Gaige Herrera and Erica Enders solidified their championship leads in Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Stock, respectively, while Mike Salinas and Robert Hight pulled themselves into the title fight in Top Fuel and Funny Car on a dramatic Sunday at the NHRA Nevada Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the second-to-last event of the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series.
With the coolest conditions of the weekend providing excellent atmospheric conditions for high performance but a cool racetrack and a headwind creating a bit of a wild card, it was a throw-down kind of day with so much on the line,
Salinas needed a big weekend and a little help to keep himself in the championship battle heading to the season finale in Pomona and got it with a hug win and early exits by the leaders. Salinas started the weekend sixth in points and 131 behind the lead but finished fourth and 76 back of a new leader with a solid 3.67 in the final round to stop Justin Ashley, who also had a great get-well weekend but shook the tires in the final. The win was Salinas’ second of the season but his first season opener in Gainesville.
"We came into this race and I told my guys, we need to win this race and the next one to even matter," said Salinas. "So let's focus on one round at a time, one race at a time, and we achieved the goal of winning this race, so now we have four rounds to win at the next race, and that's how we have to look at it because we're a stepchild on the outside looking in. We were badass today, we were the best car out here, but we think there's more.
"We've been working on this car since Gainesville and it has shown signs of greatness, but the consistency has been evading us so we were trying to get more consistent. We have come across some stuff that we were working on, it seemed to work and today is the best day we've had all year and the car's showing amazing signs. If we can continue to do what we're doing here, it'll be a great weekend. in Pomona, but tomorrow we're gonna test. We're gonna test because we're serious about where we're going to Pomona. We have to be in a certain zip code because, in our own eyes, we're not even in the game."
Salinas’ Rob Flynn-tuned Valley Services dragster entered eliminations from the No. 1 qualifying spot and delivered a blizzard of 3.6-second passes to reach the final, ripping to a 3.69 in round one to get past Rob Passey, a 3.68 in the second frame to trailer Tony Schumacher, and low e,t. of eliminations 3.663 in the semifinals to beat Josh Hart, who had eliminated the top two points runners, Leah Pruett and Doug Kalitta, on back-to-back holeshots in the first two rounds.
Justin Ashely came into the race in fourth place and knew he needed a huge weekend to get back into the title fight, and his Mike Green- and Tommy DeLago-tuned Leatherwood Distillery/Phillips Connect team responded by qualifying him fourth and then tuning him to the final with wins over Dan Mercier, Austin Prock, and, on a 3.73 to 3.68 semifinal holeshot, new points leader Steve Torrence. It was Ashley’s first final since he won in Topeka in early August.
Torrence’s lead going to Pomona will be 15 points over Kalitta and 34 over Pruett.
The big four in Funny Car — Matt Hagan, Bob Tasca III, Robert Hight, and Ron Capps — entered the event covered by less than 100 points but Hight’s win shifted the conversation dramatically. Capps went out in round one to Alex Laughlin — the reigning world champ’s second straight first-round exit — and Tasca took down incoming points leader Hagan in the semifinal to set up the final-round showdown between Hight and Tasca, the top two qualifiers.
Tasca left first but shook, forcing him to pedal, and Hight steamed away to a 3.851 for his fourth win of the year and 65th of his career, making good for a devastating first-round loss two weeks earlier in Dallas. Hight qualified No. 1 and took every possible point available -- all 130 of them -- and the win closed the points window with Hagan leading Tasca by 15 points and Hight by just 17.
"It's really been a strong weekend at the races," said Hight. "I'd like to know if anybody in a Countdown race in Funny Car has swept every single point possible. That just goes to my team. You know, they gave me a race car that was perfect this weekend, and we had good conditions where 3.88 was our worst run.
"I feel really good [going into Pomona] We just have to stay steady and stay focused. Nothing we can do about what the conditions are going to be at Pomona, but I'm gonna pray every night that they're great like we had this weekend. And whatever it is, I feel like my team's got a good handle on this race car, and we just gotta go get it done. With two tough competitors, it's not going to be easy -- I guess I guess Capps is still mathematically in it -- the three of us are going to be duking it out."
