CONCORD, N.C. — The NHRA Countdown to the Championship is off and running, with the attention shifting from the opening round at Maple Grove Raceway to the second round at zMAX Dragway on Sept. 23-25.
Already, there have been several upsets in the Top Fuel class, supplying some drivers with optimism while adding fuel to the fire for others.
Even so, some things seem as if they’ll never change — something that Funny Car point leader Robert Hight is wishing for.
Is Brittany Force Up To The Challenge?
After a long and prosperous run as the Top Fuel point leader, Force enters the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals second in the standings.
Force suffered mechanical issues in her Flav-R-Pac dragster at Maple Grove Raceway, losing to Antron Brown in the second round of eliminations. She left Reading nine points behind the new point leader — Justin Ashley.
“After a challenging weekend, our Flav-R-Pac team is ready to get the event started,” Force said. “The Countdown is short and we need to step it up and will be hunting down a win this weekend.”
Her priority is qualifying — not only to get some momentum rolling, but also to pick up some valuable points to make up the points deficit she’s facing. Fighting her way into the final round of eliminations is the second box she’s looking to check off her list at zMAX Dragway.
Force’s competition will be steep, especially with the hot streak Ashley appears to be starting.
The driver of the Phillips Connect Toyota dragster has won twice this season, but his history at the Carolina Nationals is the source of some dangerous confidence. Ashley debuted at the Charlotte event in 2019 and has consistently made it to the semifinals in every track appearance.
“Charlotte will be an opportunity for us to hold onto the points lead and, hopefully, add some distance on the field,” Ashley said. “Every run is significant and we would like to collect as many points as we can.”
Aside from his runner-up finish to Austin Prock at Maple Grove, Ashley has entered the semifinals in five of the past six races. His faith in his dragster and his team continues to build.
Despite the growing threat of Ashley, Force has her own history at zMAX Dragway to boast about. She was the No. 1 qualifier and finished runner-up at the fall event in Charlotte last year. With the surge of motivation from her unfortunate results at Maple Grove, the door is wide open for Force to claim her first Carolina Nationals victory.
“We just have to make the best of what we got,” Force said.
Robert Hight Continues To Apply The Pressure
Leading up to Maple Grove, Hight admitted the opening round of the Countdown was one of the most nerve-wracking races for a points leader.
But despite the concern he could easily lose his top spot in the standings, Hight fought his way through the weekend and came away with a victory and an 81-point lead over Matt Hagan.
“This is exactly how we scripted it,” Hight said after his victory. “To get the job done, it’s not easy.”
The three-time champion defeated Cruz Pedregon, Matt Hagan and Tim Wilkerson in his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS during eliminations in Reading on his way to his 60th career win.
“I have to give it up to the Auto Club Chevy team. They have worked so hard, really put their heads down and put the work in. It started at the end of last season and carried through all winter, and they haven’t let up. That’s why we are where we are right now,” Hight said.
Hight is hoping for a repeat performance this weekend in Charlotte as he continues to ride the high of his career-best season. With seven wins to his name this season alone, his fourth world championship seems within reach.
Coming into Charlotte, he’s backed by a record of six wins at zMAX Dragway, which include four victories at the Carolina Nationals and two at the Four-Wide Nationals. Part of Hight’s plan is to secure the No. 1 qualifying position — something that he’s yet to accomplish at the track.
“We’ll go focus in Charlotte … and get the same job done again. If you can do that early on here, you’re going to put some pressure on these guys,” Hight said.
Reading Delivers Record Numbers
Historically, the NHRA’s NFL adjacent broadcast has broken records for the viewership it has brought in. This year was no different.
The opening round of the Championship to the Countdown at Maple Grove brought in record numbers on the FOX broadcast last weekend, culminating at 1,678,000 viewers.
The viewership increased 10 percent — or 150,000 viewers — from last year, which was the previous most-watched broadcast. The peak viewership was over 2.8 million people.
“With a record-setting audience tuned in, our race teams put on an incredible show, and we’re thankful for all of our NHRA fans, as well as new fans who tuned in for the first time,” NHRA Vice President of Broadcasting Steve Reintjes said.
Not only was the FOX broadcast successful, but the crowd that appeared at the Reading, Pa., track made the NHRA visit a sellout on Saturday and a near-sellout on Sunday.
Fans are now turning their attention to the zMAX Dragway for the next round of action.