NHRA’s 2023 playoff rounds open with 50th career victory by one of its most distinguished racers….

Doug Kalitta picked up a career defining 50th national event victory at Maple Grove Raceway, earning his first victory in nearly three years after driving past Steve Torrence in the final round of the 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA National — the first race in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Robert Hight (Funny Car), Matt Hartford (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won the 16th of 21 races during the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season, and the first of six events in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. The points lead changed hands in every class this weekend as well, with three of the four winners (Hight, Hartford and Smith) taking over the top spot.

Kalitta powered past Torrence with a run of 3.662-seconds at 336.99 mph in his Mac Tools dragster to open the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, picking up his first win since October of 2020 in St. Louis. Kalitta knocked off Josh Hart, Shawn Langdon and Leah Pruett on Sunday before inclement weather pushed the final round to Monday.

After a wild ride in the final round of qualifying, Kalitta was forced to go his backup car, but that didn’t stop the veteran, who made the fastest run of his career in the final round to get the memorable victory. He also jumped to third in points to kick off the Countdown to the Championship in style.

Doug Kalitta collected a milestone and very relieving victory when he won in Top Fuel at the NHRA Pep Boys Nationals.

“This is huge. To get that monkey off my back and get that 50th win, now we can concentrate on the next five (playoff) races,” Kalitta said. “Getting this victory, that’s been big on my list. It was a great job for my team and I’m real proud of their effort. To run like that and go in the 60s in the final, it shows their talent and I couldn’t be happier. I love running here and my guys worked their tails off. It never hurts to have a thrash and I’m just really proud of this team.”

Torrence took over the points lead with his fifth trip to the finals this year and 86th overall. He beat Mike Salinas, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher and now leads Justin Ashley by seven points.

In his 100th career Funny Car final round, Hight made it one to remember, picking up his 64th victory thanks to an incredible pass of 3.854 at 330.39 in his Cornwell Tools/AAA Chevrolet Camaro SS to defeat Chad Green in the championship round. It also sent Hight into the lead by three points over Ron Capps, as the three-time world champion won at Maple Grove Raceway for the second straight year to kick off the Countdown to the Championship.

Robert Hight raced to a fuel FC title for the 3rd time in 2023 – and also into the points lead — after round #1 of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

It was also Hight’s third win this season, as the veteran raced past Jim Campbell, Matt Hagan and Capps to get to the finals, posting a string of incredible runs during eliminations. His thrilling win against Hagan, where Hight went 3.852, came by a mere .001, and he went 3.861 against Capps before taking down Green to celebrate for the third time in 2023.

“This car is running good at the right time and we did exactly what we needed to do today,” Hight said. “But we have to stay focused on the task at hand. We learned a lot of things, but we have to keep working and keep our heads down because it’s not going to get any easier. You’re probably going to have to win three, maybe four times in the Countdown to win a championship, so we can’t get too carried away yet. It was a job well done by this team this weekend and we’re excited about that, but it takes major work to win a championship.

“That race against Hagan, when it’s that close, it can go in either direction. You’ve got to be mentally prepared and ready against all these guys. We’re thrilled to win and we can use it as a confidence-builder, but we have to continue to work hard.”

Green reached his second final round this season, also moving to fifth in points, thanks to round wins against Terry Haddock, Tim Wilkerson and No. 1 qualifier Bob Tasca III.

Pro Stock’s Matt Hartford overcame all sorts of adversity leading into the race and then during the weekend, but ended up with the points lead for the first time in his career after beating Kyle Koretsky in the final round with a run of 6.532 at 208.91 in his Total Seal/CIP1 Camaro. He won his second straight race in the process, but it didn’t come easy for the new points leader. Hartford had an appendectomy the Thursday after his U.S. Nationals victory, but was determined to be ready for the playoff opener in Reading. The team, though, struggled throughout qualifying, making a litany of changes throughout the weekend before coming alive during eliminations.

Recent US Nationals winner Matt Hartford won again in Pro Stock!

