It was a dominating start for John Force Racing to open the countdown to the championship playoffs, as Top Fuel’s Austin Prock and Funny Car points leader Robert Hight took victory on Sunday in front of a crowd of ability at Maple Grove Raceway during the 37th annual Pep National Championships for Boys.
Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Joey Gladstone (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also scored victories in the first of six championship countdown races in the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.
Opening the playoffs from 12th, Prock earned his second career win and first of the season with his 3.755-second run at 329.67 mph in his Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist dragster on the final lap against points leader Justin Ashley. Prock also jumped six spots in the standings with five races remaining in 2022. His day started with round-the-round wins over Doug Foley, Steve Torrence and Indy winner Antron Brown, beating Brown in a spectacular pedal fest. in the semi-finals. From there, he won a thrilling side-by-side race with Ashley to complete a monumental weekend.
“It’s awesome and we’re back in the hunt for this thing,” said Prock, who became Top Fuel’s ninth different winner this year. “If you go out and win Reading, you’re back. It’s amazing and it was just one of those days where everything was going our way. I’m so proud of this team and thanks to John Force for giving me this opportunity. It was exactly what we needed.
“We entered the countdown sitting 12th, and if we wanted to play for the big trophy we knew we had to win this weekend. Everyone kept their heads down and always believed in themselves, and that attitude is how you earn a Wally. I was really proud to win four rounds; it was the first time in a long time that I could do that on Sunday. It’s super cool that we came out on the right side of a tight race.
To reach the final round for the fifth time this season, Ashley, who took the points lead, beat Jeff Chatterson, Doug Kalitta and Mike Salinas. Ashley passed Brittany Force in the points standings on Sunday and will take a nine-point lead over Charlotte.
Hight continued his spectacular season, earning his seventh win this season and 60th of his career, clocking a 3.937 second pass at 328.38 mph in his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS against Tim Wilkerson in the championship round . Hight and his team again showed impressive consistency throughout the eliminations, knocking out Cruz Pedregon and Matt Hagan to reach the final round. Wilkerson started early against Hight, who picked up a decisive victory and remains the favorite to win a fourth world championship as his points lead stretched to 81 points over Hagan.
“That’s exactly how we wrote it,” Hight said. “The only problem is that it’s really easy to script a weekend and a lot harder to get the job done. We had to qualify well and get bonus points in every race, because at the end of the year, those bonus points can make the difference.
“It’s just hard to believe what we’re doing. I never imagined someone would win seven Funny Cars races. It’s dog-eat-dog over there, so it’s amazing. That’s huge, to start like that, but it’s one down and five to go. We’re going to have fun today and then focus on Charlotte and try to do that next week. If we can do that, we will be in a really good position.
Tim Wilkerson overcame a fire in the semi-finals to advance to his second final round this season and the 49th of his career. He also had round-robin victories over Alexis DeJoria, defending world champion Ron Capps and John Force, who was making his 800th career start on Sunday.
Enders also continued his dominant run in Pro Stock, avenging a loss to Troy Coughlin in the final round in Seattle with a stellar 6.582 to 209.72 mph in his Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro on Sunday at Maple Grove Raceway. Much like his incredible start to the year, Enders opened the countdown to the Championship playoffs in perfect fashion, picking up his seventh win this season and 40th of his career. His standout Sunday included round robin wins over Alan Prusiensky, Matt Hartford and Kyle Koretsky, wrapping up the eliminations with his first win at the establishment. His lead is also 81 points over reigning world champion Greg Anderson after the first race of the playoffs.
“It was an amazing day, but really, ever since we set foot on the property, it’s been awesome,” Enders said. “Bo Butner went to No. 1 and we were No. 2, but after that we were low every time we came down the track. This countdown is going to be a dogfight, as it is every year. We have to capitalize on every moment and execute perfectly from here.
“It’s definitely special. One goal I wrote down on January 1 was that I wanted to win at tracks we hadn’t won before, and we got off to a good start in Pomona. We won the 900th race Pro Stock and Sonoma is on my list every year, we’ve done it and then we came here to Reading and we’ve done it as well.
Coughlin reached the final round for the fourth time this season, knocking out Cristian Cuadra, No. 1 qualifier Bo Butner and Anderson in the semis.
Joey Gladstone reclaimed the points lead in Pro Stock Motorcycle, capping off a memorable day at the track where he grew with a final-round win over Angie Smith, who turned red. Gladstone clocked a solid 6.835 seconds at 196.93 mph to cap off her day and take her third win this season, all in the last four races in the class. After Matt Smith took the points lead with his Indy victory, Gladstone reclaimed him to open the championship countdown, knocking out Hector Arana Jr., Mr. Smith in a pivotal second-round match, and then Marc Ingwersen to reach the last lap. His points lead is now 29 over Mr Smith and Gladstone was sure to soak up the win in what has been a standout season.
“It’s the playoffs, so this win is important. Mast [Smith] has been a powerful force, so to be able to get a good edge is awesome,” Gladstone said. “We will need it because it carries the buttocks. Everyone in this class is so tough, everyone’s a competitor, and every day you can beat a Smith is a good day – but two Smiths? It’s a big problem. I’m proud of my team and proud of my tuner. Today is my daughter, Olivia’s birthday. It was a really special day, and how memorable is it to do this on his birthday.
Smith reached his second final round this season with wins over Ron Tornow, Eddie Krawiec and defending winner Steve Johnson.
The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series returns to action September 23-25 with the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte.