The season-opening AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, the first of 21 events on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule, is in the books.
Following a more than three-month offseason, some competitors struggled to find their groove while others stormed into the spotlight in front of a sold-out crowd at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway.
Mike Salinas (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Troy Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) left the Gatornationals leading their respective categories as the series moves on to the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Arizona’s Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park on March 24-26.
Good Start For TSR
For a second consecutive year, Hagan reached the winner’s circle at the Gatornationals, elevating his confidence as he begins his 16th year in Funny Car competition.
“It’s super special to win the Gatornationals again. I tried my whole career to win here, and we just got the first one last year,” Hagan said. “With this win, it’s a super way to start the season.”
He defeated J.R. Todd in the final round of eliminations, blasting down the track at 329.34 mph to record a 3.926-second run. Hagan also faced off with Tim Wilkerson, Bob Tasca and Alexis DeJoria en route to the finals.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Tony Stewart Racing tent, Leah Pruett battled her way to the semi-final round of eliminations in the Top Fuel class after qualifying fourth. After failing to qualify for last year’s Gatornationals, Pruett was satisfied with a semi-final effort this year.
After ending last year 11th in the standings, Pruett was involved in an extensive testing program during the winter in an effort to elevate her dragster’s performance.
“We actually ran 24 test passes this winter. We took a hybrid of all of our test runs to come into this weekend. There wasn’t one run of the 24 that we thought was the perfect setting,” Pruett said. “This weekend was quite a turnaround for our TSR Top Fuel team.”
Pruett earned her first NHRA win at the Arizona Nationals in 2017, so she’ll be on the prowl for another Wally next weekend at the Chandler, Ariz., drag strip.
Tough Day For Defending Champions
The two drivers who overpowered the Top Fuel championship conversation late last season had a difficult time in Gainesville as event winner Salinas took out both Brittany Force and Justin Ashley during eliminations.
Ashley was the first to exit, as his ninth-place qualifying effort had him matched up with Salinas in the first round on Sunday. While Ashley’s .038-second reaction time beat Salinas’ .087 seconds, the Top Fuel veteran overtook Ashley midway down the quarter-mile track.
“We have a championship team. We expect to win. But this is racing,” Ashley said.
Force was the second one to fall to Salinas on his streak to the top.
Her 3.758-second run came up short to Salinas’ 3.699-second performance, giving Salinas the quarter-final elimination victory. Though Force was the top qualifier on Saturday, she openly admitted the Monster Energy/Flav-R-Pac team had struggled coming into the weekend.
“We made a handful of good runs. But on race day, we got beat in the second round. We just didn’t push the car enough,” Force said. “This weekend wasn’t for us. That round wasn’t for us. We pack up and move straight to Phoenix, and we’ll try it again there.”
In the Funny Car category, defending champion Ron Capps went up in smoke during the quarterfinals after losing traction. The NAPA Auto Parts-sponsored driver cited a small clutch adjustment as the reason for smoking the tires.
“We’re very, very happy with everything and I can’t wait to get going to the West Coast,” Capps said. The second-year team owner is looking forward to another title chase and will enter Phoenix fifth in the standings.
As for Erica Enders, the reigning Pro Stock champion, she’s leaving the Gatornationals with a fire under her belt for the second year in a row.
The Elite Motorsports driver experienced a technical malfunction on her car, resulting in a first-round elimination exit. Last year, Enders was defeated by Greg Anderson in the first round at Gainesville — a situation she credits as the spark for her successful “Drive For Five” campaign.
After the loss, Enders won 10 out of 17 races and her fifth Pro Stock title.
Notably, as the Elite Motorsports team did not do any offseason testing, Enders’ initial run in her Chevrolet Camaro at the Gatornationals was only her fourth time in the seat since November. According to Enders, their offseason was largely spent in the engine shop, searching for more horsepower.
Meanwhile, her teammate, Coughlin Jr., collected the third Pro Stock victory, bolstering the team’s spirits as they begin a new season.
The Arizona Nationals will serve as a welcome reset for the title defenders as the competition continues their attempt to take their crowns.