Gaige Herrera ended qualifying on another massive note in Pro Stock Motorcycle on Saturday at Maple Grove Raceway, powering to the No. 1 position in front of a sellout crowd at the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, the first race in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
It was the seventh sellout crowd of the 2023 season. Sunday’s eliminations were also moved up to 9:30 a.m. ET at Maple Grove Raceway.
Herrera tied his mark for the quickest run of the year with a strong 6.672 at 202.94 on his Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki. That lowered the track E.T. record he set on Friday and the points leader also set the track speed record with a pass of 203.00 earlier in the day.
Not only did Herrera, who is making his first appearance in the Countdown to the Championship, claim his ninth No. 1 qualifier in 10 races this year, he also picked up the most possible points in qualifying. He made the quickest run in all four sessions, giving him plenty of confidence heading into the first of six playoff races on Sunday.
“I’m very confident. I have to give all the credit to the whole Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki team and Andrew (Hines, crew chief) and all the guys back at the shop,” Herrera said. “We’re basically just showing off their hard work and to go out there and run that, I’m very happy with it, Andrew is very happy with it. We’re definitely happy with it and I’m going into tomorrow with all the confidence in the world.
“I’m glad to get as much points as I can so far going into the Countdown. My whole goal is to try to get as many as I can again. That was my goal, and Andrew is always shooting to be No. 1 so he was all for it.”
Chip Ellis made a big jump to qualify second thanks to his run of 6.741 at 200.17 and Hector Arana Jr. took third with his 6.747 at 201.85.
Scrappers Racing Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Jianna Evaristo achieved a milestone moment in her career when she clocked her first 200 mph pass on her Valley Services Suzuki. She made the fastest pass of her career during the third round of qualifying with a run of 6.795 seconds at 200.02 mph. Her Matt Smith Racing team went wild on the starting line as the breakthrough speed appeared on the scoreboard, a clear indication of how much this moment meant to all of her supporters and fans.
If there were an award for most improved performance in a season, Evaristo would certainly be a strong candidate in the running. After experiencing a number of setbacks in 2022, she’s made powerful and consistent progress throughout this season. In fact, her regular season performance clinched her a place in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s version of the playoffs. This is the first year that Evaristo has qualified for the Countdown and she’s starting things off on a powerful note by blowing past the 200 mph mark in the first event of post-season action.
Full of emotion and elation after her memorable pass, Evaristo, who is rarely at a loss for words, was rendered momentarily speechless as the reality of her achievement set in at the top end.
“Just this whole year has been a really big learning year for me,” said Evaristo. “I can’t thank Matt and Angie Smith enough. And the team – Cookie Man, Nate, Boo, Drew, Chip Ellis and everyone. The work that everyone puts in and the patience that they’ve all had with me to get me to this point is just amazing. It’s like everything is starting to pay off and this is just a little step I know, but it’s a step in the right direction and that’s what matters most.”
So far this season, Evaristo has raced her Matt Smith Racing-powered Pro Stock Motorcycle to two semifinal appearances. Entering the Countdown as the ninth-ranked driver in the category, she plans to put the lessons she’s learned over the course of the season into play as she works to elevate that position.
Evaristo will look to carry this momentum into race day tomorrow as she begins eliminations from the No. 9 spot, facing Steve Johnson in the first round. Scrappers Racing owner and Top Fuel pilot Mike Salinas is qualified 13th, thanks to an explosive pass of 3.795 at 319.60. He will face Steve Torrence in the first heat of competition tomorrow.
Pro Stock Motorcycle pairings — 1. Gaige Herrera, Suzuki, 6.672, 202.94 vs. Bye; 2. Chip Ellis, EBR, 6.741, 200.17 vs. 15. Cory Reed, Suzuki, 7.044, 192.69; 3. Hector Arana Jr, EBR, 6.747, 201.85 vs. 14. Ron Tornow, Victory, 6.896, 195.11; 4. Matt Smith, Suzuki, 6.751, 201.28 vs. 13. Chris Bostick, EBR, 6.885, 193.82; 5. Chase Van Sant, Suzuki, 6.754, 200.02 vs. 12. Marc Ingwersen, EBR, 6.873, 196.42; 6. Angie Smith, EBR, 6.773, 201.70 vs. 11. John Hall, EBR, 6.834, 198.09; 7. Eddie Krawiec, Suzuki, 6.777, 200.32 vs. 10. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.824, 196.44; 8. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.786, 196.96 vs. 9. Jianna Evaristo, Suzuki, 6.795, 200.02.
