With both of the four wide events behind us, it’s now time to greet an old friend, Route 66 Raceway. The last time NHRA raced in Joliet was 2019 and for anyone who doesn’t remember, Steve Torrence, Tommy Johnson Jr., Deric Kramer, and Matt Smith won Pro titles. Not surprisingly, three of the four former winners will be listed among the contenders again this year.
For the record, we’re going with Brittany Force, Matt Hagan, Matt Hartford, and Gaige Herrera as our pre-race favorites. Here’s why.
The favorite: This might be the most difficult decision on the board since there are so many really good Top Fuel cars right now and the return to Joliet has drawn a fantastic lot of 21 entries, which means that qualifying isn’t a given for even the best teams. With that in mind, we’re giving an oh-so-slim edge to Brittany Force and the Monster Energy/Flav-R-Pac team since they rarely qualify outside of the top two or three spots. Force missed a couple of golden opportunities during the recent Four Wide events and this is a perfect spot to correct that and get back into the hunt for the top spot in the class.
The contenders: Everyone else, but let’s first start with current points leader Steve Torrence who is also the “defending” Chicago winner. Torrence might not have the same level of success in 2023 as he had in 2019 but you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think he’s capable of four or five wins and another championship.
We also need to take a closer look at Justin Ashley, since he’s almost never far from competitive as well as Antron Brown, who already has a win this year and recently tested at Indy. We also can’t forget Austin Prock, who is coming off a big win in Charlotte and seems on the verg of the breakout season that we’ve all been waiting for since his debut in 2019.
Two more drivers who need to be mentioned are Mike Salinas and Leah Pruett. Salinas has been a bit cold since his Gainesville win but we certainly wouldn’t call it a slump. As for Pruett, she’s clearly better now than she was at this time last year and it sees the only thing separating her from a win is a bit of luck.
The dark horse: Okay, let’s take a real shot in the dark here and go with Chicago favorite, T.J. Zizzo. Yes, he’s been inactive for a couple of years but this is a whole new operation with all the best parts and a lot of talented people running the show. In fact, it seems reminiscent of Tripp Tatum and his impressive victory in Gainesville in 2022.
Brittany Force Monster Energy 3-1
Steve Torrence Capco Contractors 4-1
Antron Brown Matco Tools 5-1
Austin Prock Montana Brands 6-1
Justin Ashley Phillips Connect 7-1
Mike Salinas Scrappers 8-1
Leah Pruett Dodge Power Brokers 9-1
Josh Hart R+L Carriers 10-1
Doug Kalitta Mac Tools 11-1
T.J. Zizzo Rust-Oleum 14-1
The favorite: Even after his surprisingly early exit in Charlotte it’s hard not to go with Matt Hagan although the Dodge Power Brokers team certainly does not seem as invincible as it was a month ago. Regardless, Hagan is the points leader and he’s previously won in Chicago and this team certainly wants to put what happened in Charlotte squarely in their rearview mirror. All of that adds up to favorite status, but not my much.
The contenders: The obvious choices here are Robert Hight, who just turned in an impressive performance in Charlotte, and Ron Capps, who is never far from the front as well as Bob Tasca III, who has been solid in qualifying. Then again, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at Alexis DeJoria, who is No. 2 in the points and not by accident. The Bandero Premium Tequila Toyota has been the best car in the class. DeJoria hasn’t won a race yet, but she could have won any of the first five.
Cruz Pedregon and Tim Wilkerson both came into the 2023 season with high hopes and they’ve yet to deliver a victory. That could easily change this week. Ironically, Wilkerson has one win in Chicago (1999) while Pedregon is still searching for his first title at Route 66 Raceway.
The dark horse: We’ve often lauded Chad Green as a driver most likely to become NHRA’s next first time winner and that remains the case. Then again, there is John Force, who is looking for win No. 156. Force went to the final of both four-wide races and he’s qualified in the top half of the field four times in five races.
