Ashley doubles; Capps, Enders, and Johnson also win at the Thunder Valley Nationals
The NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway hosted a double-header weekend, and Top Fuel's Justin Ashley came in like a freight train to scoop up every accolade on the table. Reigning Funny Car world champion Ron Capps finally claimed his first win of the season, as did Pro Stock champ Erica Enders and Steve Johnson dethroned a king to cap a fruitful weekend in Thunder Valley.
Justin Ashley arrived at Bristol Dragway No. 4 in the Top Fuel standings and fresh off a not-so-sweet first-round loss in Chicago,
and he was eager to turn the tides. There could be no better opportunity than the double-header slated to take place at Bristol
Dragway after the New England Nationals in Epping were completely rained out the weekend prior.
During qualifying for the Thunder Valley Nationals, the New England Nationals were also contested. En route to locking into the
No. 4 position on the Bristol qualifying sheet, Ashley secured the first leg of the double-up win in his Phillips Connect dragster,
and as he hoisted the Epping trophy on Saturday evening, he also stood next to the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge
hardware as the winner of that event was also crowned the winner of the bonus event.
On Sunday, Ashley began his quest with a first-round victory over Doug Foley and recorded a .040-second reaction time with
a 3.76-second pass at 328.70. mph to earn lane choice over Josh Hart in the second round. There, he was again efficient at
the tree with a .048 start to Hart's respectable .054 in the R+L Carriers dragster, and a 3.75 got it done over a 3.78.
Austin Prock and the Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Top Fueler had lane choice in the semifinals, but he fell into a ton
of tire smoke as soon as he hit the throttle to all but hand Ashley a shot at the double and a chance to defend the title he won
in Bristol last year. Ashley clocked a 3.72 in his victory lap for lane choice over Toyota Racing teammate Antron Brown in the
Brown won on a holeshot in a close match with Brittany Force in round one, 3.76 to 3.74, then laid down a consistent 3.76 in
his Matco Tools rail to defeat a tire-smoking Tony Schumacher. Tire smoke for Doug Kalitta in the semifinals was no match
for Brown's 3.73, and he earned the 800th round win of his career.
The two were nearly identical as they left the starting line, but Brown was up in smoke immediately. Ashley thundered to a
3.71 at 336.49 that reset the Bristol Dragway track record for speed and brought him his fourth win of the season and ninth
overall in Top Fuel.
"Mission accomplished, no pun intended," said Ashley, who is now No. 1 in the Top Fuel standings. "It's been a fantastic
weekend. It was going to be hard to do what we did in Pomona and even replicate that, but this is definitely just an incredible weekend – certainly, the best weekend of my racing career.
"The key word for this weekend is team. It was a team effort to be able to throw out eight-win lights in a row like that, and
to leave one weekend with three victories is amazing, it's something I didn't know was possible. Just Mike Green, Tommy
DeLago and the guys – all weekend they worked hard to make something happen. We came in with that objective, to leave
with all the wins, and it's not an easy thing to accomplish. But we got it done today."
Ron Capps claimed his first win of the year in his fourth final on the season with a final-round defeat of Alexis DeJoria. Capps
successfully defended the title he earned there last year and drove the NAPA Toyota to a record seventh win at Bristol Dragway
, more than any driver in any other professional class.
In the first round, launched ahead of Dave Richards and clocked a winning 3.96 to 4.22. That set him up for a second-round
meeting with John Force, a driver he had raced 121 times before. Force smoked the tires early in their meeting and had to
shut off, and Capps sailed to his quickest pass of the weekend, a 3.94, to advance to the semifinals.
His semifinals match with Chad Green ended with the win light flashing in his lane and a 3.91 on the scoreboard to beat his
challenger's 4.00. That sent Capps ahead to the 144th final round of his career.
Final-round opponent Alexis DeJoria made her best pass of the weekend in the opening round, a 3.98, on a bye run after
Cruz Pedregon had trouble on the starting line and had to shut off. DeJoria and her Bandero Tequila Toyota had trouble of
their own in the second round, but so did opponent Bobby Bode. Bode got out of the groove and made contact with the
left guardwall, and DeJoria got the win light just as her engine gave way.
In the semifinals, No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight was in trouble as soon as he hit the throttle, and DeJoria clocked a 4.15 to get a ticket to her seventh career final and her first of the season. She had won Bristol in 2021.
Capps and DeJoria were well-matched in the final, but the nod went to Capps on his 3.998 to her 3.999.
"We kept at, and we've been close – three final rounds – but there should have been a win already," said Capps. "This is probably the most demanding racetrack there is to drive a Funny Car and I think anybody will tell you that that drives one. I probably cost us a couple qualifying runs, I just couldn't hold onto it and keep it in the middle, but thankfully I got my act together on Sunday and "Guido" [crew chief Dean "Guido" Antonelli] was able to lay it down. It's such a relief to see that Wally again. You never know if you're going to see it again. That's how tough it is."
Enders had a tough season before arriving at Bristol Dragway. The reigning and five-time Pro Stock champion had won just two rounds of racing in 2023 and had fallen to No. 14 in the standings, but it was as though a light went on in Bristol, a track where she had previously claimed two wins. Her Johnson's Horsepowered Garage Chevrolet Camaro was a thing of beauty and carried her to the 30th No. 1 qualifier award of her career.