Bob Tasca III, who entered the weekend fourth in points, raced to his fifth No. 1 spot this season with a standout run of 3.866-seconds at 328.30 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Motorcraft/Quick Ford Mustang. It’s the 14th career top spot for the veteran, who is seeking his second career win at Maple Grove Raceway and third this season.
He impressed in every qualifying session, making the quickest run in the last three sessions, including both on Saturday. That netted him 11 bonus points, giving him plenty of momentum going into raceday, where he’ll take on Cory Lee in the first round.
“The car performed flawlessly,” Tasca said. “As a driver/team owner, that’s what you ask for from your team. They give you a car that can go out there and compete, and you put yourself in a position to win. We have a lot of unfinished business here this weekend, and tomorrow is a big day.
“I think it’s going to be a very challenging day early in the rounds. We’re going to be here at 9:30 (a.m.), and the track is estimated to be somewhere around 75 degrees. You can shake really easy. You could see some big-time upsets, but we just want to go up there and do the best we can. We’ll manage the conditions as they go. As the day progresses, I think you’re going to fall into the conditions that we’ve run really well in. That gives you a lot of confidence going into Sunday.”
Defending world champion and points leader Ron Capps jumped up to the second spot in the final session, going 3.879 at 333.99. That bumped Robert Hight, who went 3.879 at 329.34 on Friday, to third.
Funny Car pairings — 1. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.866, 328.30 vs. 16. Cory Lee, Mustang, 5.022, 191.62; 2. Ron Capps, Toyota GR Supra, 3.879, 333.99 vs. 15. Dave Richards, Mustang, 4.140, 278.17; 3. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.879, 329.34 vs. 14. Jim Campbell, Chevy Monte Carlo, 4.087, 299.66; 4. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.881, 329.91 vs. 13. Alex Laughlin, Dodge Charger, 4.058, 295.59; 5. Chad Green, Mustang, 3.887, 330.07 vs. 12. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.004, 309.20; 6. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.891, 333.49 vs. 11. J.R. Todd, GR Supra, 3.923, 327.90; 7. John Force, Camaro, 3.898, 334.32 vs. 10. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.921, 328.86; 8. Alexis DeJoria, GR Supra, 3.915, 331.04 vs. 9. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 3.915, 327.03.
Did Not Qualify: 17. Mike Smith, 13.747, 53.46.
Justin Ashley, a New York native, stayed on top in front of a capacity crowd at his home track, with his run of 3.687-seconds at 335.57 mph from Friday in his 11,000-horsepower Phillips Connect Toyota dragster handing him the No. 1 spot for third time in what has been a banner 2023 season. It’s also the fifth career top qualifier for the Top Fuel points leader, who has already picked up six victories this season. He made another strong run to close out qualifying and Ashley will open eliminations against Scott Farley.
He’s also had plenty of success at Maple Grove Raceway in his young Top Fuel career, advancing to the final round last year. Ashley would love to set the tone for the Countdown to the Championship with a victory on Sunday and he remains confident in the mentality of the team.
“We feel great. You’re trying to put yourself in the best position to win the race on Sunday and I feel like we accomplished that,” Ashley said. “We went down the track three out of four times, and we had that .68 in the quickest session, but tomorrow is going to be different in a lot of ways. It’s going to be faster than what we’ve seen.
“Inherently, there’s more pressure because the playoffs are on, but it doesn’t change our approach. Our mentality is to continue to do the same thing that we’ve been doing since the start of the year. There’s a reason we’re in the position that we’re in now. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in it being the playoffs and changing what you’re doing or focusing more intently. But we take every race the same way, playoffs or regular season. There is more pressure, but as a group, we’ve stuck to our guns that we’re to have fun, we’re here to have a good time, we’re here to win. I feel confident in the group that we have and I feel confident that we’re not going to let the pressure get to us.”
