NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Analysis: Where 2023’s title contenders can improve in 2024. Part 3: Pro Stock

Our post-2023, predictive 2024 turns to Pro Stock, where drivers are so much more a part of the equation than in the nitro classes. What's it going to take to stop Erica Enders from winning again? Here's what her top challengers have to do.
08 Jan 2024
Brian Lohnes, NHRA on FOX announcer
Pro Stock

Today, we transition fuels from nitromethane to gasoline, but we don’t transition our reasoned and statistically backed analysis as we look at the Pro Stock category. 

The reality is that when we look at this class, we have to be more critical of human performance in some respects. Why? Pro Stock machines make it to the finish line under power with a far greater frequency than nitro-powered cars. This means that the driver’s job is much more magnified. 

A good Funny Car racer with a great average reaction time who smokes the tires constantly is in the same bad spot as a middling Pro Stock driver with a great machine who always leaves second. That’s the difference in weight on the shoulders of the driver in these categories. 

We’re going to look at finishers two through six in Pro Stock and see how they can make an even more successful campaign in 2024. 

Greg Anderson: Second Place

2023 Stumbling Block: A slow start leads to a runner-up finish

The Fix: Drive and tune like it’s the 2023 Countdown to the Championship again 

When we look at where people ended up in the points, we always tend to look at the back half of the season, right? After all, as some people want you to believe, “Nothing matters until the Countdown.” It was Greg Anderson’s slow start that got him a runner-up, not his blazing finish of a Countdown to the Championship, which, with two wins, a runner-up, and a semifinal finish, was his peak performance mode of the season. 

Because it took Anderson until Topeka to make a final and from Gainesville to that point he only made it past the second round twice, he left the door wide open for a struggling Erica Enders to get her act together and eventually come roaring back, like everyone expected she could and would. 

Sure, the final points differential was about 150, but had Anderson won a couple of early races, made more Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge events, and garnered more “regular season” points, he would have been far better suited to battle the Enders tsunami when it finally came. 

If his first six races look like his last six from 2023, we’ll know that Anderson is a true challenger once again. 

Matt Hartford: Third Place

The Stumbling Block: The relentless pressure of being a true contender 

The Fix: Apply the experience of fighting to the end in 2024

There’s a weird conception that many fans have about professional drag racing. That it’s a take-it-or-leave-it hobby for those who are participating. That could not be further from the truth, and a guy like Matt Hartford can attest to it. We saw a few interesting things out of Hartford and his team last season. 

First, we saw them go into an aggressive attack mode early in the season with a runner-up in Pomona. We saw them win Norwalk, win the U.S. Nationals, and then go on to win a wild race to start the Countdown at Maple Grove Raceway. And then things changed. 

The next three races were a second-round exit, a first-round holeshot loss, and a second-round loss. The team closed the season strong with a semifinal and a runner up. 

From the outside, the arc of his Countdown success seems to show us an inverse relationship between pressure and success. As it peaked when the team had the points lead, they had some early exits, and when it ebbed, they went to the late rounds over the last two races. 

There is no substitute for experience, and this team experienced the idea of elevated expectations, of elevated profile, and of elevated pressure in 2023. Knowing what we know about the people involved, it was an education that won’t be wasted. 

Aaron Stanfield: Fourth Place 

The Stumbling Block: Five semifinal finishes 

The Fix: A little more zip on the fastball in the late rounds 

There are more than a dozen – heck, more than 15 – other Pro Stock teams that would love to see the fact that “five semifinal finishes” is something they seem to need to improve on, but we’re talking about the best of the best here. The cars that operate on that next championship level.

Aaron Stanfield’s five semifinal losses and single win are the things that held him out of the top three for 2023. In four of the five semifinal losses, he was in the .020 range on the Tree, the car made the full trip in all of them, but just didn’t have quite enough raw performance to advance to the final round. 

The team only had three first-round losses all season, which is a great mark, but to really stand in the ring as a true contender in 2024, they need to find a little more performance in the semifinals to get over the hump. 

Stanfield had a .030 reaction time average for the 2023 season, which placed him in a tie with Dallas Glenn for the best average in the category. With a little more performance, the guy could run roughshod over this thing. 

Troy Coughlin Jr: Fifth Place

The Stumbling Block: Ill-timed moments of hesitation 

The Fix: Eliminate holeshot losses and rocket into the top three

When we look at the truly top-tier Pro Stock drivers, we see a few different elements. The most important though is consistency. That begins with qualifying, and when we look at the average position of the top five finishers to start race day, it is uncanny. 

Enders with an average starting spot of 3.89 is the outlier here. Two through five is a logjam. Anderson 5.33, Hartford 5.17, Stanfield 5.72, Coughlin 5.44. Qualifying elapsed-time average is spread seven-thousandths between the top five from 6.583 to 6.590. 

All of this adds up to drivers having no margin for error on Sundays. Coughlin had five holeshot losses in 2023. Two of them, first-rounders, came back-to-back in the Countdown in Charlotte and St Louis. From that point forward, he met Enders in Dallas and Las Vegas and finished with an aborted 16-second run against Stanfield in Pomona to close the year. 

He will be back as good as ever in 2023, if he flops that number from five losses to five wins, he’ll be in the running to add another title to his family’s already incredible legacy. 

Dallas Glenn: Sixth Place

The Stumbling Block: Four first-round losses in the final six races

The Fix: Forget everything that happened after Brainerd 

It is very difficult to find another racer whose season took as abrupt a turn as Dallas Glenn’s did after Brainerd. The six races starting in Chicago and ending with Brainerd were as good as it got for Glenn all season: Two wins (Chicago and Brainerd), two runner-ups (Norwalk and Denver), a semifinal, and a second-round loss. 

He looked like and was the odds-on favorite to win a title. 

The Countdown was not an unmitigated disaster with two runner-up finishes, but the four first-round losses offset those runner-ups in such a negative fashion, and Glenn tumbled all the way back to the sixth spot. The first-round losses came in different ways. A red-light in Reading, and then outrun in St. Louis, Las Vegas, and Pomona. 

As a guy who is outwardly impervious to pressure, he showed his poise by leaving with or ahead of his opponents in the Countdown. It was the machine itself that was leaving him wanting a few hundredths here and there over that six-race stretch. 

This appears to be a mechanical fix, and Glenn is hands-on with every aspect of his car. Being the accomplished racer that he is, one has to suspect he’s got a pinpoint on the issues of the last six races, and in 2024, he can thrive in that stretch rather than wilt in it again. 

Next up: Pro Stock Motorcycle!

Previously: Top Fuel | Funny Car