Hight’s Cornwell Tools Camaro stunned everyone — including crew chief Jimmy Prock — with a first-round 3.81, the ninth quickest pass in history and the quickest since the 2017 season, then mowed down Alexis DeJoria with a 3.85 and followed with a 3.86 blast in the semifinals to end Blake Alexander’s day and reach the 102nd final of his career
Tasca, who thought he had qualified his stealth-black PPG Industries Mustang No. 1 Saturday night until NHRA officials discovered a rules infraction involving the width of his headers, came into Sunday with a chip on his shoulders and r and lucked his way past Steve Densham with a traction-plagued 4.34 and survived a cylinder-dropping 3.98 after Cruz Pedregon broke on the starting line. Tasca’s crew righted the ship for the semifinals with a strong 3.88 to beat Hagan’s 3.90 to reach the final, the 30th of his career.
Enders was the most winning professional driver in Las Vegas, and she continued her dominance at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with a 10th win at the esteemed facility. The victory kept her 114 points ahead of second-place Greg Anderson, whom she met in the final round for the second time this season and 11th time in her career. The rivalry between the two has been rich and at times intense throughout her career, beginning with her first Pro Stock win, which came at the expense of Anderson at the Chicago Route 66 Nationals in 2012. In the last four years, the Pro Stock championship has belonged to either Enders or Anderson, and they are battling for what would be a sixth world title for either of them.
In their final-round meeting under the setting sun, Enders left the starting line with a .012-second reaction time to her opponent's .024 and surged ahead as Anderson fell into immediate and violent tire shake. She crossed the finish line with a strong 6.557, 208.23 with Anderson watching from well behind.
"Today was stress-level nine million," said Enders. "It was do or die; we needed to perform perfectly, and my guys went out there and did just that."
Enders was assured that she would leave with the points lead when she won her first-round meeting with Mason McGaha. There, she recorded a bold 6.554 that was accompanied by top speed of the meet, 208.81 mph, that kept her well ahead of McGaha's 6.662. The defending world champion went on to record a 6.570, 208.36 in her defeat of Elite Motorsports teammate Troy Coughlin Jr.'s 6.616, 207.88 in the second round, and with lane choice over Coughlin's uncle, veteran Pro Stock competitor Jeg Coughlin, she scored a semifinals win light that sent her ahead to the final and a chance at stretching her tally of trophies to 48.
The elder Coughlin, who was back on track for the first time since 2020, was brought on board at Elite Motorsports for the last two events of this season and to break in a new Rick Jones Chevrolet Camaro that Enders will pilot in the 2024 season. When he lined up next to Enders in the semifinals, both drivers were at the ready. Enders was off the starting line first with a .014 reaction time – her best of the day to that point – and he threw down a .018. They were close as they raced down the track, but Coughlin pulled the parachutes before the finish line and slowed to a 6.948. Enders won on a 6.578.
"It was a challenging day," continued Enders. "Jeg Coughlin, he was .004, .005, .007 in qualifying and his graphs look perfect. He's a legend, and he and I both got pretty loose out there. But the final round against Greg, it was pretty epic. After we both won the semifinals, we shook hands and he said, 'Old guys to the top.' I really enjoy racing him, but I enjoy beating him more, respectfully.
"It was a tremendous day, [but] I don't feel like [the championship] is ours. We have to go out there and continue to earn it. If you would have told me 12 races ago that we were going to contend for our sixth championship, I would have told you that you were nuts. We have a 114-point lead, but a lot can happen. A lot can change, and I just try to focus on what's right in front of me. I don't want to get the bigger picture in my mind too far ahead, but at the same time believe that we can do it and that we're capable."
