All Eyes on Tony Stewart, Bob Tasca III as NHRA Season Kicks off at Gainesville

Jackson Wheeler
11 Min Read

  • NHRA kicks off first drag-racing season under Mission Foods banner this weekend with the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
  • Bob Tasca’s 341.68-mph pass in the preseason PRO Superstar Shootout at Bradenton, Fla., in early February is the fastest ever in any drag racing category.
  • Tony Stewart to make Top Fuel debut as wife Leah Pruett, last year’s class runner-up to Doug Kalitta, steps aside to focus on starting family.

Bob Tasca III is focused on the “First Five.”

The initial five races of the 21-event 2024 Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series, which kicks off this weekend at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway, foretell the champion, he said.

“I made a prediction last year, and I’ll make the same prediction: The cars that run the best in the first five races have the best chance to win the championship,” Tasca said. “I don’t give a s— what they do during the summer, because the harsh reality is if you run really good in the first five, those are the conditions we see in the last five. (The Countdown to the Championship, which begins in September, consists of six races.) And if you can knock down the big runs and compete with the best of the best and survive—call it survive—in the summer, you’ll put yourself in a position to run for the championship. And that’s exactly what we did last year.”

bob tasca iii ford funny car

NHRA/National Dragster

Bob Tasca finished third in the NHRA Funny Car class in 2023—just 17 points behind champion Matt Hagan.

Tasca opened the 2023 season with two No. 1 qualifiers and no worse start than fifth and wound up starting the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. He improved at each of the first three playoff races to lead the standings and ultimately finish third—with a victory in two final rounds in the last five events of the season. Altogether he scored three victories in four finals.

Starting with this weekend’s race, which will be his 300th, Tasca said. “We’ll clearly be focused on doing it again this year.” But this time, he and his Aaron Brooks-Todd Okuhara-led team are no longer a collection of castoffs. They’re kings of the class. At the non-NHRA-sanctioned PRO Superstar Shootout at Bradenton, Fla., in early February, Tasca recorded the fastest run in drag-racing history at 341.68 mph. That’s faster than Brittany Force’s Top Fuel national speed record of 338.94 mph and, though not official in NHRA’s eyes, it outshines Robert Hight’s Funny Car 2017 mark of 339.87.

Four-time and current Funny Car champion Matt Hagan acknowledged Tasca’s feat but said, “A lot of people may not understand that E.T. (elapsed time) is everything in drag racing. Miles per hour is a direct correlation to how much horsepower you’re making.” That’s true, but Tasca wasn’t going to let anything diminish his accomplishment. For him it represented progress.

“When you’re the first human being on the planet to break a 340-mile-per-hour barrier and set an all- time speed record in front of the best of the best in the world, it was a moment I’ll never forget,” he said. He called it “probably one of my greatest accomplishments at this point,” and said, “Someone will eventually beat the speed number, but nobody will ever be the first, and I was the first Funny Car driver to ever break a speed barrier. It’s always been the dragsters.”

Tasca wasn’t smug about his achievement.

“I don’t think they’re ever ‘there.’ We’re always working to get better, but clearly we have a team. This is going into our second year, and we’re way ahead of where we were a year ago, so that can only help our chances for a championship this year. And that’s our goal,” he said. “We came half round short last year, which I think is a pretty incredible feat, based on where we started. The whole team’s back, and we’re laser focused on going out there and trying and doing something special this year.”

His Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang is the same car he drove in the Countdown last year, and he told his crew, “Don’t even clean it. It ran so good. That was the car in Pomona [last November]. The difference is we set the car up differently in Bradenton, because E.T. didn’t matter. Number one qualifier didn’t matter. [That race used a chip draw to determine pairings.] So it gave us the ability to really focus on speed. And that was fun.”

He said he knows it won’t be easy. After all, Top Fuel convert Austin Prock, who’s subbing for Robert Hight in the AAA/Cornwell Tools Chevy Camaro, won the Bradenton event. He knows others – Hagan, Ron Capps, and J.R. Todd (whom he called “the usual suspects”) – will make the competition, in his words, “as fierce as ever before. It’s a stacked class, and that’s what makes it so rewarding when you get to win one of these things.”

Tasca was Autoweek’s guess to win the 2024 title, and he said he was “honored” by that. “We’ve worked really, really hard to put ourselves in this position. And I’ll take as many people betting on me as you can find, because it’s a tough class and I think that our team’s really up for the challenge.

“We were close last year, and I really believe that we’ll be even better this year. I’m very blessed to have the team around me and very optimistic about what we can do. Nobody can guarantee a win out here. Sometimes the car that should win losers and the car that should lose wins, and you just got to try to get your fair share of those round wins. And you do that by preparation. I don’t know of another team that prepares as much as this team does during the week.”

a man shaking another man's hand

NHRA/National Dragster

Tony Stewart, left, might be the one leaning on NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan as Stewart embarks a a full season in the NHRA Top Fuel category.

Tony Stewart Takes on Top Fuel

The biggest attraction on the Top Fuel side is Tony Stewart’s debut. He has switched from the Top Alcohol Dragster sportsman-level class, where he finished second in the points last year behind champ Julie Nataas.

Stewart said his seasoned Direct Connection Dragster crew gives him confidence, “to know that they are way stronger at this point of the season than I am. It allows me to literally just work on all the little nuances to learn how to drive a new car.

This is way different than anything I’ve ever done in motorsports in my life,” Stewart said. “It’s not like a NASCAR or IndyCar track, where I can go and make 100 laps in a day easily. This is a situation where on a great day, you’re going to have four maybe five runs in testing, so every lap that we get is super-important right now.”

His biggest adjustment, he said, is “literally just being ready for anything. Last year with the Top Alcohol Dragster, there were things that you had to be ready for, but not like the Top Fuel car. There’s a lot more variables in play, so you have to be ready from the time you hit the gas, literally all the way until you get to the (finish) line. There’s so many things that can happen in between start to finish. The hardest thing is just realizing that this car accelerates all the way to the line, where the Top Alcohol Dragster had the bulk of the work done by half-track. The Top Fuel car just makes sure you stay on your toes that much more.”

Headshot of Susan Wade

Susan Wade has lived in the Seattle area for 40 years, but motorsports is in the Indianapolis native’s DNA. She has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with nearly 30 seasons at the racetrack, focusing on the human-interest angle.  She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, and Seattle Times. She has contributed to Autoweek as a freelance writer since 2016.

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Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
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