NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Analysis: Where 2023’s title contenders can improve in 2024. Part 1: Top Fuel

Doug Kalitta was the 2023 NHRA Top Fuel champ, so he’s the nitro-powered rabbit everyone else is chasing, but let’s take a look at those who finished behind him and see what they need to do in 2024 to steal his crown. 
03 Jan 2024
Brian Lohnes, NHRA on FOX announcer
Top Fuel

The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series promises to be an incredible follow-up on the 2023 campaign. The moves, plot twists, new teams, and energy around the entire sport is very, very high. All that is great, but once we get past the excitement and happy feelings, we need to remember that this is a sport of immediate results. 

The immediate results lead to the long-term result of where a team finishes in the championship points standings. For the premier names in the sport, the No. 1 position is always the goal. Of course, with at least 10 Countdown to the Championship drivers wanting that honor and only one being able to receive it each year, the chase for performance and perfection is relentless. 

In this series of stories, we’re going to look at the results and statistics from the 2023 season to see what areas the contenders that finished behind the champions need to improve upon to make an even stronger run in 2024. 

As you’ll see, each team we profile has a different story than the one before and after it. This is why a drag racing season is so fascinating. Yes, the job is to get to the finish line first, but the challenges that confront each team in doing so all season long tend to be decidedly unique in and unto themselves. 

As Doug Kalitta was the champ, he’s the nitro-powered rabbit everyone else is chasing, so let’s take a look at those who finished behind him and see what we find. 

Steve Torrence: Second place

2023 Stumbling block:  Starting-line consistency 
The fix: Conjure the Steve Torrence of 2018-2021

Torrence averaged a .070 reaction time over the course of the 2023 season and appeared in more rounds of competition than even Doug Kalitta, so what’s the problem? 

Torrence’s issue was situational in 2023, not sustained. He was on the wrong side of seven holeshots over the season. Reversing just a couple of them could have resulted in a fifth world championship for the Capco Contractors car. Again, his season average is in-line with the class; it was the situational strength of his starting line performance that let him down a handful of times and that left him just shy of a title in the end. 

Leah Pruett: Third place 

2023 Stumbling block: Qualifying session No. 1
The fix: Get it to the finish line more frequently on Fridays

As we all know, Pruett is vacating the seat of her Top Fuel dragster in 2024. The fact that her husband, Tony Stewart, will be driving changes more than a few elements of the car. Balancing the dragster will be new territory for the team, but there is one constant they can improve to make a good thing even better. 

The team averaged a qualifying position of nearly sixth over the season, and this was mainly because of their Friday struggles. Missing the first qualifying run caused crew chief Neil Strausbaugh to dial the car back and then creep up on it through the remaining sessions. If we look at the Countdown only, their average qualifying position moves to a worse 7.3. 

Hitting the first qualifying session square will allow this already great car to evolve more fully through the remaining sessions and come into Sunday in its best possible form. 

Justin Ashley: Fourth place

2023 Stumbling block: The September Swoon
The fix: Stay the course 

Wait, what? Stay the course? For two seasons, this car has been as gnarly as it gets in the regular season and then faded in the Countdown and the answer is “Stay the course”? Quite simply, yes. 

One of the biggest mistakes people make in professional sports — all professional sports — is attempting to fix things that are not broken. It is easy to make a snap judgement that there was some fundamental mistake made by this team in the 2023 Countdown. There really wasn’t. Running 3.707 with a .049 light in round two at Maple Grove Raceway got them a loss. Running 3.81 with a .042 light in round two in St. Louis got them a loss. They qualified in the top half at every Countdown race. Ashley was the runner-up in Las Vegas and a semifinalist in Pomona.

Simply put, they got everyone’s best shot at the worst time of the year. The end result places a false magnification on the incremental results. Staying on their current path will have them back in the hunt this season. 

Mike Salinas: Fifth place

2023 Stumbling block:  The synchronization of man and machine  
The fix: Steady the driver and press a little less 

The most complex area of a Top Fuel dragster is not the clutch can or the pneumatic control box, it is the space between the driver’s ears. It sounds insane, but the reality is that a crew chief starts to build his tune-up, whether he knows it or not, from his understanding of what that most curious of human places will initially produce for results. 