On the other side of the ladder, eight-time Las Vegas winner Anderson was working his way to the 176th final round of his career and using his clutch foot to his best ability. In the first round, he reacted with a .005 and clocked a 6.577, 207.27 to shut down Aaron Stanfield's .025 and 6.612, 207.69. Round two set the 103-time Pro Stock winner up against KB Titan Racing teammate Kyle Koretsky, who also happened to be the No. 1 qualifier at the event. Anderson again left first, this time with a .004 to his opponent's .041, and raced ahead for a holeshot win. His 6.583, 207.98 got the better of a 6.567, 207.91. In the semis, he met another KBT teammate and championship hopeful in Matt Hartford, and this time it was his challenger with the better reaction time. Hartford's .027 topped a .050, but when he got into trouble midway down the track, he slowed to a 7.294 that was no match for Anderson's 6.566, 207.88. Anderson moved ahead to this fourth final of the season and 176th of his career.
Herrera notched another win in a remarkable and historic season, this time with a final-round defeat of Vance & Hines Mission Foods teammate Eddie Krawiec, who had his heart set on claiming the 50th win of his career – a milestone he's been after since winning his 49th at the U.S. Nationals in 2021. The two came to the starting line and were right away making it interesting. Neither rider made a move to fully stage, and they revved their Suzuki engines back and forth until Herrera finally went in. Krawiec soon followed and when the tree came down, he launched first with a .050 light to Herrera's .063. At the top end, though, it was Herrera earning the blue winner's hat and trophy as he reset the track record for elapsed time with a crisp 6.755, 198.32 to defeat a 6.847, 198.70. It was Herrera's 10th win and the fourth final of the season with teammate Krawiec in the other lane.
Herrera's day began with a solo as would-be-opponent Angie Smith did not make the call. Although medically cleared to race, Smith came to the event solely to earn qualifying points as she continues to heal from a wreck in St. Louis last month. In the second round, Herrera was unchallenged as Marc Ingwersen clocked an uncharacteristic .360 reaction time, and in the semifinals, Herrera made his slowest pass of the weekend, a 6.815, that was still enough to send Jerry Savoie home. Savoie, the 2016 class champion filling in for his White Alligator Racing teammate Chase Van Sant, was 6.906.
"This race was really emotional to me. I have a lot of family and friends here, and I had a stellar bike all I day," said Herrera. "I think the semis against Jerry Savoie, I knew I had to be on it on the tree and I was .020 to his .022. I actually short-shifted 4-5, and I got worried because I could hear him there the whole time. I messed up there, but luckily Andrew Hines and Vance & Hines power saved my butt there. All day today, it was a little bit of a challenge with the headwind, riding-wise, and you could definitely feel it. But I had a very good bike all day."
Krawiec reached his fourth final of the year and 95th of his career. In the first round, he took a solo due to parts breakage that prevented Karen Stoffer from making their meeting, and in round two, he clocked a clean win over Steve Johnson, 6.864 to 6.959. The semifinals set Krawiec up against Matt Smith Racing rider Jianna Evaristo, and although his opponent got a plentiful jump at the starting line (.039 to his .089), he was able to make up the different with a 6.845 to her 6.897 that got the win by just .002.
Herrera has an almost insurmountable lead and will arrive at the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals leading Krawiec by 181 points with 191 marks left to claim. All Herrera must do to win his first NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world championship is make a single qualifying pass in Pomona.
"It was awesome being in the final against Ed," continued Herrera. "That's the third Vance & Hines final in a row, and it was a fun final. We went up there, and I had a feeling he wasn't going to stage first so I just sat there. He revved the throttle at me and I did it back. Once he did it the second time I said, 'Oh, he's definitely not going in first,' so I just rolled it in. It knocked me off my game a little, but he shook the tire and I ended up going a 6.755. It felt like a very smooth, good pass, but I didn't expect it to go faster than what I qualified with. We're happy with that, and after this weekend, once I go to Pomona and break the beams, it's a done deal – that's very exciting. It doesn't feel real. I haven't even woke up yet from the beginning of the season."