The recently completed Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals will be hard to duplicate, but if there is any event that can do it, it’s the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals from historic Maple Grove Raceway in Reading. Last year’s event, held before sold-out crowds, was a perfect way to kick off the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Indy champions Antron Brown, Ron Capps, and Matt Hartford would appear to have the upper hand, which is why Tipster has them listed as favorites in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. Indy Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Matt Smith also rates a close second to championship leader Gaige Herrera.
The favorite: Antron Brown is coming off back-to-back wins in Brainerd and Indy, so it's awfully hard to argue that he’s not the hottest driver in the class right now. The only hesitation in ranking Brown No. 1 is the degree of difficulty associated with winning three straight events, but if there is one team who can pull it off, it’s the Matco Tools gang.
Brown also has a bit of history in Reading with back-to-back Top Fuel wins in 2015-16, and Maple Grove Raceway happens to be the track closest to his boyhood home in New Jersey. For those reasons, AB is our pre-race favorite.
The contenders: Because Antron Brown is the favorite, that must mean that Justin Ashley and Steve Torrence are right behind him as the leading contenders. It’s not hard to make a case for either driver, especially Ashley, who has six wins this season and enters the Countdown as the top seed.
The same could be said about Torrence, who knows a thing or four about winning championships and also happens to be the 2018 Reading champion. For those who might not remember, that was the year Torrence dominated the Countdown en route to the title.
Austin Prock, Leah Pruett, Doug Kalitta, and Brittany Force also qualify as leading contenders. Prock is the defending event champion, while Force has a win here in 2017. Pruett has won nine rounds since Norwalk and starts the Countdown as the No. 4 seed. Kalitta has climbed from 10th to sixth since Epping, so he’s clearly trending in the right direction.
The dark horse: Once again, were going to take Mike Salinas and the Scrappers team in this spot. Granted, they’ve been inconsistent this season, but if there is ever a time for a team to find their groove, it’s the start of the Countdown.
Antron Brown Matco Tools 4-1
Steve Torrence Capco Contractors 9-2
Justin Ashley Phillips Connect 5-1
Austin Prock Montana Brands 6-1
Leah Pruett Dodge Power Brokers 7-1
Doug Kalitta Mac Tools 8-1
Brittany Force Monster Energy 9-1
Clay Millican Parts Plus 10-1
Mike Salinas Scrappers 13-1
Josh Hart R+L Carriers 14-1
Shawn Langdon DHL/Kalitta Air 15-1
The favorite: It worked last time, so once again, let's roll with Ron Capps, who will be returning to his traditional yellow and blue NAPA colors this weekend but remains the hottest driver in the Funny Car class by far. Much like Top Fuel favorite Brown, the only reason NOT to choose Capps is because he’s won two straight races and three-peats don’t happen often in NHRA nitro racing, especially given the current level of competition. Capps also won here in 2017 and has four finals overall, which tends to be a good omen.
The contenders: In Funny Car, this is pretty much everyone else in the field, but if you’re looking to narrow it down, we tend to prefer Robert Hight, the defending champ, J.R. Todd, the Indy runner-up, and Matt Hagan, who won here in 2014. After a tough Western Swing, Hight has been to the semi’s or further at the last three events, and one gets the sense that the Cornwell Tools team is on the verge of a major breakthrough.
It's also wise not to overlook Tim Wilkerson, who has a win here in three finals, and Bob Tasca III, the 2009 race winner.
The dark horse: We keep picking Chad Green because he’s the odds-on favorite to become NHRA’s next first-time Pro winner. Green has been a semifinal machine for most of the season and just needs one break to win his first nitro race. IF that were to happen this weekend, he’d rate as a serious challenger for the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car title.
Ron Capps NAPA Toyota 3-1
J.R. Todd DHL Toyota 4-1
Robert Hight Flav-R-Pak Chevy 5-1
Bob Tasca III Motorcraft Ford 6-1
Matt Hagan Dodge Power Brokers Dodge 7-1
Tim Wilkerson SCAG Mowers Ford 9-1
Chad Green Bondcoat Ford 10-1
Alexis DeJoria Bandero Toyota 11-1
Cruz Pedregon Snap-on Dodge 11-1
John Force Peak/Blu Def Chevy 13-1
Blake Alexander Pronto/Head Inc. Ford 15-1
The favorite: When he won the U.S. Nationals two weeks ago, Matt Hartford said he had the best car in the Pro Stock class, and at this point, we’re inclined to believe him. Hartford did indeed have the best car in Indy, and his driving was solid enough to deliver a win. Now, he needs to repeat that feat during the opening round of the Countdown. Hartford doesn’t have much of a history in Reading, but that could easily change this weekend. He knows that he’s in the best position of his career in which to deliver a championship, and he’s determined not to squander it.
