Top Fuel Championship Up For Grabs In Pomona Finale

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 11 2022

Justin Ashley has a Top Fuel championship in his sights this weekend in Pomona. (Photo courtesy of Elon Werner)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Separated by a miniscule seven points, Brittany Force and Justin Ashley are poised to snap Steve Torrence’s stranglehold on the NHRA Top Fuel world championship this weekend.

Victory by either Force or Ashley in the season-ending 57th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., will end Torrence’s four-year run atop drag racing’s premier class.

Force’s wire-to-wire victory at the NHRA Nevada Nationals on Oct. 30 allowed the 2017 Top Fuel world champ to slice 82 points off Ashley’s once-comfortable advantage and retake P1. Brit’s current lead (2,468-2,461) after Round 5 of the six-event Countdown to the Championship playoffs translates into a virtual tie heading into an event that will award expanded qualifying bonus points and 30 points per round on Sunday.

“It’s important to have the right mindset,” said Ashley, who suffered an upset, first-round loss to Clay Millican at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “The (Vegas) race is behind us and all of our attention and energy has shifted to Pomona.  We have a championship-winning team with championship-winning partners.

“We knew at the beginning of the year it was more than likely going to come down to the last race of the season in Pomona. All we needed to do was put ourselves in a position to win that championship and we did just that.”

Brittany Force has a slim points lead in her John Force Racing dragster.

Force is chasing her second title in the past seven years. Force scored a career-best fifth victory at Vegas during a season that has seen her earn nine No. 1 qualifiers, post the fastest run in Top Fuel history and numerous track records. Force won four events in 2017 to become just the second woman to win a Top Fuel championship, and first to do so in 35 years.

“I’m really proud of our entire team and we’ve had a great season,” said Force, a 36-year-old resident of Yorba Linda, Calif., and daughter of Funny Car icon John Force. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing. This team has been winning races and setting track records and now it comes down to the final race, as we knew it would. It’s a lot of pressure but I’m trying to find a way to enjoy it a little bit. I’m looking forward to seeing where this ends up.”

Force won the Auto Club Finals in 2017 at the expense of Torrence. Owner of the 10 fastest speeds in Top Fuel history, Brittany also is the speed record-holder at ACR, where she drove her dragster to a 1,000-foot lap at 336.23 mph on Feb. 9, 2020. With David Grubnic and Mac Savage handling tune-up duties, she also set the current NHRA national records of 3.623-seconds (Aug.31, 2019 at Reading, Pa.) and 338.43 mph (Oct. 2, 2022 at Madison, Ill).

“Our Countdown got off to a rocky start,” said Force, the 2013 Rookie of the Year. “The first four races, we didn’t perform like we had all season and we started to stumble. We turned it around in Vegas and we all felt that energy. Anything can happen in Pomona with points-and-a-half, and we’ve all seen it before at this race. It’s still anyone’s game. That win in Vegas was huge for us and we’re going to ride that through this weekend. That gives us confidence and it motivates us to want to do it again.”

Ashley, the 27-year-old son of former Funny Car driver Mike Ashley, began the Countdown as the No. 3 seed. Justin’s three wins this season include the season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals at Pomona and Round 4 of the Countdown at the Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex in Ennis on Oct. 16.

“It’s an exciting time for our team,” said Ashley, a native of Plainview, N.Y., and owner/driver of his Top Fuel dragster. “It was a disappointing weekend for our team in Vegas. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to, but it would be silly to look at that race under a microscope. When you look at the season and the Countdown as a whole, we’re really happy with how we’ve been running. All you could really ask for is to be in it heading into Pomona.”

Ashley has two final-round appearances at ACR in his last three starts. “Our approach to the weekend is the same as it’s been all year,” said Ashley, who is working with tuners Mike Green and Tommy DeLago. “You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with and I truly believe we’re working with the best on and off the racetrack. Our team is passionate, dedicated and loves racing.

“It’s exciting to be a part of this journey. There’ll be a lot going on around us, but it’s in the best interest of our Phillips Connect, Vita C Energy Toyota team to focus on ourselves.”

