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Pep Boys NHRA Nationals Saturday preview

After a spectacular first day of qualifying at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, it looks to be a stellar Saturday at historic Maple Grove Raceway. Friday’s provisional low qualifiers intend to defend their lofty positions, but they’ve got a slew of competitors breathing down their necks. Saturday will determine low qualifiers and ladders at the first race of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
16 Sep 2023
Kelly Wade
Race coverage
Maple Grove Raceway

After a spectacular first day of qualifying at the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, drivers, teams, and fans are fired up for a stellar Saturday at historic Maple Grove Raceway. Friday’s provisional low qualifiers intend to defend their lofty positions, but they’ve got a slew of competitors breathing down their necks. Today will determine who locks into the top spot and how the ladders will fall at the first race of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship. 

Top Fuel standout Justin Ashley has had a career year in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, and the incoming points leader continued his charge as he made the quickest pass of the lot on Friday in his Phillips Connect rail. He’ll have a challenging day on Saturday as Brittany Force and the Monster Energy dragster were hot on his heels; his 3.68 was nearly nipped by her 3.68. Doug Kalitta in the Mac Tools entry and CAPCO Contractors pilot Steve Torrence were both right there with a 3.69 and landed third and fourth, respectively. 

It’s close, quick, and fast at Maple Grove Raceway, and championship implications are intense at the first race of the Countdown. Each qualifying round comes with the possibility of bonus points, and in the race for the series title, one or two points can make the difference at the end. Ashley and Force each claimed three, Antron Brown claimed two, and Kalitta and Clay Millican each claimed one on the first day of the event. There are twelve more up for grabs on Saturday at Maple Grove Raceway. 

Torrence, No. 2 in the standings, was behind Ashley by 30 marks entering the event; Brown is 44 back from first, and Leah Pruett is 58 back in fourth. Defending Top Fuel champion Brittany Force is sitting in the No. 5 spot, 68 points out of first, with Kalitta, Mike Salinas, defending event champion Austin Prock, Millican, and Josh Hart rounding out the top 10. Former world champ Shawn Langdon and eight time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher are outside of the top 10 but included in the championship chase as drivers who contested each event and made laps in the majority of qualifying sessions. They’ve all got their sights set on the bonus qualifying points on the table. 

Ashley is in the hunt for his third No. 1 qualifier award of the year and fifth of his career. 

Motorcraft/Quicklane Ford Mustang pilot Bob Tasca III continues to shine in a season unlike any he’s had since making his nitro debut in 2008. Tasca, who claimed two wins in two final rounds during the regular season, was second-quickest in the opening round with a strong 3.91 and bettered it with a 3.87 to move into the top spot. Tasca is seeking his fifth No. 1 of the season and 15th of his career.

Robert Hight, the defending event champion, drove the Cornwell Tools / AAA Chevrolet to a best time of 3.87 on Friday that was just .004 behind Tasca. Chad Green and his Bond-Coat, Inc., Ford, as well as NAPA Toyota campaigner Ron Capps, clocked a 3.88, with John Force fifth on a 3.89. Alexis DeJoria, Blake Alexander, and Matt Hagan each raced to a 3.91, with J.R. Todd clocking a 3.92 and Cruz Pedregon going 3.93 to show how tentative the current line-up is. Thousandths of a second will decide the order and lay out the critical ladder for Sunday eliminations.

Bonus points were awarded to just three drivers across the two sessions on Friday: Tasca and Hight each claimed five, and Green claimed two – one in each session as third best of the round. 

Capps leads the points at present in defense of the Funny Car championship, and Hagan entered the event second, just 24 points – a little more than a round – out of first. Hight is 38 points back in third, Tasca is 48 back in fourth, Todd is 56 behind No. 1 in fifth, while Alexis DeJoria, Green, Tim Wilkerson, John Force, and Cruz Pedregon are also in the Top 10. Alex Laughlin is chasing the championship from the No. 11 spot. 

Defending Pro Stock champ Erica Enders entered the event No. 3 in the championship standings and aided her cause with the top run in both sessions to grab the provisional pole. She earned a total of six bonus points, with Elite Motorsports teammate Aaron Stanfield claiming two, Greg Anderson, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Deric Kramer each scoring one. 

Enders’ best time of 6.49 in the JHG/Melling Performance Camaro was the best Pro Stock pass of the event and of the season to date. She's aiming at a third No. 1 of the season and 32nd of her career. Coughlin is currently No. 2 on the qualifying sheet with a 6.50 that was nearly matched by No. 3 man Stanfield, and Anderson is No. 4 in his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro, with KB Titan Racing teammate Deric Kramer also clocking a 6.51 for the No. 5 position. Cristian Cuadra, incoming points leader Dallas Glenn, and Bo Butner each went 6.52 for sixth, seventh, and eighth place. The bump spot is 6.605, and Fernando Cuadra Sr. is holding it down at the moment. 

With 22 Pro Stockers on the property, the tight field leaves Kenny Delco, Alan Prusiensky, Brandon Miller (who is pulling double duty with a Top Sportsman entry, as well), Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mason McGaha, and Larry Morgan on the outside. They’re itching to break into the field. Delco and Prusiensky are closest; they each went 6.62 on day one in Reading. 