The contenders: It’s pretty easy to automatically circle Dallas Glenn and Erica Enders as the leading contenders because they have each scored multiple wins this season. Glenn is the top seed in the standings, while Enders overcame an historically slow start to improve by 11 positions since Chicago. Enders also won here last year, and of course, she’s the five-time and reigning world champion. In other words, she’s expected to be in this fight until the end and an important part of that is getting off to a fast start in Reading.
Another guy who has had a surprisingly good season is Deric Kramer, who might also have his best chance of winning a championship this season. Kramer dropped to No. 5 in the standings after a rare round-one loss in Indy, but the easiest way to make up for that is by turning on a few win lights this week in Reading.
Let’s also give a nod to Greg Anderson, who has been to nine final rounds in Reading during his career and gotten the job done three times, most recently in 2021. Anderson is No. 7, so he can’t afford to fall too much further behind the leaders.
The dark horse: Because his family owns Maple Grove Raceway and has spent the last two seasons working tirelessly to improve the facility, it’s only natural that we’d go with Kyle Koretsky here. There might not be much to “home-track advantage,” but Koretsky and his Lucas Oil team have been improved lately, including a runner-up in Brainerd and a semifinal in Indy, which allowed him to move from No. 11 to No. 8. Should “Kid Kaos” get it done this weekend, the town of Reading might never be the same.
Matt Hartford Total Seal Camaro 3-1
Dallas Glenn RAD Torque Systems Camaro 4-1
Erica Enders JHG/Elite Camaro 5-1
Deric Kramer GetBioFuels.com Camaro 6-1
Troy Coughlin Jr. JEGS.com Camaro 7-1
Kyle Koretsky Lucas Oil/Nitro Fish Camaro 8-1
Aaron Stanfield Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro 9-1
Greg Anderson HendrickCars.com Camaro 10-1
Camrie Caruso Tequila Comisario Camaro 12-1
Cristian Cuadra Corral Boots Mustang 14-1
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
The favorite: OK, so he didn’t win Indy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gaige Herrera is in the midst of one of the most dominant seasons in the history of the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class, and he’s the odds-on favorite to not only win this race but the 2023 NHRA Camping World championship. Herrera should easily have enough of an advantage to not only win the race, but it’s also possible that he could reset the elapsed time record if conditions are favorable. So far this season, Herrera has made few mistakes, and it’s hard to imagine the increased pressure of the Countdown will make much of a difference.
The contenders: Lesson No. 1, never count out Matt Smith, and the six-time world champion issued a reminder when he claimed his third U.S. Nationals title two weeks ago. Smith wasn’t afraid to say that he believes that he can win a seventh title this season, and despite the dominance of Herrera, there isn’t much reason to doubt him. Should Herrera slip up, even slightly, Smith will almost certainly be there to take advantage of it.
Herrera and Smith aside, it’s not hard to argue that the next three riders with the best chance to win here include Hector Arana Jr., Eddie Krawiec, and Angie Smith. Krawiec has five wins here with the Vance & Hines team, while Arana has two. Smith was in the final last year with her Denso Buell, so it’s safe to say all three enjoy racing in Reading.
The dark horse: This might be a bit of a stretch, but why not go with rookie Chase Van Sant, who came out swinging with a semifinal in Gainesville but has had trouble finding traction ever since. Van Sant clearly has talent, and his team, led by Tim Kulungian, can run big numbers. They might just be overdue to put together a solid run, which could easily change the entire complexion of the championship battle, not to mention the NHRA Rookie of the Year voting.
Gaige Herrera Vance & Hines/Mission Suzuki 2-1
Matt Smith Denso Suzuki 7-2
Hector Arana Jr. GETTRX Buell 5-1
Eddie Krawiec Vance & Hines/Mission Suzuki 6-1
Angie Smith Denso Buell 7-1
Chase Van Sant Trick Tools Suzuki 9-1
Steve Johnson Mac Rak Suzuki 10-1
Joey Gladstone Percision Services Suzuki 11-1
Jianna Evaristo Scrappers Suzuki 14-1