NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Tricky Tipster: Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals

07 Mar 2024
NHRA National Dragster staff
Tricky Tipster®

A lot has changed since we last raced in Pomona nearly four months ago. The changes in NHRA’s Pro ranks have been too numerous to mention, with a wide-ranging variety of driver swaps, sponsor announcements, and the usual offseason crew movement.

So, that begs the obvious questions: Which team was able to make the most forward progress during the offseason, and who is best poised for success as the new year begins in Gainesville? For starters, we’re going with reigning champ Doug Kalitta as our favorite in Top Fuel because, well, he’s earned it. The same can be said for defending champs Matt Hagan in Funny Car, Erica Enders in Pro Stock, and Gaige Herrera in Pro Stock Motorcycle. They’ll arrive in the Sunshine State each wearing the No. 1 on their respective vehicles, and for now, they’ll assume our top positions.


The favorite: It took 26 years for Doug Kalitta to win his first NHRA Top Fuel title, but it likely won’t take nearly that long to win a second. Admittedly, Kalitta struggled during the first part of the 2023 season, but during the all-important six-race Countdown to the Championship, the Mac Tools team was money. Kalitta has won three times in Gainesville, with the most recent win coming in 2014. While not traditionally a quick starter, Kalitta should rate a slight edge against what is stacking up to be a very deep and talented Top Fuel field.

The contenders: Last year, Justin Ashley, Steve Torrence, and Antron Brown did a lot of winning, and there is no reason to think they won’t get their fair share this year as well. Ashley was dominant at times during the regular season but struggled during the Countdown as he slipped to No. 4 in the final standings. Brown and Torrence were also not as consistent as they’d like to be, but at times, they were able to get the job done.

We’ve also got to give a nod to Mike Salinas, who is the defending event winner and (so far) the only driver to run 300 mph to the eighth-mile as well as Clay Millican, who posted three wins last season. And then there is Brittany Force, who didn’t win a race last year, which seems almost unimaginable given the talent level of her team. Expect a bounce-back season from the Monster squad.

The dark horse(s): We’ve got two of them this week, and they both know their way to the winner’s circle at Gainesville Raceway. Josh Hart won the 2021 Gatornationals in his Top fuel debut, and he also claimed a big payday in the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Callout event held in Gainesville. A year later, Tripp Tatum won in Gainesville and did so convincingly with a string of 3.6-second runs. Tatum hasn’t raced much since then, but he’s still got a great car capable of going the distance.

We also can’t ignore the much-anticipated Pro debut of Tony Stewart. The NASCAR Hall of Famer already proved he can win in an alcohol car, and his talent level is undeniable. He’s also driving for a team that came within one round of a title last season.

Doug Kalitta              Mac Tools                               4-1
Justin Ashley             Scag Power Equipment       5-1
Steve Torrence        Capco Contractors                 6-1
Antron Brown          Matco Tools                            7-1
Mike Salinas             Scrappers                                7-1
Brittany Force         Monster Energy                       8-1
Clay Millican            Parts Plus                                  9-1
Billy Torrence         Capco Contractors                   10-1
Tripp Tatum            Tatum Racing                           11-1
Tony Stewart           Mobil 1                                     14-1
Josh Hart                 R+L Carriers                             15-1
Field                                                                           19-1


The favorite: Matt Hagan isn’t just a four-time and reigning NHRA Funny Car champ, he’s also unbeaten in the last two trips to the Gatornationals. Winning any given event for a third straight time is a mean feat, but the Tony Stewart Racing nitro team appears fully capable of actually pulling it off. Hagan is also on the verge of a major milestone as he chases career win No. 50. That’s something he’d like to check off his to-do list early in the season.

The contenders: After Hagan, the top contenders include three-time world champ Ron Capps, Bob Tasca III, and Austin Prock, who, as most fans know, has moved from Top Fuel to Funny Car filling in for Robert Hight.

Capps is nothing if not consistent as his NAPA Toyota team are a threat to win anytime and anyplace. Capps didn’t have the sort of Countdown that he would have liked, but a quick turnaround is in order. In the case of Tasca, he’s obviously got one of the quickest cars in the class and looks to build on last year’s success.

In the case of Prock, he’s proven to be a quick study in the Funny Car class based on his preseason results, so it shouldn’t be long before he joins the short list of drivers to win in both nitro categories.

It’s also worth noting that J.R. Todd won the 2021 Gainesville race and also claimed a Sonoma victory last season, and Chad Green is the series' most recent winner, having claimed a win at the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals last November.

The dark horse: We already know that Daniel Wilkerson can tune a Funny Car, and his interviews are among the best in the sport. Now, we’re going to find out if he can actually drive a Funny Car. Honestly, he proved that years ago, but now, he’ll have a chance to win races as he takes over for his father, Tim. Daniel will undoubtedly have success this year, it’s just a question of how soon.