On Sunday, Enders utilized a 6.65 to defeat Mason McGaha's 6.72, then tucked away a holeshot win over Kyle Koretsky, 6.677 to 6.671, to keep the momentum flowing. In the semifinals, Enders was unchallenged as Greg Anderson's wounded engine necessitated a shut-off before the tree came down. Enders clocked a 6.72 on the way to the 74th final of her career.
Deric Kramer and his GetBioFuel.com Chevrolet tucked away a win over Troy Coughlin Jr. in the opening round, 6.65 to 6.69, then got a freebie in the second round when Aaron Stanfield's Pro Stocker died on the starting line. In round two, Cristian Cuadra rattled the tires hard and watched Kramer clock a 6.68 to advance to his fourth consecutive final of the season and 11th of his career.
Ashley, Hight and Caruso Earn Wins Final NHRA Arizona Nationals
Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley closed out the final NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Motorsports Park with a victory in a front of a sellout crowd, powering to a win over Shawn Langdon in the championship round on Sunday.
Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Camrie Caruso (Pro Stock) also won the second of 21 races during the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.
Ashley put together a run of 3.705-seconds at 329.34 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Phillips Connect Toyota dragster powered by National Debt Relief, driving past Langdon’s 3.732 at 329.58. It gives Ashley his sixth career victory and first at Phoenix as the championship contender also defeated Tony Schumacher, Mike Salinas and Steve Torrence to reach the final round. Ashley was stellar on the starting line during eliminations, leaving first in the final round and holding on for the victory in front of another massive crowd in Phoenix.
“You’re as only as good as the team you surround yourself with,” Ashley said. “We’re a resilient group and it was an incredible raceday. The fans were fantastic all weekend long, but I knew we had to go through a gauntlet of opponents. A win like this sets the tone for the year because it builds momentum and every point matters.
“We made a lot of changes to the car in the off-season and we’ve got a new set-up, but the guys have stayed with it. It was just a matter of being patient and it was an incredible weekend. The fans were amazing and it was absolutely packed.”
Langdon drove to his first final round in 2023 and 38th in his career, defeating Antron Brown, No. 1 qualifier and Kalitta Motorsports teammate Doug Kalitta and Leah Pruett. He’ll face Pruett in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge next weekend in Pomona, with Ashley racing Torrence.
In Funny Car, Hight, who finished 2022 with eight victories, picked up his 62nd career victory in his 11,000-horsepower Flav-R-Pac Chevrolet Camaro after going 3.930 at 328.62 to beat defending world champ Ron Capps. It gives Hight the points lead and his second straight Phoenix victory, putting on a show after struggling during eliminations. The multi-time world champ qualified just ninth but Hight and his team, led by crew chief Jimmy Prock, were brilliant on Sunday, making the quickest run of every round, including a 3.900 in the semifinals to beat
Chad Green. He also picked up wins against teammate John Force and No. 1 qualifier Bob Tasca III, making another strong run in the final round to the huge crowd’s delight.
“We better get used to that because this whole Funny Car field is stacked from top to bottom, and to win one of these races, you’re going to have to go through four hitters, and that’s we did that today,” Hight said. “It’s a huge win. You can just tell when Jimmy is on to something, and he’s got the confidence, and that gives me confidence.
“I just love coming here. The fans are great and to see this crowd we had for three days, that really pumps you up as a driver. They’re back in the pits with you and that’s just what makes NHRA drag racing so awesome.”
Capps went to his 141st career final round thanks to round wins against Alex Laughlin, Blake Alexander and Alexis DeJoria. He’ll race DeJoria in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge, with DeJoria winning the Challenge on Saturday in Phoenix. Hight will take on Green in a semifinal rematch as well.
Caruso enjoyed her own memorable day in Phoenix, picking up her first career victory with a run of 6.592 at 210.31 in her Powerbuilt Tools Camaro to slip past Bo Butner’s 6.593, becoming just the second female to win in Pro Stock in NHRA history. The second-year driver impressed throughout eliminations, also giving the new KB Titan Racing team its first victory. She opened raceday by knocking off Deric Kramer, got past No. 1 qualifier Cristian Cuadra and then got past Matt Hartford on a holeshot. Caruso, who reached one final round a year ago en route to winning NHRA Rookie of the Year honors, was first off the line in the final round as well, securing a victory and a moment she won’t forget.
“It was so awesome to get the win,” Caruso said. “I just went out there like it was another round and tried my best to do my job because I knew the guys were going to do their job. I’m just excited and thankful. I was really hoping we’d start the year off with a really good bang. There’s just a whole bunch of people here that I couldn’t have done it without, especially my team and our partners. This new team, working with them has really been great and I just wanted to hold up my end of the bargain.”
Butner reached his first final round since 2020, which also took place in Phoenix, by defeating teammate and defending world champ Erica Enders, Fernando Cuadra Jr. and Kyle Koretsky.
The next Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge in Pro Stock will feature Caruso taking on Hartford and Butner facing off with Koretsky.
The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series returns to action March 30-April 2 with the Lucas Oil Winternationals at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip in Pomona, Calif.