California privateer Mike Salinas, three-time world champ Antron Brown and Torrence remain mathematically eligible for the title. Salinas is just 66 points back of Force, with Brown and Torrence trailing the leader by 78 and 87 points, respectively. That puts each within three rounds of Force, while Ashley can control his destiny with a second Pomona victory in 2022.

“All we can control is what we do,” said Torrence, a 39-year-old resident of Kilgore, Texas.  “Our plan is to go out there and win the race. That’s all we can do. If we do that then we’ve given ourselves a chance and, regardless of what happens, we’ll have momentum to carry over into ‘23.

“With points-and-a-half on the table, we’re just two rounds behind Brittany and Justin and in a dead heat with Mike and Antron. That means it’ll all come down to what happens in qualifying and the first couple rounds.”

Torrence (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won last year’s Finals, while Torrence, Ron Capps (Funny Car), Anderson and Smith all claimed world titles in Pomona as well.

Pro Stock’s Erica Enders clinched her fifth world championship in Las Vegas via a career-best 10th victory of the season. Erica will look to finish off one of the most dominant seasons in recent “Factory Hot Rod” memory with a second win in Pomona this year in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro.

In Funny Car, Robert Hight could wrap up a fourth world title at a track that means a great deal to the native Californian. Hight, of John Force Racing, has posted eight wins this season in his Chevrolet Camaro SS and holds a 61-point lead over on two-time/reigning world champ and fellow-Californian Ron Capps. Hight is 63 points in front of three-time world champ Matt Hagan.

Matt Smith claimed his fifth world championship with a win at Pomona last year, a title feat he could replicate as the Pro Stock Motorcycle point-leader aboard his Denso Auto Parts Buell. Smith leads Joey Gladstone by 104 points entering the 22nd event in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.

Qualifying will begin with two sessions today followed by two sessions on Saturday to determine the 16-vehicle ladders. Television coverage includes two hours of qualifying action on FOX Sports 1 at 2 p.m. (EST) on Sunday, leading into three hours of eliminations at 4 p.m.


Countdown to the Championship point standings (top-10) heading into the season-ending 57th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.:

Top Fuel _1. Brittany Force, 2,468; 2. Justin Ashley, 2,461; 3. Mike Salinas, 2,402; 4. Antron Brown, 2,390; 5. Steve Torrence, 2,381; 6. Austin Prock, 2,342; 7. Josh Hart, 2,307; 8. Shawn Langdon, 2,290; 9. Doug Kalitta, 2,284; 10. Clay Millican, 2,269.

Funny Car _1. Robert Hight, 2,592; 2. Ron Capps, 2,531; 3. Matt Hagan, 2,529; 4. John Force, 2,406; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,391; 6. J.R. Todd, 2,295; 7. Tim Wilkerson, 2,261; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 2,259; 9. Cruz Pedregon, 2,222; 10. Blake Alexander, 2,150.

Pro Stock _1. Erica Enders*, 2,684; 2. Aaron Stanfield, 2,460; 3. Troy Coughlin Jr., 2,440; 4. Kyle Koretsky, 2,406; 5. Greg Anderson, 2,396; 6. Dallas Glenn, 2,319; 7. Matt Hartford, 2,318; 8. Cristian Cuadra, 2,216; 9. Deric Kramer, 2,205; 10. Mason McGaha, 2,188.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Matt Smith, 2,484; 2. Joey Gladstone, 2,380; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,348; 4. Angie Smith, 2,336; 5. Steve Johnson, 2,297; 6. Eddie Krawiec, 2,291; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,259; 8. Marc Ingwersen, 2,204; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,180; 10. Karen Stoffer, 2,172.

*Clinched championship


Sept. 15-18 _ Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa: Austin Prock (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Joey Gladstone (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Sept. 23-25 _ Charlotte NHRA Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C.: Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Aaron Stanfield (Pro Stock).

Sept. 30-Oct. 2 _ NHRA Midwest Nationals, World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill.: Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 13-16 _ Texas NHRA FallNationals, Texas Motorplex, Ennis: Justin Ashley (Top Fuel); Ron Capps (Funny Car); Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 27-30 _ NHRA Nevada Nationals, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Brittany Force (Top Fuel); Matt Hagan (Funny Car); Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Nov. 10-13 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 11 2022
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