Top Fuel points leader Brittany Force capped off qualifying with a thrilling run on Saturday at Maple Grove Raceway, grabbing the No. 1 qualifier in front of a sellout crowd at the 37th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals and the opening race of the Countdown to the Championship.
Robert Hight (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also qualified No. 1 at the first of six races in the Countdown to the Championship during the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season. NHRA and officials at Maple Grove Raceway announced a sellout for Saturday’s racing as well, as the passionate fanbase in the area packed the historic track.
The Koretsky family purchased the fan-favorite facility in April and the tremendous crowd enjoyed an impressive day of qualifying.
“It’s crazy for the first event for our family to be a sellout, but we owe it all to the racing fans out here,” Kyle Koretsky said. “They supported us and came out here, and it’s beautiful weather watching NHRA drag racing.”
After struggling during the first two qualifying sessions in Top Fuel, Force (pictured above) vaulted to the top with her run of 3.696s at 327.90 mph in her 11,000-horsepower Flav-R-Pac/Monster Energy dragster. It’s the eighth No. 1 qualifier this season and the 40th overall for Force, who has made the only run in the 3.60s this weekend and will look to pick up her fifth win of the season on Sunday. She’ll open eliminations against Cam Ferre and praised the work of her team to bounce back and jump all the way to the top to close out the day.
“I’m not sure dramatic is what we were going for. That’s not how any of us wanted to do it, but we had a solid, good run and that’s really what we needed,” Force said. “(But) we gained some points, another No. 1 qualifier, and we’re just looking for a long raceday tomorrow. There was pressure not just for me as a driver but our entire team. It’s tough to come into the first race of the Countdown and not be able to perform as we have been. Everything is a team effort. We feel all the emotions together and we want to win just as badly as anyone out here.
“It’s pretty cool to see the stands are packed and see all the fans out here to support NHRA drag racing. They’re the diehard fans and hopefully we put on a good show for them. We did that tonight and we want to do the same thing tomorrow. It’s motivation to see the crowd that’s here for us going into the Countdown. It just pumps us up.”
Justin Ashley will take the second spot after his run of 3.703 at 330.55 from Friday, while Mike Salinas’ 3.705 at 330.96 has him third. Austin Prock and Steve Torrence are fourth and fifth, respectively, heading into raceday.
Hight stayed on top in Funny Car, picking up his 75th career No. 1 qualifier in his 11,000-horsepower Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS on the strength of his 3.867 at 331.20 from Friday. It also gives Hight his fourth top spot this season and he also closed out Saturday with another stellar run in the 3.80s. In a nod to the consistency of the team and car, the points leader picked up bonus points in every qualifying session, putting him on course to try for a seventh win this season.
“Hats off to the Koretsky family. There is no better feeling than turning the corner and coming out of the staging lanes and pulling into the water box and you see packed stands and standing room only at the fence,” Hight said. It’s pretty exciting and that’s exactly what they needed for their first weekend. I’m proud of them and happy for them.
“Our team picked up points every single qualifying run, and it couldn’t get any better than that. That’s what we have to do all six races (in the Countdown). I know it’s just qualifying, but these are the kind of races we’re going to have. There are a lot of great cars and we’re going to have these battles every single weekend.”
On the side-by-side qualifying run with Hight to close out the day, defending world champ Ron Capps moved into the second spot with a run of 3.878 at 331.45. That bumped John Force to third with his 3.890 at 329.99. Force will be making his 800th career start on Sunday. Bob Tasca III and Matt Hagan round out the top five.
For the first time since 2019, Butner is the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock as his run of 6.523 at 210.088 from Friday in his Johnson’s Horsepower Garage Camaro held up through final qualifying on Saturday. It’s the 12th career No. 1 for Butner, who will open eliminations against Fernando Cuadra Sr. Things have come around lately since debuting a new car and Butner also has a chance for a second straight win in Super Gas in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. That means a lot of momentum for the veteran driver, who is enjoying another quality weekend in Reading.
“I’m glad, but to be No. 1 in this field is tough. You have to make a right time, right place kind of run,” Butner said. Everybody is close so it’s going to be a good race tomorrow. Our JHG team, the Elite team, they try very hard, and it showed with our car. I feel like tomorrow will maybe be a little warmer, so with the earlier start that first run is going to be the best run. If you can survive that first run, then you just have to make good runs.”
Erica Enders didn’t get the No. 1 spot, but the points leader did turn some heads to close out qualifying with a run of 6.530 at 209.85. It kept her second in qualifying and gave her the best pass of Saturday as she looks for her fifth win this season. Kyle Koretsky remained third with a 6.534 at 209.72, with Dallas Glenn and defending world champ Greg Anderson going 6.537 and 6.544, respectively, to fill out the top five.
It was the Smith show again on Saturday in Pro Stock Motorcycle, with Matt Smith jumping past his wife, Angie, to take the No. 1 position with a run of 6.741 at 201.79 on his Denso Auto Parts Buell. Angie finished second, giving the husband and wife duo the top two spots in the class for the second time this season. For Matt, who is the current points leader, it’s his third No. 1 spot this season and the 50th in his stellar career. He’ll open eliminations against Ryan Oehler, looking to build on his Indy victory and his points lead in the Countdown to the Championship, and win for the fourth time during the 2022 season.
“Angie had a great run yesterday. I just didn’t know if the conditions this morning would be good enough to overtake her, but they were and we did,” Smith said. “The MSR camp has picked up a bunch of bonus points. We just need to continue, put together a round at a time, and hopefully we can turn on four win lights and Angie can turn on three or four and we can meet in the final.
“There’s a lot of energy. Coming off the U.S. Nationals win, that’s huge. Come here and we’re No. 1 qualifier, she was No. 1 the first day and I was the second day. It’s just a lot of momentum for our team and this DENSO team is striving at the right time.”
Angie finished in the second spot in qualifying thanks to her 6.757 at 201.22 as she will try to win for the first time this season. Steve Johnson, the defending event champ, took the third spot with his 6.774 from Friday, and Angelle Sampey and Marc Ingwersen round out the top five in the class.
Eliminations for the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals begin at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday at Maple Grove Raceway.