The 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals is the first race of the 2023 NHRA Countdown to the Championship, and tension is already high at Maple Grove Raceway as drivers have battled through two incredible days of qualifying. With an early start, the first of six Championship Sundays is laid out to be a battle royale.
Bob Tasca III ended Funny Car qualifying in impressive fashion, locking down the No. 1 position in front of a sellout crowd. Justin Ashley (Top Fuel), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also claimed the pole at the seventh sellout crowd of the 2023 season. They’re all gearing up for Sunday eliminations that have been moved up to 9:30 a.m. ET at Maple Grove Raceway.
Tasca, who entered the weekend fourth in points, raced to his fifth No. 1 of the season with a standout run of 3.86-second at 328 mph in his Motorcraft/Quicklane Ford Mustang. It’s the 14th career top spot for the veteran, who is seeking his second career win at Maple Grove Raceway and third this season.
Tasca impressed in every qualifying session, making the quickest run in the last three rounds, including both on Saturday. That netted him 11 bonus points, giving him plenty of momentum going into raceday, where he’ll take on Cory Lee in the first round.
“The car performed flawlessly,” said Tasca. “As a driver/team owner, that’s what you ask for from your team. They give you a car that can go out there and compete, and you put yourself in a position to win. We have a lot of unfinished business here this weekend, and tomorrow is a big day.
“I think it’s going to be a very challenging day early in the rounds. We’re going to be here at 9:30 (a.m.), and the track is estimated to be somewhere around 75 degrees. You can shake really easy. You could see some big-time upsets, but we just want to go up there and do the best we can. We’ll manage the conditions as they go. As the day progresses, I think you’re going to fall into the conditions that we’ve run really well in. That gives you a lot of confidence going into Sunday.”
Defending world champion and points leader Ron Capps jumped up to the second spot in the final session, going 3.87 at 333. That bumped Robert Hight, who went 3.87 at 329 on Friday, to third.
Justin Ashley, a New York native, stayed on top in front of a capacity crowd at his home track, with his run of 3.68, 335 from Friday in his Phillips Connect Toyota dragster for the No. 1 spot for third time in what has been a banner 2023 season. It’s also the fifth career top qualifier for the Top Fuel points leader, who has already picked up six victories this year. Ashley made another strong run to close out qualifying and will open eliminations against Scott Farley.
Ashley has had plenty of success at Maple Grove Raceway in his young Top Fuel career as he advanced to the final round last year. He would love to set the tone for the Countdown to the Championship with a victory on Sunday and remains confident in the mentality of the team.
“We feel great. You’re trying to put yourself in the best position to win the race on Sunday and I feel like we accomplished that,” said Ashley. “We went down the track three out of four times, and we had that .68 in the quickest session, but tomorrow is going to be different in a lot of ways. It’s going to be faster than what we’ve seen.
“Inherently, there’s more pressure because the playoffs are on, but it doesn’t change our approach. Our mentality is to continue to do the same thing that we’ve been doing since the start of the year. There’s a reason we’re in the position that we’re in now. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in it being the playoffs and changing what you’re doing or focusing more intently. But we take every race the same way, playoffs or regular season. There is more pressure, but as a group, we’ve stuck to our guns that we’re to have fun, we’re here to have a good time, we’re here to win. I feel confident in the group that we have and I feel confident that we’re not going to let the pressure get to us.
Defending world champion Brittany Force stayed second with her 3.68 at 336 from Friday, and Doug Kalitta took third with his 3.69 at 331.
Defending Pro Stock world champ Erica Enders seems poised to defend her event victory from Maple Grove Raceway last year. She qualified No. 1 for the third time this season thanks to Friday’s 6.49 at 211 in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro. It’s the 32nd career No. 1 for the five-time world champion who moved up to second in in the points on Saturday on the strength of her qualifying performances. After making the quickest run of 2023 in Pro Stock on Friday, Enders had two strong showings on Saturday, including the quickest run in the final qualifying session.
She’ll open eliminations against Val Smeland and is aiming for her third win of the season. A victory on Sunday would also make her the winningest female in NHRA history.
“It was definitely cool to follow up today with two really great runs,” said Enders. “I’m super proud of my team, we made some changes this morning to try to pick up a little bit and it went in the opposite direction, so we fixed it and were able to outrun the field. It was pretty substantial, but it’s a challenging raceday ahead of us tomorrow, and we have to make sure everything goes right. I’m excited and proud of my guys. We’ve really turned this season around. I’m stoked and ready to go.
“We were waiting for that pendulum to swing back in our direction after our really sorry to start for the year, but we knew we could with hard work and determination. My guys have this awesome never-quit attitude and just amazing tenacity. I’m proud of them. It’s not something that’s easy to go through as a team. We’ve been through the trenches before, but this was a tough one. We rallied together, and we’re doing well. A lot can change in the next six Sundays, but we’re going to ride this wave as long as we can.”
Troy Coughlin stayed second but improved his performance with a 6.49 at 211. Aaron Stanfield also bettered his qualifying mark with a 6.50 at 211 to qualify third. Points leader Dallas Glenn qualified ninth.
Gaige Herrera ended qualifying on another massive note in Pro Stock Motorcycle, tying his mark for the quickest run of the year with a strong 6.67 at 202 on his Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki. That lowered the track E.T. record he set on Friday and the points leader also set the track speed record with a pass of 203 earlier in the day. Not only did Herrera - who is making his first appearance in the Countdown to the Championship - claim his ninth No. 1 in 10 races this year, he also picked up the most possible points in qualifying.
Herrera made the quickest run in all four sessions, giving him plenty of confidence heading into the first of six playoff races on Sunday.
“I’m very confident. I have to give all the credit to the whole Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki team and Andrew [Hines, crew chief], and all the guys back at the shop,” said Herrera. “We’re basically just showing off their hard work and to go out there and run that, I’m very happy with it, Andrew is very happy with it. We’re definitely happy with it, and I’m going into tomorrow with all the confidence in the world. I’m glad to get as much points as I can so far going into the Countdown. My whole goal is to try to get as many as I can again. That was my goal, and Andrew is always shooting to be No. 1 so he was all for it.”
Chip Ellis made a big jump to qualify second thanks to his run of 6.74 at 200, and Hector Arana Jr. took third with his 6.74 at 201.
Eliminations for the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals begin at 9:30 a.m. ET on Sunday at Maple Grove Raceway.