It all begins here. At this point, every single driver in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series is tied for the championship lead with zero points and eternal optimism abounds at Gainesville Raceway.
Championships cannot be won in Gainesville, but a good start to the season can often set the tone for a successful season.
Making predictions before the start of the first race can be a risky proposition, but after a half-century in the business, Tricky Tipster isn’t one to shy away from a difficult assignment.
So, without further hesitation, we present our Gatornationals picks.
The favorite: Quite honestly, there are about six to eight drivers in Top Fuel who would fit the definition of a favorite, but at this point, there is no reason not to pick reigning champion Brittany Force, who is seeking her second Gainesville victory. Force had the best car in Top Fuel for nearly all of the 2022 season, and she had the driving to match with five wins in seven final rounds. This figures to be perhaps the toughest season in the history of Top Fuel, quite possibly even tougher than last season, but at this point, the road to the championship goes through the Monster Energy team.
The contenders: We could name just about every driver on the 17-car entry list when it comes to contenders, as almost any driver in the field is capable of reaching the final or at least upsetting a higher qualified car. We can start with Steve Torrence, who is clearly not happy to have a No. 6 on the wing of his Capco Contractors dragster after holding the top spot for four straight years.
Three-time world champ Antron Brown is also looking to avoid the slow start that derailed his championship aspirations last season. Brown has tested extensively this offseason and clearly has the performance to run up front.
At most events, it's going to take 3.6s to get the job done, and few cars run those numbers as often as the Phillips Connect dragster driven by Justin Ashley. When this car qualifies in the top half of the field, which is quite often, the driver is usually able to hold up his end of the bargain, which makes them particularly tough out.
The dark horse: We’re going with Clay Millican this time because his days as a dark horse are likely numbered. Millican and his Parts Plus team have gotten a much-needed infusion of parts and resources from new team owner Rick Ware, which should almost certainly translate to quicker and more consistent performances.
Brittany Force Monster Energy 3-1
Antron Brown Matco Tools 4-1
Steve Torrence Capco Contractors 5-1
Justin Ashley Phillips Connect 5-1
Austin Prock Montana Brands 6-1
Mike Salinas Scrappers 7-1
Josh Hart R+L Carriers 8-1
Doug Kalitta Mac Tools 9-1
Clay Millican Parts Plus 14-1
The favorite: Last year, Tipster caught a mountain of grief when he dared suggest that the Funny Car class was a two- or three-horse race for the championship. Well, this year, it isn’t. Heading into 2023, there are at least six teams that could lay claim to the title, including reigning champion Ron Capps, who is going to kick off the new year as a slight favorite against the rest of the class. Capps has won in Gainesville four times, including his most recent win in 2020. During preseason testing, Capps was not the quickest driver in the field, but he was perhaps the most consistent.
The contenders: Last year, the championship essentially came down to a three-way battle between Capps, Matt Hagan, and Robert Hight, and this year, add Cruz Pedregon to the mix. The two-time champion turned in what was easily the most dominant performance of his career late last year when he won in Pomona, and he’s carried that momentum to the new year, where he’s been one of the rock stars of testing with runs in the 3.8s. Pedregon and his Snap-on team are primed for a big season, and it should begin immediately.
The dark horse: Let’s see, how about Tim Wilkerson? While he doesn’t necessarily fit the definition of a dark horse, he’s got a shot this year to do something special thanks to his new association with the Maynard team and SCAG Mowers. The question has often been asked, “What could Tim Wilkerson do with the resources of the big teams?” We’ve not reached the find-out phase of that inquiry.
