Justin Ashley has learned a lot about driving a dragster since earning his Top Fuel license in 2017. When pressed to reveal the most profound lesson he has learned in his short four-race driving career, it’s a no-brainer for the driver of the Dustin Davis Motorsports Strutmaster.com entry who’s starting a career-best fifth Sunday at the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.
“Stay balanced,” Ashley, the 25-year-old successful real-estate developer on New York’s Long Island and host of the online series “Fix, Flip, Fuel,” said. “It’s not an easy thing to balance work and racing, and being at the racetrack and engaging in all the things that are going on and then actually have to sit in the car and focus on driving.
“Sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted by all the outside noise. The most significant thing I’ve learned is to be able to balance everything and once I’m in the car, put all my emotions away and just focus on solely the task at hand and doing the best job I can to help my team.”
Ashley has remained true to his objective, scoring an impressive four round-wins, including a semifinal finish in his debut race last October at the NHRA Carolina Nationals. Ashley opened the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series by reaching the quarterfinals at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals.
And Saturday, following a lengthy rain delay, Ashley nailed down the No. 5 starting position with a personal-best 3.707-second elapsed time at 322.81 mph.
“It feels great to run our personal best. It’s a testament to how great of a group we have,” Ashley said. “Our team works so diligently, and they work so hard to be able to give ourselves an opportunity to win every time we come to the racetrack. And I’m really happy for this group of guys, for this team right here, because they deserve it. And we know that we’re going to continue working at it, and continue to grow as a team and continue to improve.
“To be able to qualify in the top half is really great. I mean, that’s the first time we’ve been able to do that,” he said. “And it’s growing in this sport. It’s about taking steps, and that’s one big step for us. And it’s all, at the end of the day, once you’re in the show, you’re in the show. But to be able to qualify for the top half of the field is a big accomplishment for us as a group.”
He’ll have lane choice over No. 12 starter Scott Palmer.
So Ashley truly won’t be sneaking up on anybody now. He pretty much blew his own cover.
“Yeah, I guess not, right?” he said. “Yeah, that went out of the water pretty quickly.”
He said his move up the ladder Saturday wasn’t shocking to him.
“Now I know the way [crew chief] Aaron Brooks, I know the way he thinks. He wants to go up there and run really well. So it didn’t catch me by surprise at all,” Ashley said, “because I know that this is something that we’re capable of. I wasn’t sure when I first got to the top end what we had revved, but it certainly felt really good. So when they told me we were at a 70 I was just super-impressed, super-happy for us. And I know that tomorrow is where we got to make it count.”
The one common denominator Ashley and his team have showcased is the ability to be resilient in the face of adversity. In all four starts, the team has struggled in qualifying, yet rebounded on race day to become one to be reckoned with.
“I think that more so than anything else, it just speaks to how well our team responds in times of adversity,” Ashley said. “We’ve struggled a little bit thus far during qualifying, but our team is always working hard and working diligently to make sure that whatever we’re going through we’re going to get to the end of it and we’ll get it resolved. And luckily for us, it seems to translate into, at least for now, the first few rounds of eliminations.”
On Friday, when teams fired up for the first qualifying session of the NHRA Arizona Nationals, Ashley returned to race at Wild Horse Motorsports Park. He has driven there only once, earning his license to race a Top Alcohol Dragster.
Ashley smiles at the forgettable experience.
“I did terribly,” Ashley admitted. “Pretty much everything you can imagine going wrong went wrong. I was really struggling that weekend. And there’s a few schools of thought on it. I was actually thinking about this recently, that I could go back there and be like, ‘Oh, this is a place where I had bad memories. This is where I struggled.’
“And I don’t look at it that way. I look at, ‘All right, now’s my chance to go in there and instead of making Phoenix a place that I associate with the struggles, I make it associated with success,” he said.
He said he was looking forward to getting here “and having my first official race at this racetrack and making sure that it’s a place that has good memories now from this point forward.
“I mean, I would say that the last time I raced here was just a test session, and it didn’t go according to plan. I was determined this time to come in here and change the narrative around, so it’s something that I’m glad we were able to do, at least over the course of the first two days. I want to, yeah, I mean, I’ve really enjoyed the experience here. The track itself is really super beautiful, and it’s the first time I’m ever getting a chance to actually compete in a race in Phoenix. So I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that this place stays positive for me and us as a group.”