NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Why Top Fuel will be even more competitive in 2023

If you think the competition in Top Fuel was tough last season, buckle up. You ain’t seen nothing yet. NHRA’s Brian Lohnes examines why this season will be even more robust.
17 Jan 2023
Brian Lohnes, NHRA on FOX announcer
Josh Hart

The competition during the 2022 Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series was truly next level, especially in the Top Fuel division. The nine different winners, the upsets, the wild tossing about of the points lead among a large group of drivers through the year, and the tension filled Countdown that saw a dam burst of craziness in the first round at Pomona, were all hallmarks of an amazing year. That said, there is good news on the horizon.

It's going to be even more wild in 2023.

This isn’t just us waving our pom-poms over here. The numbers, trends, and news from the off-season all give us concrete proof that the level of tension, performance, and outright competition will be higher when the season opens in Gainesville. Stick with us as we review some of the biggest factors that will drive Top Fuel into the competitive stratosphere.

Tony Stewart Racing Retains Entire Crew

If there is a theme this off-season across the sport of NHRA Drag Racing it is stability. Teams retaining people, retaining sponsors, and working in an orderly fashion to prepare for battle in Gainesville. No team appreciates this more than Tony Stewart Racing who were effectively bolting cars together in the trailer on the way to Pomona last year in order to start the season on time.

Along with all the mechanical work there was the building and maturing of their team. Neal Strausbaugh hired the crew that would work on the car, and he locked in with co-crew chief Mike Domagala as well as his car chief Ryan McGilvry.

We watched this team come together, get better race after race, and ultimately win Denver. Yes, they finished No. 11, and the Countdown was not their finest moment, but they laid down a 3.66 in Pomona to close out the season and let the world know that they’re not going anywhere.

With a full returning crew, a “normal” off-season, and an esprit de corps that may be unrivaled in the pits, Leah Pruett and her band of merry men will be on the rise in 2023.

Prock’s progression portends performance  

Austin Prock went from Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk on the seeming flip of some sort of switch at the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals. Okay, it wasn’t a switch per se but it was a successful test session that righted the ship. The Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist dragster charged from the depths of the No. 12 position starting the first Countdown race at Reading to a No. 3 finish and the most successful stretch run in the class. Had Prock’s car turned around just a race or two earlier and he had entered the playoffs somewhere better than 12th we could be talking about a championship comeback for the ages.

As Rahn Tobler has retired as a full-time crew chief, there will be a new face on the car alongside Joe Barlam. Our understanding is that it will be an existing John Force Racing veteran and someone who will only augment the performance of an already fast car. Averaging a .056 light for the season, making three Countdown finals, winning two of them, and making his best runs of the season at Pomona mean that they’re coming out swinging. Prock is as intense as they come, we got to see that fire and desire last year. Now channeled to positivity, he stands to be a terror all season long.

Millican will put the FUN in funded  

The perpetual smile that Clay Millican wears on his face is not always maintained effortlessly. He is a font of positive energy and even when things have ebbed in his Top Fuel career, he has never lost sight of the fact that he loves the work he puts in piloting his race car. That said, the man has been able to keep his chin up through some on-track seasons that would have (and sometimes do) leave other racers kicking and screaming at their cars.

And then 2022 happened. Rick Ware assumed ownership of his team and with immediacy their performance elevated. Ware’s infusion of capital allowed the team to run fresh parts and tuner Jim Oberhofer was able to put them to good use. A car that had suffered the fate being a mid-pack qualifier which then had to face down a giant in round one, suddenly was a top-half runner though the Countdown.

The very low 3.70 runs and high 3.60 runs, which had been as infrequent as McRib returns were now the norm. At the Fall Charlotte event, the team qualified No. 3 and the run progression they made was their finest of the year, qualifying with a 3.68 and repeating in the .60s multiple times in eliminations.

Adding to the goodness for Millican is that his young team has been fully moved into the massive Rick Ware Racing shop in Mooresville, N.C. His crew has relocated to the area and by all accounts, is loving the experience. Millican will have a new car for the start of 2023, a luxury he has not enjoyed in years. This also means that they have a backup unit to deploy if necessary and yes, the parts shelves will be better stocked than in years past.

Are you starting to get the picture, here?

Redemption tour for Kalitta and Langdon

There is not a drag race-loving human being on Earth that came into the 2022 season believing that Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta would wind up ninth and tenth in the season points when it was all over. Race after race we all waited for the moment that the team would throw the manacles off and land some haymakers. That day never came and it wasn’t for lack of want, desire, effort, and brains.

There’s no chance that sort of fiasco happens again this season and it is yet another reason Top Fuel will be brutally competitive in 2023. Langdon’s car was very good in the heat of the summer appearing in final rounds in Bristol and Denver. Kalitta’s high water mark was a semi-final in Sonoma before the Countdown started.

