Funny Car points leader Robert Hight held on to the top spot at the 22nd annual NHRA Nevada Nationals on Saturday, claiming the No. 1 qualifier to ensure a nitro sweep from John Force Racing at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also qualified No. 1 at the 21st event in the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season and the fifth of six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Hight’s stellar run of 3.857s at 331.77mph in his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS from Friday handed the championship hopeful his sixth No. 1 qualifier of 2022 and the 77th in his career. He’ll open eliminations against Terry Haddock, taking a 21-point lead over defending world champ Ron Capps into race day. Hight gained 11 points on Capps during qualifying, a nod to his success over the first two days of the race weekend in Las Vegas. That included a strong 3.3865s to close out the day, giving the team plenty of momentum heading into Sunday.
“Well, I would say that it was mission accomplished in qualifying, because we came in here with a 10-point lead and now we’re 21 points, and that’s two rounds,” Hight said. “So that’s a big deal. We gathered a lot of points in qualifying. Tonight, we were pushing, we were trying to run better than the (3.85s) that we ran, but we ran a 3.86s to finish. If we could go 3.85s or 3.86s four times tomorrow, I think we’re going to be at the top at the end of the day.”
Matt Hagan made a quality move to close out the day, going 3.862s at 330.23mph to qualify second. He enters Sunday 83 points behind Hight. That bumped Bob Tasca III and his run of 3.865s at 330.80mph to third.
Force’s standout run of 3.665s at 337.24mph from Friday in her Flav-R-Pac dragster held up, giving the former world champ her ninth top spot in 2022 and the 41st in her career. She also made two quality runs on Saturday, which adds to the team’s momentum on a weekend where Force knows she needs a big-time result. Entering eliminations, Force trails Justin Ashley by 73 points and will aim for a Las Vegas sweep on Sunday, as well as her first victory since Sonoma in July.
“Looking at our overall qualifying, we’re in a great position, making four solid passes and all in the high-0.60s and a 0.71s,” Force said. “It’s fantastic for our team, it’s four good runs to set up going into race day and gives us all a lot of confidence. I feel like we’re back on track and I’m feeling positive. We’re in a good headspace and we wanted to attack and be aggressive. For us, we can’t play it safe. That doesn’t work for us.”
The second spot changed hands several times during a thrilling final qualifying session on Saturday, with Force’s teammate, Austin Prock, ending up there with his run of 3.685s at 334.32mph. Ashley took third after he made a big improvement after a pass of 3.686s at 333.08mph.
Erica Enders moved a step closer to her fifth world championship in Pro Stock, as the points leader took the No. 1 spot on Saturday with her run of 6.579s at 208.75mph in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. It gave the four-time world champ her sixth No. 1 qualifier this season and the 29th in her career, and she’ll take a 164-point lead over teammate Aaron Stanfield into race day. Enders, who will open eliminations against Kenny Delco, is seeking a Las Vegas sweep this year, but she’s also trying to pick up her 10th victory of the season and possibly a fifth world championship if everything goes her way on Sunday.
“The rest of the field is nipping at our heels so it’s time to get busy and go to work,” Enders said. “All these young guns in the class have pushed me all season long and we need to ride to the occasion.
“I know we’re in a great position to be in, but it’s not over yet. My goal is to do a good job. I know I’m in a great position, but I still feel the pressure. It’s hard to explain that feeling in your gut. Other than that championship, I’d still like to win 10 races and I’ve got two shots to do it.”
Stanfield got bumped down to second, but still impressed with a run of 6.580s at 208.07mph and Deric Kramer jumped to third with his strong pass of 6.585s at 207.69mph.
Matt Smith made another strong statement on Saturday in Pro Stock Motorcycle, improving from Friday’s provisional No. 1 and taking the top qualifier – while also breaking both ends of the track record – by going 6.785s at 202.27mph on his Denso Auto Parts Buell. It gives the points leader his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the year and 52nd in his career, and he’ll open race day against Katie Justice. His points lead now stands at 64 over Joey Gladstone and Smith, who is aiming for a sixth world title, knows he can stretch that even more if he has a favorable day on Sunday.
“We were quickest in Q2, Q3, and Q4. I’ve got a shot at a sixth title, but we still have a lot of work to do tomorrow,” Smith said. “If I just do my job, I know we’ll be just fine. (But) we all know how quickly things can change here. There are still a lot of really good bikes out here. There are seven or eight good bikes out here that can win the race. We got lucky and went to No. 1, but that doesn’t mean too much tomorrow. We still need to turn on four win lights.”
Angelle Sampey took the second spot after her run of 6.807s at 198.64mph on Friday, while Angie Smith improved to third thanks to her 6.816s at 200.77mph.
Making his NHRA racing debut, legendary driver and team owner Tony Stewart won the first two rounds in eliminations in Top Alcohol Dragster. He will continue in semifinal action on Sunday.
Eliminations for the NHRA Nevada Nationals begin at 11 a.m. PT on Sunday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.