Funny Car points leader Robert Hight opened the Countdown to the Championship playoffs in impressive fashion, powering to the provisional No. 1 qualifier on Friday at the 37th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
Justin Ashley (Top Fuel), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Angie Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are also provisional No. 1 qualifiers at the first of six races in the Countdown to the Championship during the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.
Hight continued his incredible 2022 to open the playoffs, racing to the No. 1 position with his pass of 3.867s at 331.20mph in his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS. Hight is seeking his fourth No. 1 qualifier this season and 75th in his career, but the points leader is also looking to add to the six wins he’s already put together. He’s been remarkably consistent throughout the season and the team’s mindset won’t change during the Countdown to the Championship as the three-time world champ looks to continue his success this year.
“We have to be aggressive and we’re going to need all the points we can get,” Hight said. “You have to get your mind right because anything can happen with such a small lead. We have to pick up every point we can. It’s one run at a time. That’s what it’s going to take to win this championship. Every point matters.
“We had a team meeting and we talked about we have six races, and we have to give it our all. We’ve got to put everything that really doesn’t matter to the side and focus on this car — but you really don’t have to tell this team that. They’re switched on. It’s exciting to be part of this, exciting to see their smiles when you come back in the pits. We’ll work hard and try to get more of those points tomorrow.”
Hight’s teammate, 16-time world champion John Force, is second after going 3.890s at 329.99mph, while defending world champ Ron Capps, who is coming off his huge U.S. Nationals victory in Indy, is right behind thanks to his 3.891s at 334.90mph. A pair of three-time winners in 2022 round out the top five, as Bob Tasca III is currently fourth with his 3.904s and Matt Hagan is fifth after a run of 3.906s.
In Top Fuel, Ashley continued his success at Maple Grove Raceway, taking the No. 1 spot on Friday with a run of 3.703s at 330.55mph in his Phillips Connect Toyota dragster. In his first Countdown to the Championship appearance last season, Ashley advanced to the final round at his home track, and he opened this year’s playoffs on a fantastic note as he seeks his second No. 1 spot this season. Ashley is third to open the playoffs and will look to make up ground this weekend in Reading.
“It was a great run and going into today we thought the conditions would be there and that it would be really fast,” Ashley said. “The car felt straight and true. It went right on down there and did exactly what we wanted it to do. Especially Countdown time, those bonus points are critical, and we have a good baseline going into the weekend. You feel it in the Countdown, the energy, but you really can’t change anything. You just have to go about your business the same way that you did before. If you start trying to change things, you start trying to push and I don’t think pushing is ever a good idea. You have to let the race come to you.”
Racing at his sponsor’s event, Mike Salinas, who is second in points, is right behind Ashley after his run of 3.705s at 330.96mph. Austin Prock ran a 3.706s at 332.02mph to sit third, while four-time defending world champ Steve Torrence (3.711s) and Clay Millican (3.721s) are fourth and fifth.
It’s been a struggle for most of the season for Bo Butner in Pro Stock, but the Countdown to the Championship may have breathed new life into the former world champ as he went to No. 1 with his run of 6.523s at 210.08mph in his Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage Camaro. Butner has only qualified better than fifth once this season, but things may be turning around at the right time. He debuted a new car last month and took the fifth spot in Indy, adding another great run on Friday as the veteran looks to make a run in the playoffs.
“This new car has been good to us right from the start,” said Butner, who opens the Countdown to the Championship 11th in the points standings. “I’ve got my work cut out for me [in the Countdown], but we’re going to try to go rounds and try to win a race or two. I didn’t let [the early-season struggles] get me down. Mentally, I’m in a great state and I’m here to have fun. Reading has been very good to us over the years and it’s exciting to be here. The Koretsky family has done a [heck] of a job with the facility and we’re just happy to be here.”
Points leader Erica Enders, who has six wins this year, is qualified second after the first session with a 6.531s at 210.87mph, with Kyle Koretsky right behind after going 6.534s at 209.72mph. Dallas Glenn and Aaron Stanfield are fourth and fifth, respectively.
Starting the Countdown to the Championship from the seventh spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Angie Smith opened the playoffs on a strong note, going to No. 1 with a run of 6.757s at 201.22mph on her Denso Auto Parts Suzuki. If it holds, Smith would gain her second No. 1 position this year and the third in her career. She’s also after her first victory of the 2022 season and getting it this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway to open the Countdown to the Championship would certainly count as perfect timing.
“To end up at No. 1, we’re pretty happy. It’s all about momentum and if you start on a high you can just go up from there,” Smith said. “I feel like we’re in a good spot, it’s just a matter of putting it all together. I have to treat this like it’s any other race. In the past, I’ve let racing in the Countdown get to me. There’s a lot of fast bikes and it’s one of the tightest fields we’ve ever had, but I have to be calm and focused. I think I’m more comfortable on the bike than I’ve ever been and I’m on the best bike I’ve ever had.”
Angie’s husband, Matt, who is also the points leader, grabbed the second spot on the strength of his 6.768s at 201.55mph. He’s coming off an impressive performance in Indy, where he got the win and jumped into the points lead. Defending event winner Steve Johnson is third with a pass of 6.774s at 198.06mph, while Angelle Sampey, who was the No. 1 qualifier last year in Reading, and Marc Ingwersen round out the top five.
Qualifying continues at 12:15 p.m. ET on Saturday at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.