SONOMA — Justin Ashley took over the points lead in Top Fuel, J.R. Todd picked up his first win of the season in Funny Car and second-season sensation Gaige Herrera continued to chop saw through the competition in Pro Stock Motorcycle at this weekend’s 35th Annual NHRA Denso Sonoma Nationals, the 12th of 21 races on the NHRA Camping World schedule in 2023.
After qualifying seventh, Ashley disposed of Doug Kalitta, No. 1 qualifier Austin Prock and Josh Hart, in the first three rounds of eliminations before defeating Antron Brown in the championship final with an electrifying side-by-side duel. Brown, who knocked out Mike Salinas, defending world champ and defending event winner Brittany Force and Steve Torrence, grabbed a slight edge off the starting line, but Ashley was able to chase him down before the finish, posting a 3.778 second time versus Brown’s 3.787, to earn the victory by a thousandth of a second or about two feet at the finish line.
“I didn’t see or hear him in the final,” Ashley admitted. “When it's that close, you just don’t know and I just tried to stay focused. That is the way to close out a race in Sonoma and give the fans what they came for.”
Ashley’s first career win at Sonoma and fifth of the season enabled him to reclaim the championship lead in Top Fuel that he lost to Torrence in Seattle the previous week. Ashley now holds a narrow 32-point lead over Torrence heading into the final three races of the regular season.
Although the Top Fuel bracket was three cars short of a full field of 16, Sunday’s eliminations produced close battles the entire day with ten competitors going down despite running under 3.9 seconds, including three on holeshots.
“It was tough out there,” said Ashley, who now has 10 career victories. “The competition is so tough right now in Top Fuel, and it feels like four final rounds every time you get up there. The margin of error is so small, and it takes a real team effort to get a win like this.”
Funny Car veteran Todd saw his season get off to an inauspicious start when he became tangled up in John Force’s parachute after a qualifying run at the Winternationals in Pomona that destroyed his new DHL Toyota chassis. As a result, Todd and his team have struggled through the first half of the season before finally showing some signs of life with a runner-up finish in Seattle last weekend.
Todd put that scary accident completely behind at Sonoma after he won Saturday’s Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge and then powered through Sunday’s Funny Car eliminations to earn the 20th time in his career and break a long 52-race winless streak.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” Todd said. “We’re getting a good handle on it and the consistency is coming around. When you’re going down the track like we are, it just gives everyone more confidence. I keep saying Funny Car is the toughest class in the sport and it’s definitely not easy. When you go two-plus years without winning, you don’t know if it’s going to happen again.”
Despite the changing track conditions, Todd was remarkably consistent all day, posting four straight sub-4-second runs to defeat Blake Alexander, No. 1 qualifier Bob Tasca III and points leader Matt Hagan, before taking out Chad Green in the final round with a 3.972 at 322.81 mph pass. Green advanced to his first career final by taking out veteran Cruz Pedregon, Paul Lee and back-to-back world champ Ron Capps.
“This is my favorite track on the tour. I love coming here and anytime you can win here, it’s special. I caught myself going down the track. I don’t think I’ve had the gas pushed down that hard,” said Todd, who now has four career victories at Sonoma Raceway. “I was trying to shove it through the floorboard. I was just wanting those win lights to come on and when that win light comes on in the final, it’s just instant relief, it’s just awesome.”
Hagan leaves Sonoma with a slim 19-point lead in Funny Car over Capps, while Todd holds down the eighth spot 219 points behind the leader.
Herrera continued his season-long hot streak by claiming his sixth victory in eight starts and making some history in the process by becoming the first Pro Stock Motorcycle rider to sweep the annual NHRA Western Swing. It was the culmination of a perfect weekend for Herrera after racking up victories in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge and in the Pro Stock Motorcycle All-Star Callout on his Vance & Hines/Mission Foods Suzuki on Saturrday.
The No. 1 qualifier, Herrera reached the finals with impressive wins against Ryan Oehler, Marc Ingwersen and Karen Stoffer, He tacked on a solo run of 6.775 seconds at 198.12 mph in the final to defeat defending world champion Matt Smith, who was unfortunately pushed off of the starting line when his bike refused to fire due to a broken part.
“I hate that we got it that way. I waited as long as I could [for Smith’s bike to fire] but at the end of the day I got the win,” commented the mild-mannered Herrera. “I’m not a big person to show emotion, but I was yelling and screaming inside my helmet when I crossed the finish line. Everything that’s happened this season has been amazing.”
The grueling Western Swing — consisting of three races in three consecutive weekends at Denver, Seattle and Sonoma — has only been accomplished seven times previously in the Pro categories with Antron Brown the last to do so in 2009.
“I can’t even put this into words. To be able to do this and accomplish what we have over the past three weeks, it’s incredible,” said Herrera, who qualified No. 1 in all three races. “The Denver win got us the momentum and the drive to keep pushing forward to get the sweep, and to do it, I never thought I would add my name to that part of history. I don’t talk much as it is, but this is just an incredible feeling.”
Ironically, this may be the final running of the mid-summer Western Swing.
It was recently announced that Bandimere Speedway in Colorado, which opened in 1958, would be closing after the 2023 season. Along with tracks in Atlanta, Phoenix and Houston, it becomes the fourth long running facility on the NHRA schedule to close in the last three seasons.
Despite falling just short in the final round, it was a good weekend for Manteca’s Chris Thode, who finished second in the 32-car field in the Top Dragster class — one of seven Sportsman divisions racing at Sonoma this weekend in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.
Thode, the owner of JC Automotive, started racing in 1987 and participates in about eight to 10 races a season. He has notched several impressive wins in his long career, including the Jegs Sportsnationals in Las Vegas, multiple National Open events and NHRA Pacific Division events in Las Vegas, but Sunday’s runner-up finish was the best he has ever had at Sonoma.
Top Dragster is a bracket class where competitors each dial in a run time. The driver who is closest to his time, without going under it, wins the race. Thode won in the opening two rounds of eliminations on Saturday and followed that up with two more wins on Sunday afternoon to reach the final against Don London.
Thode’s run in the final of 6.754 seconds at 220.44 mph fell just short when London cut an incredible light to nip Thode by approximately a hundredth of a second.
“I was a little bit disappointed because you always want to win, of course, but it was emotional and gratifying to go as far as we did. Just getting to Sunday is a gig deal and making it to the final was just icing on the cake,” said Thode. “We had a good car, and it was great day and a good time.”