Matt Hagan Dodge Power Brokers Dodge 3-1
Robert Hight Flav-R-Pak Chevy 4-1
Alexis DeJoria Bandero Toyota 6-1
Ron Capps NAPA Toyota 6-1
Bob Tasca III Motorcraft Ford 7-1
Cruz Pedregon Snap-on Dodge 8-1
Chad Green Bondcoat Ford 9-1
John Force Peak/Blu Def Chevy 10-1
Tim Wilkerson SCAG Mowers Ford 12-1
J.R. Todd DHL Toyota 13-1
The favorite: There is so much parity in Pro Stock that its nearly impossible to pick a favorite but at this point in the season Dallas Glenn and Matt Hartford have separated themselves from the rest of the pack by a slight margin. Since we have to single out a favorite, were going with Hartford who has qualified No. 1 at the last two events and has a 9-5 record so far in 2023. Hartford is also the favorite in Saturday’s NHRA Pro Stock Callout event so it’s hard to imagine he won’t grab one or more trophies.
The Contenders: Troy Coughlin Jr., Deric Kramer, and Camrie Caruso have each won races this year, so a second win isn’t at all out of the question. Kramer looked particularly impressive in his recent Charlotte victory. Its also hard to imagine we won’t see the GetBioFuel.com Camaro in the winner’s circle again soon. For what its worth, Kramer also won the last Joliet event in 2019.
The darkhorse: Its nearly impossible to think of a five-time world champ as a darkhorse but with Erica Enders well outside the Top 10 we’ve reached that point although no one expects this to last much longer. Enders could easily win the next few races and climb right back in the thick of the points chase although going into the Countdown as the top seed would require an epic win streak.
Matt Hartford Total Seal Camaro 3-1
Dallas Glenn RAD Torque Systems Camaro 4-1
Deric Kramer GetBioFuel.com Camaro 5-1
Troy Coughlin Jr. JEGS.com Camaro 5-1
Camrie Caruso Powerbuilt Camaro 7-1
Aaron Stanfield Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro 8-1
Bo Butner JHG Camaro 9-1
Erica Enders JGH/Elite Camaro 9-1
Kyle Koretsky Lucas Oil/NitroFish Camaro 10-1
Greg Anderson Hendrick Cars.com Camaro 10-1
Mason McGaha Harlow Sammons Camaro 11-1
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
The favorite: At some point, Gaige Herrera is going to lose a round of Pro Stock Motorcycle competition but at the rate he’s going, it might not be anytime soon. Herrera has been just about flawless in his first two events with the Vance & Hines team and he’s already threatening to make the championship a runaway. Herrera will have a chance to win his third national event title this weekend, and he’s also in the first Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for motorcycle racers. He’s a strong bet to win one or both titles.
The contenders: Taking Herrera out of the mix, the next five or six spots in the championship are actually quite close with Matt Smith, Eddie Krawiec, Angie Smith, Steve Johnson, Chase Van Sant, Joey Gladstone, and even Jianna Evaristo only separated by a few rounds. If Herrera doesn’t win his third-straight race, one of the riders listed above is very likely to do so, especially Matt Smith and Krawiec, who have arguably the best bikes in the class. Johnson also merits a lot of consideration as he’s by far the most experienced rider in the class.
The darkhorse: Hector Arana Jr. proved last fall what he’s capable of when he won back-to-back titles in Dallas and Las Vegas. Now fully funded by GETTRX, Arana heads to Chicago as the No. 9 ranked rider in the class, but second place isn’t far off. Arana Jr. also won back-to-back Chicago titles in 2014-15.
Gaige Herrera Vance & Hines Suzuki 2-1
Matt Smith Denso Suzuki 4-1
Eddie Krawiec Vance & Hines Suzuki 5-1
Angie Smith Denso Buell 6-1
Steve Johnson MacRak Suzuki 7-1
Joey Gladstone Reed Motorsports Suzuki 7-1
Chase Van Sant Trick Tools Suzuki 9-1
Hector Arana Jr. GETTRX Buell 10-1
Jianna Evaristo Scrappers Suzuki 12-1