He knocked off Greg Anderson, Camrie Caruso and defending world champ Erica Enders to reach the final round, getting past his KB Titan Racing teammate to win for the third time this season and eighth time in his career. Hartford leads Enders by 30 points with five races remaining, feeling plenty of satisfaction with the win and the journey to get there.

“The last week and a half has not been fun until today,” Hartford said. “Our team had to work harder this weekend than they have in years and they really pulled together. Things went our way and we had a really good day today. We’ve got a good car and a car that can run well in all conditions.

“It was a grueling weekend for everybody and the emotions were high. Our team never gave up and now there’s 20 win lights left in the year. If I just keep doing my job and keep my head on straight, I think we walk out of here with a white (world championship) hat after five more races.”

Koretsky, racing at the track his family owns, reached the championship round for the second time this season and eighth time overall thanks to round wins against Jerry Tucker, Aaron Stanfield and Troy Coughlin Jr.

The weekend couldn’t have ended any better for defending Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Matt Smith, as he took down teammate Chip Ellis in the final round with a run of 6.807 at 198.50 on his Denso Auto Parts Suzuki. Coupled with Gaige Herrera’s surprising second-round defeat, it sent Smith into the points lead for the first time this season as he earned his second straight victory. Chasing what would be a PSM record seventh world championship, Smith followed his Indy victory with a strong opening statement in the Countdown to the Championship.

Matt Smith (who also won at Indy!) prevailed again in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

He knocked off Chris Bostick, Marc Ingwersen and teammate Jianna Evaristo to reach the final round and picked up his 38th career victory a round later. With five races remaining, Smith now holds a 17-point lead over Herrera.

“Today was exciting. We’ve won races on Monday before and we pulled it off today,” Smith said. “All in all, we had a great weekend. Personally, my bike still isn’t the bike I need out here to win a seventh championship. We just have to get my bike better. My bike isn’t 60-footing the way it needs to. We know we have really good power, even though we qualified fourth, we’re still way behind.

“(But) we’ve won six championships because we play our cards right and we’re smart and we do what we need to do. We brought a fourth bike (to this race) and that was our goal. When you don’t have the best stuff, you have to bring other stuff in to try to learn. All in all, that’s why we brought that bike to Reading and Chip knocked out some people that we needed him to knock out.”

Ellis, who qualified second and was hired by Matt Smith Racing to ride a team bike during the Countdown, took down Cory Reed, Eddie Krawiec and Hector Arana Jr. to reach the championship round.

The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series returns to action Sept. 22-24 with the 15th annual Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte.

 Flexjet Muscle Show

Aaron Stanfield and his Stanfield Racing Engines Chevrolet COPO Camaro picked up their second win of the season at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals.

For the 2X series champion, the win marked his 23rd overall NHRA Wally and 11th Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown event win, Stanfield raced to victory over event No. 1 qualifier Del Holbrook and his Big Pulley No Power Ford Mustang Cobra Jet in the finals. Stanfield would lay down a 7.676-second pass at 165.46 mph to Holbrook’s 9.845 at 128.11 after he bogged down mid-track.

“Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown is just right up mine and my family’s alley. It’s Factory Cars in head up racing, doesn’t get much better than that,” Stanfield said. “I really have to take my hat off to Maple Grove Raceway. I haven’t always done very well here but it’s a heck of a facility. The Koretsky family, we’re lucky to have a family around to keep giving us a place like this to race at. I have to thank my guys. We have been working hard at the shop. We’ve been down and out a little bit, but we’ve been working hard, keeping our heads down, and it paid off this weekend. I’ve got to thank my wife and little girl at home, they’re rooting us on, the Janac Brother’s and everybody else who has helped us out. Thank you.”

Aaron Stanfield won in the Factory Stock Showdown category to further pad his series points margin.