Matt Hagan                 Dodge Power Brokers Dodge               4-1
Bob Tasca III               Motorcraft Ford                                       5-1
Ron Capps                  NAPA Toyota                                            6-1
Austin Prock              Cornwell Tools Chevy                              7-1
J.R. Todd                     DHL Toyota                                               8-1
John Force                  Peak/Blu Def Chevy                                9-1
Chad Green               Bondcoat Ford                                         10-1    
Cruz Pedregon          Snap-on Dodge                                       11-1
Daniel Wilkerson      SCAG Mowers Ford                                12-1
Alexis DeJoria           Bandero Toyota                                       14-1
Blake Alexander      Pronto/Head Inc. Ford                            15-1
Field                                                                                              18-1


The favorite: The only reason you wouldn’t list six-time champ Erica Enders in this spot is because she’s never won the Gatornationals, but that isn’t enough to keep her from being the favorite. Enders and her JHG/Elite team dominated during the Countdown, and they’ve been quick so far during the preseason. It’s hard to understand why Enders hasn’t won in Gainesville, especially during her tenure with the Elite team. Mostly, it seems to be just a recurring case of bad luck, and at some point, it should turn in her favor.

The contenders: In Pro Stock, the list of contenders includes just about everyone, but there are a few that stand out, including Enders teammates, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Aaron Stanfield, who each claimed wins last season. That status also applies to five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., who is returning for a full season and appears to have lost nothing in his time away from Pro Stock.

On the KB Titan front, Matt Hartford, Dallas Glenn, Greg Anderson, Deric Kramer, and Camrie Caruso have all won races recently, with Hartford and Glenn making a real run at the 2023 world title.

The dark horse: After two years of steady progress, there’s no reason to think that Jerry Tucker isn’t capable of winning an NHRA event. Tucker’s driving has been solid, and he has Elite power, so all the ingredients seem to be there. The Gainesville field is stacked, but if history is any indication, we can always expect the unexpected.


Erica Enders              JHG/Elite Camaro                             3-1
Matt Hartford           Total Seal Camaro                            4-1
Dallas Glenn             RAD Torque Systems Camaro        5-1
Troy Coughlin Jr.      JEGS.com Camaro                             6-1
Jeg Coughlin Jr.         SCAG Mowers Camaro                    7-1
Aaron Stanfield        Janac Bros/J3 Energy Camaro         7-1
Greg Anderson        HendrickCars.com Camaro             8-1
Deric Kramer           GetBioFuels Camaro                         9-1
Cristian Cuadra       Corral Boots Mustang                      14-1
Field                                                                                       17-1


The favorite: When you win 11 races in a season, as Gaige Herrera did last year, there is no way you’re not going to start the year as the top ranked rider in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Herrera had the best bike in the class and made almost zero mistakes on his way to one of the most dominant seasons in NHRA history.  It probably isn’t reasonable to expect another double-digit win total, but the Vance & Hines rider is a big favorite to defend his 2023 Gainesville title.

The contenders: Matt Smith and Hector Arana Jr. appear to be the best bets to keep Herrera honest, with an additional nod to Angie Smith, who appears fully recovered after her late-season mishap in St. Louis. The Smith team never seems too far from a win, and Matt will once again be on a Buell V-Twin, which might be an ominous sign for the rest of the class.

Herrera’s biggest challenge might also come from his own camp as the Vance & Hines team has signed Richard Gadson to replace Eddie Krawiec, who has transitioned to the role of a crew chief. Gadson’s talent has been compared favorably to Herrera’s, so we’ll see if his results can match. Former champ LE Tonglet will also return on a Vance & Hines Suzuki with backing from Maple Grove Raceway and Nitro Fish. Tonglet has been a consistent winner for most of his career, so he’s also one to watch.

The dark horses: Two riders that come immediately to mind are Kelly Clontz and Chase Van Sant, both of whom had their 2023 seasons cut short due to injury. Van Sant made some great runs during last year’s Gainesville opener, where he reached the semifinal round. Clontz made one of the best runs of the season in Dallas with a 6.70 but missed out on a chance to win in Pomona when she came off her Suzuki. She’s also got something to prove this season.


Gaige Herrera            RevZilla/Vance & Hines Suzuki            Even
Matt Smith                 Denso Buell                                             4-1
Hector Arana Jr.        GETTRX Buell                                           5-1
Angie Smith              Denso Buell                                               6-1
LE Tonglet                Maple Grove Suzuki                                 7-1
Richard Gadson      RevZilla/Vance & Hines Suzuki               8-1
Chase Van Sant       Trick Tools Suzuki                                    9-1
Steve Johnson         Mac Rak Suzuki                                       10-1
Joey Gladstone        Precision Services Suzuki                     11-1
Kelly Clontz             Steamfitters UA 602 Suzuki                  12-1
Jianna Evaristo        Scrappers Buell                                      13-1
Field                                                                                            19-1