Gaige Herrera at Sonoma

NHRA: Herrera, Ashley and Todd win Sonoma Nationals

Gaige Herrera becomes the 9th driver to sweep the Western Swing while Justin Ashley and J.R. Todd secure nitro wins at the Sonoma Nationals.


A Western Swing sweep of the three NHRA national events in Denver, Seattle, and Sonoma is a rare feat that compares historically to a perfect game in baseball or a hole-in-one on the PGA tour.

Gaige Herrera at Sonoma
Gaige Herrera at Sonoma

It’s just not something that fans can expect to see on any given year. The odds didn’t seem to matter much to second-year phenom Gaige Herrera who finished off Pro Stock Motorcycle’s first Western Swing sweep when world champion Matt Smith’s Denso Suzuki would not start in the final round.

Herrera ran the table in Sonoma when he qualified No. 1 and also won Saturday’s NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle Callout event. He finished the rout with a 6.775, 198.12 on his Vance & Hines Suzuki.

Herrera shared the Sonoma winner’s circle with nitro champs Justin Ashley and J.R. Todd. Ashley scored his fifth win of the season in Top Fuel while Todd, a runner-up a week ago in Seattle, hoisted his first Wally since the 2021 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.

Ashley powered past his buddy, three-time world champion Antron Brown while Todd managed to get by Chad Green, who was competing in his first Funny Car final.

Herrera joins a list of Western Swing sweepers that includes Joe Amato, Cory McClenathan, Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown, John Force, Greg Anderson, and Dan Fletcher (twice) but in reality, his performance might just be the most impressive of all of them.

Herrera was the low qualifier at all three events and was rarely challenged in a side-by-side race.

In Sonoma, the California native was just a thousandth quicker than Matt Smith in qualifying, but he extended that lead on race day and finished the day with a string of 6.7s in his wins over Ryan Oehler, Marc Ingwersen, and Karen Stoffer.

“I can’t put into words what the last three weeks have been like,” said Herrera. “When we got to Denver, I did not think this [sweep] was possible but our team had the momentum and drive to get it done. I was probably more worried today than I’ve been all season.

“I had a weird feeling in my gut, especially in the semi’s when I had to race Karen [Stoffer]. Her and [husband] Gary are the ones who gave me a chance to come out here. They taught me a lot but you never teach someone all your tricks so I was a  bit nervous but it all paid off.”

“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. I’m not a big person to show emotion, but I was yelling and screaming inside my helmet when I crossed the finish line,” Herrera said.

“Everything that’s happened this season, has been amazing. I just wish my great-grandfather would have been here to see it. He started all of this with our whole family racing.”

Smith, who rolled past Lance Bonham, Steve Johnson, and Eddie Krawiec to reach the final, was obviously frustrated to not have a chance to end Herrera’s win streak and, in the process, get his first win of the season.

“I won’t know for sure until I get it back to the pits and look at it, but I’ll bet it was a crank sensor, the same thing that bit us in Seattle. We try to keep the best parts on this bike and I hate to think a $100 sensor cost us a chance to beat Gaige, but we’ll go back and see what’s wrong and fix it for the next one.”

Top Fuel

There is tremendous parity right now in Top Fuel, but there are times when Ashley’s performance suggests otherwise. In the 12th event of the season, the Phillips Connect driver bagged his fifth Wally with a narrow victory against his Toyota teammate, Antron Brown.

Brown actually left the starting line first, but Ashley tracked him down to win, 3.778 to 3.787 in a race decided by a thousandth of a second. With the win, Ashley has reclaimed the championship lead that he surrendered to Steve Torrence in Seattle a week ago.

Justin Ashley
Justin Ashley

“This is tough. Top fuel is so hard that it feels like four finals on Sunday and the margin for error is so small,” said Ashley. “We know going in that it going to take a real team effort. This week, I think we were better in qualifying than we actually showed and we managed to get it done today.

“I didn’t see or hear [Antron] in the final,” Ashley said. “When it’s that close you just don’t know and I just tried to stay focused. That [.001-margin of victory] is the way to close out a race in Sonoma and give the fans what they came for.”

Ashley was just seventh quickest in qualifying but instantly became one of the favorites on Sunday when he made the second-quickest run of the weekend with a 3.707  in his win over Doug Kalitta, who was not far behind with a 3.750.

Ashley downed low qualifier Austin Prock in the quarterfinals and then topped Josh Hart’s R+L Carriers entry in the semifinals with another consistent 3.768. Ashley’s impressive statistics include a 25-7 record in elimination rounds and his career record now stands at an impressive 101-57.

Brown’s season hasn’t been half-bad although the first two legs of the Western Swing were not particularly kind to the Matco Tools team. Brown salvaged a strong finish with victories against a trio of quality opponents, Mike Salinas, Brittany Force, and Seattle winner Steve Torrence.

Funny Car

Recently, Todd and his DHL Toyota crew have not looked like a team that is seeking their first win in more than two years. Coming off a runner-up finish a week ago in Seattle, Todd won Saturday’s Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge and then returned on Sunday to win for the 20th time in his career when he posted a 3.972 to hold off Green’s 4.039.

J.R. Todd wins at Sonoma
J.R. Todd wins at Sonoma

“I feel like it’s been a long road to get here,” said Todd. “We started the year with a new combination and I think it might have been a bit of dumb luck that we did so well in Gainesville.

“Then we had trouble in Pomona [a two-car accident] and that was a big setback.  Todd [Smith, crew chief] said it would take a while to get it all sorted out and now I feel like he and Jon [Oberhofer] have a handle on it.

“I’ve said this all along but I think Funny Car is the toughest class from top to bottom,” Todd said. “We really need to work on our qualifying because when you are around seven to ten, it sets you up to be one of the first pairs and you’ve got a quick turnaround. Guys like Matt Hagan and Ron Capps have set the bar pretty high so when you get a chance, you’ve got to take advantage of it. You go two-plus years without a win and you wonder if you’re ever going to win again.”

Todd was remarkably consistent with four runs between 3.95 and 3.98 during eliminations as he topped Blake Alexander, low qualifier Bob Tasca III, and three-time champ Matt Hagan to get to the final.

J.R. Todd wins at Sonoma
J.R. Todd wins at Sonoma

As for Green, he’s clearly on the fast track to becoming NHRA’s next first-time pro winner with a tremendous 2023 season that already includes seven semifinals and now a final round in Sonoma. Green topped Cruz Pedregon, Paul Lee, and Ron Capps to get to the final round.



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