To the credit of the hard-working Kalitta teams, they were on the rise as the season came to a close. Starting at Indy, Kalitta went to the semis three times through the end of the season and qualified top half at every Countdown race. Langdon’s car, which was effectively a mid-3.70s bracket machine ran in the .60s multiple times during the year-end push and was mostly a very low-3.70s car at the end, showing performance gains.

With the determination, talent, and resources of this entire team, there’s no shot we see these two cars on the tail end of the top ten again in 2023.

Torrence kept the band together

Multiple race wins, a Pep Boys All-Star Call Out victory, and a sixth-place points finish. All things many Top Fuel racers would sell a non-vital organ to achieve. Not so for Steve Torrence and the Capco team who were all-too happy to return to Kilgore, Texas from California after the season.

A retooling of their time-tested tune-up resulted in much frustration for this four-time championship-winning team. It also resulted in rumors and speculation of some internal strife and perhaps rifts that would see talented Capco crew members possibly seeking greener pastures elsewhere. In the end, those alleged defections did not happen.

Much in the same way the Kalitta team will be out to maim the hopes of other teams early in the season, the Capco boys will be racing with a billet Hemi-sized chip on their shoulder. Their late-season win in St. Louis, complete with a number one qualifying position was a reminder that they still have it where it counts.

It almost gives us chills to think about what this team can and likely will bring to the war that will be Top Fuel in 2023.

New leadership for Schumacher

When new team owner Joe Maynard went crew chief hunting for his Top Fuel team, he ended up in the Funny Car pits, hiring Mike Neff and John Schaffer to wrench on the SCAG Power Equipment dragster in 2023. Yes, driver Tony Schumacher won in Seattle and made the final in Brainerd, but both moments only served as lonely highlights in a season that included 18 losses in the first or second round (13 in round one and 5 in round two). Schumacher’s average qualifying position was 10.2 which makes it virtually impossible way to succeed given the depth of the Top Fuel class these days.

While it has been a minute since Mike Neff tuned a Top Fuel Dragster, we have zero doubts that this car will no longer be living a lot of its life in the 3.80-second bracket. If 2022 was the year Schumacher got to “enjoy being back”, 2023 will be the season Schumacher could enjoy being back in the championship discussion.

Hart redoubles his efforts

There is an old saying that states, “Never mistake kindness for weakness.” In regard to Josh Hart, we need to modify it to read, “Never mistake quietness for meekness.”

Hart is a man who walks softly and carries a big stick, unfortunately, that big stick did not connect in near the manner nor the frequency that Hart and crew chief Ron Douglas wanted last year. Final rounds in Norwalk and St. Louis were the best the team mustered over the 2022 season. Hart finished No. 7 in the points, far below his own expectations and goals.

Rather than wallow in his own disappointment, Hart has made this off-season count. The team added resources on the parts side, and they have added resources on the chassis side, and they have scrutinized all the elements of 2022 that didn’t work in their favor. Hart and Douglas have won on the sport’s largest stages multiple times and they’re set on doing that again.

With multi-year sponsorship deals secured with Advance Auto Parts as well as R+L Carriers, the quiet guy from Florida is ready to make big noise and throw elbows on his way to the front.

The fearsomely fantastic four return

As we’ve now gone through the teams that we expect to improve on their 2022 performances, what about the cars that had little to hang their heads over? Well, after everything we have told you above it’s important to remember that champion Brittany Force will be back, championship runner-up Antron Brown will be back, Justin Ashley is already champing at the bit, and Mike Salinas will continue to be relentless in his pursuit of a title.

Of the four cars mentioned here, Brown’s is perhaps best poised to improve on the early season frustrations of 2022. It was the turning point before Topeka that set his team on a path to near-championship glory. Knowing that they have a winning tune-up out of the gate is enough to give the rest of the field the willies.

Ashley should once again rule the starting line and after coming close to a championship and having it slip away at the last moment, he now has extra motivation.

Salinas had the best season of his career with four wins in six finals and he’s kept his team intact from including crew chief Rob Flynn, so expect them to kick things off in the same fashion they were grooving to last year.

Lastly, there’s the Camping World NHRA Champion, Brittany Force, who will be back with tuner David Grubnic. We understand that there will be some personnel changes on the Monster Energy/Flav-R-Pac team but we don’t see the performance of the car faltering because of it. Full of championship gusto, we expect Force to continue an aggressive streak behind the wheel that culminated in an amazing drive at the Fall Las Vegas event, helping to lock down her second title.

It has been years since we have been able to look objectively at a Top Fuel field of more than a dozen full-time cars and not have any degree of certainty about which team would lead qualifying or win a race. Outside of the known quantities we have discussed here, there is a fleet of talented part-timers including Tripp Tatum, Doug Foley, Billy Torrence, Scott Palmer, Cam Ferre, Dan Mercier, Krista Baldwin and others. How can one even begin to guess what a Top 10  order will look like at the end of 2023? It’s virtually impossible to know.