When the green light flashes on the tree, Justin Ashley knows exactly where his foot position on the throttle should be, how he should position his body in the car and what his mind needs to focus on.
He’s insistently studied the data from each of his runs, knowing that, as the level of competition in the NHRA Top Fuel class rises, having an edge behind the wheel is crucial. During his rookie year in Top Fuel — 2020 — Ashley’s average reaction time was .039 seconds, the best in the class. This season, in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, Ashley compiled a similar average of .041 seconds.
“I’m pretty aggressive in terms of always making sure I’m on the offense, attacking the tree instead of sitting back and worrying about making mistakes,” Ashley said.
The Phillips Connect dragster driver had plenty on his mind when he arrived at the NHRA Auto Club Finals in Pomona, Calif., last month. He had lost the points lead to Brittany Force two weeks before at the Nevada Nationals and was entering the finals seven points behind.
However, Ashley had firmly preached throughout the season that he planned to avoid taking a ride on the “emotional roller coaster” that his mentors had warned him about. To him, there was no reason for the Pomona finale to be viewed differently.
“We knew that if we won the race, the rest would take care of itself. We really didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of playing the ‘what if’ game and I think we did a good job of that,” Ashley said.
After losing ground to Force in qualifying, Ashley was met with defeat in his first elimination round against friend and competitor Antron Brown.
“I’ve never beat somebody and was brokenhearted … but when my win light came on, that was the first time I’ve turned a win light and been upset,” Brown said with a smile. “Justin was on point 98 percent of the time and that’s what you need to win championships. But nobody’s ever laid down and gave me a championship, so I’m never giving that favor to nobody else.”
As fate would have it, Force clinched her second Top Fuel world title, Brown earned runner-up honors and Ashley finished fourth in the standings. Despite the final shortcomings, Ashley looks back on the year with pride and believes his Davis Motorsports team has made significant strides that will further their performance next season.
As a driver, Ashley has strengthened his ability to provide precise feedback about his dragster to crew chiefs Mike Green and Tommy DeLago on race weekends. The three have settled into a comfortable rhythm, with the two drag racing veterans often imparting their wisdom onto the third-year Top Fuel racer.
“Chances are, whatever happened, they’ve seen it before,” Ashley said about his crew chiefs. “Although I didn’t have the experience, I feel like I did in a way, just from speaking with them.”
Green has been by Ashley’s side from the start of the 2021 season, while DeLago officially joined the team as a co-crew chief this January. Since coming together, they’ve been building on the foundational early years of Ashley’s career, which he refers to as a “launching pad” that helped guide their expectations.
“We go out there and we expect to win each race, each round, but with a healthy understanding of how strong the competition is,” Ashley said.
During the 22-race season, Ashley visited the winner’s circle three times. There were nine different drivers who scored victories in the Top Fuel class this year. They were Austin Prock, Mike Salinas, Tripp Tatum, Leah Pruett, Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, Brown, Force and Ashley.
And yet, even with a stacked field of capable contenders, Ashley is fully confident he will be back in the title hunt in the coming season.
“It was emotional after losing the championship,” Ashley said. “Even though it was disappointing, I think that it was also motivational. It got me that much more excited, ready and fired up to race in 2023.”