Before taking the win, Stanfield started eliminations with a 7.684-second pass at 178.52 mph to defeat Scott Libersher and his Chevrolet COPO Camaro’s 7.805 at 175.59. In the second round, Stanfield got the win over Kevin Skinner. Stanfield would have a 7.649 at 178.66 over Skinner’s 11.040 at 93.40 in his Columbus Joint and Clutch Ford Cobra Jet. The semifinals lined Stanfield up with Norwalk event winner Stephen Bell. Bell would leave the starting line first in his Stanfield Racing Engines COPO, but it would be Stanfield’s 7.676 at 178.78 that would get the victory over Bell’s 7.714 second run at 178.96.

Stanfield will leave Reading with 610 points and a 152-point lead over Stephen Bell, his closest competitor. With three national events left it will be tough one of his competitors to race around the defending Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown World Champion for the 2023 championship.

Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown competition will continue at the NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway just outside of St. Louis, September 20 – October 1.

Lucas Oil Lowdown
(Sportsman Racing Final Round Summary)

In the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, Hall of Fame driver Tony Stewart moved back into the points lead as well with his second national event win – and fourth victory overall this season in his Mobil 1 McPhillips Racing dragster. Stewart’s run of 5.213-seconds at 271.19 mph gave him the victory over Madison Payne in the final round, which comes on the heels of winning the divisional event at Maple Grove Raceway in early August.

“This is huge. This is McPhillips’ home track, so a lot of friends and family in the pit this weekend,” Stewart said. “To win for Rich and Richie (McPhillips) and all their friends and family here, a win is always special but to do it under these circumstances at a home race for them is that much more special.

Former NASCAR star racer Tony Stewart won convincingly in the TAD class category.  It was his 4th win for 2023 so far.

“I’ve always liked the opportunity to hopefully get a point lead, at least be in the lead, even if it’s just by one point. The fact that you’re in the lead I feel like carries weight. To have weekend like we had, we battled through a lot to get here. This is huge. There’s not but a handful of races left this year. We’re trying to make the most out of every one of them. Getting maximum points (this weekend) is a huge deal for us.”

Top Alcohol Dragster — Tony Stewart, 5.213, 271.19 def. Madison Payne, 5.253, 276.69.

Top Alcohol Funny Car — Sean Bellemeur, Chevy Camaro, 5.462, 266.27 def. Matt Gill, Camaro, 5.514, 265.80.

Sean Bellemeur won in the TAFC class racing the Bartone Brothers Chevy Camaro

Competition Eliminator — Steve Szupka, Dragster, 7.723, 127.38 def. Mark Hopkins, Chevy Beretta, Foul – Red Light.

Super Stock — Dan Fletcher, Chevy Camaro, 9.732, 135.21 def. Michael Iacono, Camaro, 9.823, 132.78.

Stock Eliminator — Joe Santangelo, Chevy Camaro, 10.625, 120.76 def. Kenneth Miele, Ford Mustang, 8.476, 160.10.

Dan Fletcher (top) and Joe Santangelo won with their high flying Camaro cars in Super Stock and Stock eliminators respectively.

Super Comp — Chase Fahnestock, Dragster, 8.920, 167.97 def. Ed McCleaft, Dragster, 8.913, 171.47.

Super Gas — Keith Mayers, Porshe, 9.938, 146.65 def. Bill Trum, Chevy Camaro, 9.948, 144.23.

Ken Mayers raced this very unique machine to victory in the Super Gas (9.90) class.

Top Sportsman — George Forster, Chevy Monte Carlo, 7.487, 181.76 def. Michel Bastien, Dodge Daytona, 7.015, 198.23.

George Forester was the winner in T/S with his Chevy Monte Carlo.

Top Dragster — Vince Musolino, Dragster, 6.563, 192.17 def. James Glenn, Dragster, 7.315, 179.80.

Competition eliminator winner Steve Szupka.

Junior Dragster Shootout — Greyson St. Jean, Bos, 9.031, 73.58 def. Maddox Mason, Halfscale, Foul – Red Light.

Posted with files by NHRA Communications and Elon Werner
Photos by Dave DeAngelis and Steve Embling

Link to our Pep Boys NHRA Nationals event photo gallery: HERE