Even though the top three drivers in the Top Fuel championship hunt — Leah Pruett, Doug Kalitta, and Steve Torrence — are all within 13 points entering the last two races of the season, no one — especially the man himself — is discounting the guy in fourth place, regular-season champ Justin Ashley.
Ashley finished the regular season with a 64-point lead and entered the Countdown to the Championship as the top seed thanks to a six-win regular season. His success in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge gave him a 30-point lead over Steve Torrence instead of the traditional 20.
But Ashley’s Phillips Connect/Leatherwood Distillery team has won just two rounds in the four races of the Countdown so far and dropped from first place to fourth,108 points behind Pruett, but with 130 points available at the NHRA Nevada Nationals this weekend and 191 points available at the points-and-a-half In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals, he knows that there’s still time, and it all starts with the first qualifying session.
“I don't think it's been one thing in particular,” he analyzed. “You look at some of the races throughout the regular season and a lot of times, we were on the winning end of those close races that are a coin flip, and sometimes throughout the Countdown it’s been the opposite and we've been on the losing end of that. It’s not an excuse. I think that it's just one of those stretches that we've got to work ourselves past, and I think that we have. I think starting this weekend, we'll be able to get right back on track, and take everything that we learned these four races, and be able to apply it starting this weekend. But now, more than ever, every point in qualifying through raceday, they all matter.
With multiple season championships over the last five years being decided by single-digit margins, every point does matter.
"We're just focused on trying to do what we can these last two races,” he said. “We felt good going into playoffs with what we had, but now that we're here, our focus is trying to win these last two races and let the points take care of themselves.
“With Pomona being points-and-a-half, sometimes it works to your advantage and sometimes it works to your disadvantage. In this instance, it's going to work to our advantage. Our goal for leaving this weekend would be to try to at least cut that lead down to 50 points. If we can get to within two or even three rounds going into Sunday morning in Pomona, we feel like we have a good shot,
“Honestly, I'm a fan of the Countdown,” he added. “Every sport has its own version of the playoffs: You can go 16-1 in the regular season in football and then lose the first round of the playoffs; that's just the way it goes. Obviously, it's good for the fans, but it can be difficult sometimes for the teams.”
Emotions are also a part of any sport, and with the lead going into the playoffs, Ashley was excited about the prospect of being a champion but worked hard not to let it impact him.
“It was hard not to think ahead,” he admitted. “You really try to take it one race at a time and just focus on being the best version of ourselves that we could be, but how can you not? This is the ultimate goal. This is a dream come true for our entire team, so, certainly, you know, we let ourselves think about it a little bit, but we didn't let it have a negative effect on anything.
“You can’t take anything for granted with the way Top Fuel is now. In my opinion, it's the best Top Fuel field we’ve ever seen. Last year, I thought the same thing and then it got even better in 2023. There's no such thing as like a first-round test run right anymore, and by the time you get to the second round forget it, it's like a final round every time.”