Ron Capps NAPA Toyota 3-1
Cruz Pedregon Snap-on Dodge 4-1
Robert Hight Flav-R-Pak Chevy 5-1
Matt Hagan Dodge Power Brokers Dodge 6-1
Bob Tasca III Motorcraft Ford 6-1
Tim Wilkerson SCAG Mowers Ford 7-1
John Force Peak/Blu Def Chevy 8-1
J.R. Todd DHL Toyota 9-1
Alexis DeJoria Bandero Toyota 11-1
The favorite: Erica Enders is the easiest choice on the board following her epic 10-win season that resulted in a fifth NHRA Camping World Pro Stock title. Enders won 59 rounds last season, the most of her career, but none of them came in Gainesville. One might remember, she suffered an embarrassing holeshot loss here last year, and there’s nothing she’d like more than a victory to erase that memory.
The contenders: As we noted before, everyone else who finished in the Top 10 last year is a contender, but if we have to single out a couple of contenders, we’re going to start with Aaron Stanfield, Troy Coughlin Jr., and, of course, five-time champion Greg Anderson. Stanfield and Coughlin are two of the class’ premiere driving talents, so they can use their clutch foot to steal round-wins whenever necessary. Anderson is the sport’s most successful Pro Stock driver with 101 wins. Next up is Top Alcohol Funny Car kingpin Frank Manzo, who retired with 105 victories.
The dark horse: Again, it’s hard to call this guy a dark horse because he’s the defending event winner, but reigning Gatornationals champ Dallas Glenn is our pick this time. Glenn has mega talent behind the wheel, but he struggled at times last season with just two final rounds after his Gainesville win. He’s almost certainly going to win more races this year and should easily cover last year’s record of 22-17.
Erica Enders JGH/Elite Camaro 2-1
Troy Coughlin Jr. JEGS.com Camaro 3-1
Aaron Stanfield Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro 5-1
Greg Anderson Hendrick Cars.com Camaro 6-1
Matt Hartford Total Seal Camaro 7-1
Kyle Koretsky Lucas Oil/NitroFish Camaro 8-1
Dallas Glenn RAD Torque Systems Camaro 8-1
Deric Kramer Get BioFuel Camaro 9-1
Cristian Cuadra Jr. Corral Boots Mustang 11-1
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
The favorite: How could we go with the other three reigning world champs and not include Matt Smith as our Pro Stock Motorcycle pick? Smith is the complete package of rider, tuner, and builder, and he’s already run in the 6.6s during preseason testing. Smith has committed to his Suzuki program this season, which means the Buell V-Twin that he raced last year will likely collect dust. That should do little or nothing to diminish his chances of winning a record-setting seventh championship.
The contenders: Last March, Joey Gladstone had won exactly zero NHRA events, but a lot has changed in the last 12 months. Gladstone is now a three-time winner on his Reed Motorsports Suzuki, and he nearly won the 2022 championship. Given his progress, Gladstone figures to give Smith all he can handle in the championship fight.
The Vance & Hines team has been revamped with newcomer Gaige Herrera joining veteran Eddie Krawiec aboard the team’s Mission Foods Suzukis. The V&H team will also have the new billet engines cases and the third-generation Suzuki Hayabusa bodywork. After winning just one race last year, the Vance & Hines team is primed for a big season this year.
Finally, the class’ most recent winner is Angie Smith, who claimed her third-career victory in Pomona. Smith will be one of the few racers riding a V-Twin this season, but her Denso Buell is among the class’ best.
The dark horse: It’s almost impossible to call someone who won two races last year a dark horse, but let's try that for a moment with Hector Arana Jr. The second-generation racer didn’t get too many chances to race last year, but he made the most of it with wins in Dallas and Las Vegas. Arana renewed his sponsorship agreement with GETTRX, so he’s set for a full season this time around.
Matt Smith Denso Suzuki 5-2
Joey Gladstone Reed Motorsports Suzuki 5-1
Angie Smith Denso Buell 6-1
Eddie Krawiec Vance & Hines Suzuki 7-1
Hector Arana Jr. GETTRX Buell 8-1
Steve Johnson MacRak Suzuki 9-1
Gaige Herrera Vance & Hines Suzuki 10-1
Marc Ingwersen Buckeye HD 11-1