Defending world champion Brittany Force stayed second with her 3.689 at 336.57 from Friday and Doug Kalitta took third with his 3.696 at 331.45.
Top Fuel pairings — 1. Justin Ashley, 3.687 seconds, 335.57 mph vs. 16. Scott Farley, 4.137, 284.51; 2. Brittany Force, 3.689, 336.57 vs. 15. Jacob Opatrny, 3.972, 282.84; 3. Doug Kalitta, 3.696, 331.45 vs. 14. Josh Hart, 3.798, 327.90; 4. Steve Torrence, 3.698, 332.43 vs. 13. Mike Salinas, 3.795, 319.60; 5. Antron Brown, 3.716, 329.50 vs. 12. Doug Foley, 3.755, 322.11; 6. Shawn Langdon, 3.719, 329.02 vs. 11. Dan Mercier, 3.743, 325.77; 7. Clay Millican, 3.720, 334.24 vs. 10. Leah Pruett, 3.743, 327.90; 8. Austin Prock, 3.728, 329.83 vs. 9. Tony Schumacher, 3.737, 328.54.
Defending Pro Stock Car world champ Erica Enders seems poised to defend her event victory from Maple Grove Raceway, qualifying No. 1 for the third time this season thanks to Friday’s 6.494 at 211.13 in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro. It’s the 32nd career No. 1 spot for the six-time world champion who moved up to second in points standings on Saturday on the strength of her qualifying performances in Reading. After making the quickest run of 2023 in Pro Stock on Friday, Enders had two strong showing on Saturday, including the quickest run in the final qualifying session.
She’ll open eliminations against Val Smeland, aiming for her third win of the season. A victory on Sunday would also make her the winningest female in NHRA history as she looks to open the Countdown to the Championship in style.
“It was definitely cool to follow up today with two really great runs,” Enders said. “Super proud of my team, we made some changes this morning to try to pick up a little bit and it went in the opposite direction, so we fixed it and were able to outrun the field. It was pretty substantial, but it’s a challenging raceday ahead of us tomorrow and we have to make sure everything goes right. I’m excited and proud of my guys. We’ve really turned this season around. I’m stoked and ready to go.
“We were waiting for that pendulum to swing back in our direction after our really sorry to start for the year, but we knew with hard work and determination. My guys have this awesome never-quit attitude and just amazing tenacity. I’m proud of them. It’s not something that’s easy to go through as a team. We’ve been through the trenches before, but this was a tough one. We rallied together and we’re doing well. A lot can change in the next six Sundays, but we’re going to ride this wave as long as we can.”
Troy Coughlin stayed second but improved his performance with a 6.497 at 211.23. Aaron Stanfield also bettered his qualifying mark, going 6.500 at 211.13, to qualify third. Points leader Dallas Glenn qualified ninth.
Pro Stock Car pairings — 1. Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.494, 211.13 vs. 16. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.576, 210.37; 2. Troy Coughlin Jr., Camaro, 6.497, 211.23 vs. 15. Eric Latino, Camaro, 6.572, 210.34; 3. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.500, 211.13 vs. 14. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.558, 210.93; 4. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.510, 209.65 vs. 13. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.548, 209.69; 5. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.515, 209.49 vs. 12. Camrie Caruso, Camaro, 6.538, 209.88; 6. Kyle Koretsky, Camaro, 6.518, 210.28 vs. 11. Jerry Tucker, Camaro, 6.535, 210.14; 7. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.518, 210.14 vs. 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Ford Mustang, 6.526, 211.66; 8. Cristian Cuadra, Mustang, 6.521, 210.47 vs. 9. Dallas Glenn, Camaro, 6.523, 210.24.
Did Not Qualify: 17. Fernando Cuadra, 6.581, 209.82; 18. Kenny Delco, 6.620, 210.50; 19. Alan Prusiensky, 6.620, 207.46; 20. Brandon Miller, 6.655, 207.50; 21. Larry Morgan, 6.662, 207.66; 22. Mason McGaha, 6.671, 207.15.
photos by Tim Hailey, story courtesy of NHRA and team reports