NHRA Regular-Season Leaders Justin Ashley, Ron Capps Have Backs to Wall at Las Vegas

tony stewart, matt hagan
It's Now or Never for NHRA Nitro ContendersNHRA/National Dragster
  • Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley and Funny Car’s Ron Capps led their fields into the six-race Countdown to the Championship, but both are battling out of fourth-place holes.

  • Usually reticent Doug Kalitta ready to scale six-time runner-up hurdle.

  • Surging Steve Torrence, in pursuit of a fifth crown in six years, pushing points leader Leah Pruett and No. 2 Kalitta in Top Fuel.

Justin Ashley started the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship in first place in the Top Fuel class. However, he has fallen to fourth place, watching first Doug Kalitta, then Steve Torrence and Leah Pruett, take turns grabbing the spotlight.

Ashley, however, remains optimistic, despite accumulating a 108-point disadvantage with only two chances to make that up.

His first opportunity will come this weekend at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Nevada Nationals. After that, the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., will close the season and make a long party or a long pout for the contenders.

justin ashley nhra top fuel
Justin Ashley has six wins this season in NHRA Top Fuel, but he’s struggled in the Countdown.NHRA/National Dragster

NHRA Top Fuel Contenders

With 2 Races Remaining

  1. Leah Pruett, 2,414 points

  2. Doug Kalitta, minus-4

  3. Steve Torrence, minus-13

  4. Justin Ashley, minus-108

  5. Antron Brown, minus-110

“Last year, we were in and out of the points lead during the Countdown, and there were always several teams grouped together, trying to take the top spot. The field is more competitive than it has ever been, and it has shown throughout the first four races of the Countdown,” Ashley said. “If we can find success in Las Vegas, I believe we’ll have an opportunity for the championship in Pomona.

“Our goal from the start of the season was to win the championship for this team and all our sponsors,” Ashley said. “We know what we need to do, and that begins by taking it one lap at a time in Las Vegas. Every opportunity for points is critical, whether it’s qualifying or race day.

“We all know you have to perform in the playoffs. And we haven’t been able to capitalize on as many opportunities as we did in the regular season. But we have two more races and remain right in the thick of things. We just need to get back to our routine of stacking round wins on top of one another and let the points take care of themselves,” Ashley said. “Vegas is a city where fortunes can turn around in an instant, and that is what we are going to be looking for.”

doug kalitta nhra
Doug Kalitta is four points out of the lead in his bid for a first Top Fuel championship.NHRA/National Dragster

Meanwhile, Doug Kalitta is a mere four points behind newest leader Leah Pruett and a perilous nine points ahead of surging Steve Torrence, who’s seeking his fifth crown in six seasons. Kalitta has been in this position before—and been disappointed six times with runner-up finishes.

This time the 51-time winner is ready to shake that annoying label of the sport’s most decorated driver without a championship.

Fresh from a weekend at Dallas in which he set the Texas Motorplex speed record at 336.73 mph in a qualifying-opening slavo, Kalitta said, “I feel confident,” Kalitta said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what we can make happen on Sunday. Everybody on the Mac Tools team is super-excited. I think we’re in a great spot, We just need to do what we do and go rounds. It’s all about executing.”

Title tuner Alan Johnson, who has won with six different drivers, is starting to regain his stride. And Kalitta said, “Having Alan Johnson in my corner, and obviously this team I have, definitely brings a whole new element of confidence, for sure. He and Brian (co-crew chief Husen) are doing an awesome job tuning the car. The guys are definitely in their groove putting this thing together, and having this team I have with two races to go is a pretty good spot to be in.

“I’m definitely thinking about it. Whenever I’m driving, it’s on my mind – especially when I’m going back and forth to the race shop to check on the boys to see how they’re doing or when I sit down with Connie (his team owner and uncle, drag-racing pioneer Connie Kalitta) to work out when we’re leaving, there’s always something going on throughout my day that involves the race team. I wake up in the morning, and I have a practice tree at home, so it’s definitely part of my routine. There’s just a lot of positive energy going on with this Mac Tools team,” he said.

“We want it. Everybody on the team is hungry—I’m not focused on it every moment of every day or anything like that, but it’s important. We don’t need to get too psyched up about this thing,” Kalitta said. “We just need to keep working hard and keep moving forward.”

For Torrence, it’s a simple equation among Pruett, Kalitta, and himself: “The bottom line is all three of us control our own destiny. We’re separated by less than one round, so it comes down to whoever does best in these last two races.” Like Kalitta, he said he feels strong about his No. 3 position.

“Coming off what we did at Dallas, it’s hard not to be confident,” Torrence said. Two weeks ago, he qualified No. 1, recorded career-best elapsed time and speed numbers (3.636 seconds, 336.62 mph), set a Texas Motorplex track record and reached the finals, where he lost to Pruett by an agonizingly close.005 of a second. “That was on me,” he said. “We had the car to win, but it takes everybody doing everything exactly right in one of these races, especially in the Countdown.”

ron capps nhra funny car
Ron Capps faces an all-or-nothing weekend in Las Vegas if he’s to have any shot at a Funny Car title.NHRA/National Dragster

Funny Car

In the Funny Car class, current champion Ron Capps’ playoff fortunes have mirrored Ashley’s. But he’s hoping his four victories at Las Vegas (2001, 2005, 2011, 2012) bode well for him as he will work to climb from fourth place, 99 points off leader Matt Hagan’s pace.

Capps, Hagan, and No. 3 Robert Hight all are pursuing a fourth championship, trying to join still-active and Countdown qualified John Force, as well as retired legends Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme. But just like last year, Capps has found himself out of the lead but with a chance to win the title with two races remaining on the schedule.

NHRA Funny Car Contenders

With 2 Races Remaining

  1. Matt Hagan, 2,461

  2. Bob Tasca III, minus-36

  3. Robert Hight, minus-69

  4. Ron Capps, minus-99

“Here we are, same conversation: Headed to Vegas, two races to go, and another chance to win a championship,” he said. “We would have liked to have been positioned better in the points going into this weekend, but it makes me extremely proud that our NAPA AutoCare team has put our Toyota Supra in a position to win a championship pretty much every season, and you can’t ask for more than that as a driver. And surely, you can’t ask for any more than that as a team owner.

“(We’ll try to) move up in the points. There’s a lot that has to happen, and Vegas is one of those tracks that can be very unpredictable,” Capps said. “For the fans, it’ll be very exciting. And for us racers, it’s going to be nail-biting time, but we love that.”