his Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki, and he has good footing with two previous St. Louis wins – but Hector Arana Jr. and his GETTRX Buell are sitting third in the points with no intention of giving anything away. Arana is in the fight with a strong motorcycle and a 2015 win at World Wide Technology Raceway.
2022 EVENT WINNERS
Steve Torrence, Top Fuel; Robert Hight, Funny Car; Erica Enders, Pro Stock, Matt Smith, Pro Stock Motorcycle
MOST EVENT VICTORIES
Antron Brown, 5, TF; Ron Capps, 4, FC; Erica Enders, 6 PS; Matt Smith, 5, PSM
Top Fuel - - 3.631 seconds by Clay Millican, Sept. '17; 338.43 mph by Brittany Force, Oct. '22
Funny Car - 3.830 seconds by Robert Hight, Sept. '17; 338.60 mph by Hight, Sept. '17
Pro Stock -6.492 seconds by Greg Anderson, Sept. '15; 213.47 mph by Line, Sept. '12
Pro Stock Motorcycle - 6.709 seconds by Matt Smith, Sept. '22; 203.22 mph by M Smith, Oct. '22
FRIDAY, Sept. 29
Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series qualifying at 8 a.m.
FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series qualifying at 5:00 p.m.
Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown qualifying at 5:30 p.m.
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying at 6 p.m.
SATURDAY, Sept. 30
Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series eliminations at 8 a.m.
FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series qualifying at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown qualifying at 4:15 and 7:15 p.m.
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m.
SUNDAY, Oct. 1
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series eliminations begin at 11 a.m.
Saturday, Sept. 29: FOX Sports 1 (FS1), will televise one and half hours of qualifying coverage at 7:00 p.m. ET
Sunday, Oct. 1: FOX Sports 1 (FS1), will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 2:00 p.m. ET and three hours of finals coverage at 3:00 p.m. ET
You can also watch the action on NHRA.tv.