Salinas won two races in 2023: Gainesville and Las Vegas. The two hallmarks of these wins were a repeatable car and a repeatable driver. With a .084 reaction-time average over the course of 2023, Salinas was about two hundredths behind the most significant pack of full-time drivers who averaged in the .060 range. His 4.417 average Sunday elapsed time is undoubtedly, to some degree, a result of this. Simply put, the team had to lean on this car and run it on the edge perhaps more than others to give them the best chance to go rounds on race day. 

In the event that Salinas can give his crew that .015 to .020 in starting-line reaction-time average improvement and they can open their tuning window up a little, this car can win a championship.

Antron Brown: Sixth place

2023 Stumbling block:  Repeating as a 3.60 car on Sundays 
The fix: Take a rock-solid 3.70-3.72 car and evolve it into a consistent 3.67-3.70 car

With three wins last season — two of them coming back to back in Brainerd and then Indy — the expectations for Brown’s Countdown were off the charts. What followed was five second-round losses and a first-round loss over the course of the final six races. 

Looking at the Countdown results and then taking that same look at the regular season shows that the races A.B. won were contests decidedly locked in the middle-3.70s range. It also shows that the car qualified multiple times in the 3.60s and on those weekends would repeat in that zone round one but then suffer tire smoke in round two. 

Simply considering the cold hard numbers, Brown’s car made many elimination runs in the low .70s, which were good but not quick enough, often leaving him outrun.

When he and his team lock in on being able to press the car just a couple hundredths harder and turn 3.71s into 3.69s and 3.70s into 3.68s, the Matco Tools Top Fueler will be a legitimate title threat. 

Brittany Force: Seventh place

2023 Stumbling block: 10 second-round losses 
The fix: Quit smoking the tires

For the last several seasons, we have marveled at some of the numbers Brittany Force, David Grubinc, and their team have generated. In 2023, it was a different kind of marveling. A single final, four semifinals, and an astonishing 10 second-round losses. 

This car had an average Sunday elapsed time of 4.39. If we look at the 10 second-round losses, the car averaged 5.71 and only three of the 10 losses came on runs that were less than four seconds. 

The most vivid picture that this season of numbers and second-round frustration paints is the one that depicts the fact that crew chiefs have to evolve their car every round on race day. Ten second-round losses go beyond some unfortunate luck; it shows that, at least on paper, the new tune-up approach was far more temperamental when more performance was asked of it than anyone could have anticipated. 

The fix? Perhaps a return to the known championship tune-up program will place them ahead of the pack once again. 

Quick Takes: No. 9-12 Finishers 

No. 9 Tony Schumacher

The Good News: At the end of 2023, this car was head and shoulders above the machine that began the season. The car was capable of qualifying with low 3.70s and making those numbers count with regularity. It was a painful process at times in 2023, but the result was that the eight-time champion will have a very serviceable dragster in Gainesville. 

No. 10 Josh Hart

The Good News: Despite mechanical and car performance frustrations, Hart remains one of the most fearsome leavers in Top Fuel. His .051 average over the course of the season is the brightest spot for this team, which has hung together, redoubled its efforts regarding the acquisition of components, made technical alliances to aid in that process, and will return in 2024 with a better car and the same platinum-level driver.

No. 11 Clay Millican

The Good News: A season of three victories was manic in its highs and lows, but ultimately, those successes are building blocks that will be expounded on. The end of the season was chaotic with multiple chassis needing to be repaired on an emergency basis, but the team battled through and never gave up. The addition of Nicky Boninfante is a huge addition to this operation, and expectations are once again leveled up for 2024. 

No. 12 Shawn Langdon

The Good News: After a couple of seasons of middling performance, personnel changes have come to this team. While at the time of this writing no official announcement has been made, some significant and recognizable talent will be assuming the duties on Langdon’s car. If they can turn a 3.74-3.76 machine into one that can run 3.68-3.72 with regularity, Langdon will be back in the championship discussion for the first time in a long time. A place where a guy who carries his résumé surely belongs.

Coming up next? Funny Car!