Glenn, who has been the points leader for most of the season, has the most to lose this weekend. His RAD Torque Systems Chevrolet Camaro is ahead of KBT teammate Matt Hartford by just 25 marks, and after sweeping the U.S. Nationals, Hartford’s Total Seal/CIP 1 entry is the car to beat. Enders, though, has been a force to be reckoned with in recent years. She is 32 points back from first, Coughlin is 41 back, and Kramer is 52 back in fifth. 

The top 10 is packed with viable, potential champions with Stanfield (a multi-time titlist in the Sportsman ranks), five-time champion Anderson (the most winning driver in Pro Stock), and young guns Kyle Koretsky, Camrie Caruso, and Cristian Cuadra completing those most likely to succeed in the upper 10. Those who still have a fighting chance at the series title and have a keen eye on the bonus points and what position will garner the most marks include 2017 world champion and last season’s Reading low qualifier Bo Butner, U.S. Nationals finalist Fernando Cuadra Jr., Rookie of the Year contender Jerry Tucker, the fighting McGahas (son Mason and father Chris), and veteran racer Fernando Cuadra Sr., who made his Pro Stock debut in 2004. 

Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki rider Gaige Herrera’s season of power continues, as he and his team –  including crew chief and two-time Reading winner Andrew Hines – threw down a track-record setting 6.678 at 202 mph on Friday night for the provisional pole. Herrera is after a ninth No. 1 of the season in his first full year of competition. The next quickest on the sheet was Hector Arana Jr. and his GETTRX Buell. Arana clocked a 6.74, Rookie of the Year contender Chase Van Sant was No. 3 with a 6.75, and Matt Smith Racing-appointed rider Chip Ellis was No. 4 and was just .002 behind. Angie Smith, Matt Smith, Steve Johnson, and Jianna Evaristo complete the quick eight. 

Notably, six-time world champion Matt Smith, who won the U.S. Nationals and starts the Countdown 29 points back from Herrera, is one of four riders in the Matt Smith Racing stable during the championship hunt. In Indy, he spoke to the media of bringing well-reputed rider Ellis in as a blocker for the Countdown, and Ellis is on a motorcycle that can clearly do some damage. The MSR umbrella includes Ellis, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Evaristo – all of which are in the top eight after the first day of qualifying. 

Vance & Hines Mission Foods rider Eddie Krawiec has more wins (five) at Maple Grove than any other currently competing rider. He’s currently ninth in the line-up on a 6.86, and he’s looking for all the points he can muster as he is No. 4 in the championship standings entering the event. Arana is in the No. 3 position, just behind Matt Smith, and Angie Smith is No. 5. Steve Johnson is 71 points back, Van Sant is 81 away from first, and Marc Ingwersen, Evaristo, and Kelly Clontz complete the top 10. Ryan Oehler and Chris Bostick are in the championship chase from the No. 11 and No. 12 positions, respectively. 


Austin Prock, Top Fuel; Robert Hight, Funny Car; Erica Enders, Pro Stock; Joey Gladstone, Pro Stock Motorcycle



Tony Schumacher, 5, TF; John Force, 7, FC; Jeg Coughlin, 4, PS; Angelle Sampey, 6, PSM.



Top Fuel - 3.623 seconds by Brittany Force, Sept. '19; 337.66 mph by B. Force, Sept. '22

Funny Car - 3.837 seconds by Ron Capps, Sept. '19; 339.28 mph by Capps, Sept. '19

Pro Stock - 6.465 seconds by Erica Enders, Oct. '14; 214.59 mph by Greg Anderson, Oct. '15

Pro Stock Motorcycle - 6.678 seconds by Gaige Herrera, Sept. 23; 202.69 mph by Matt Smith, Sept. '21



Top Fuel - 3.623 sec. by Brittany Force, Sept. '19, Reading, Pa.; 338.94 mph by Brittany Force, Nov. ‘22, Pomona, Calif.

Funny Car - 3.793 sec. by Robert Hight, Aug. '17, Brainerd; 339.87 mph by Robert Hight, July ’17, Sonoma, Calif.

Pro Stock - 6.450 sec. by Erica Enders, March '22, Gainesville, Fla.; 215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May '14, Englishtown, N.J.

Pro Stock Motorcycle - 6.665 sec. by Karen Stoffer, March '22, Gainesville, Fla.; 205.04 mph by Matt Smith, July '21, Sonoma, Calif.



SATURDAY, September 16

NHRA Lucas Oil Series Drag Racing Series eliminations at 8:45 a.m.;
Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car qualifying at 10:45 a.m.;
Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car eliminations at 2:30 and 5:00 p.m.

Flexjet NHRA Factory Stock Showdown qualifying at 11:45 a.m. and eliminations and 5:30 p.m.

NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.

SUNDAY, September 17

Pre-Race ceremonies begin at 10 a.m.
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series eliminations begin at 10:30 a.m.



SUNDAY, September 17 - FS1 will televise one and half hours of qualifying coverage at 12:30 a.m. (ET)

SUNDAY, September 19 - FOX will televise two hours of finals coverage at 2:00 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. (ET) (Check Local Listings)

Watch all day on NHRA.tv