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2014 NHRA: Growing Comfort Level In Full-Time Return Has Funny Car's Johnson Jr Ready For NHRA Nationals Las Vegas
Posted by: newsla on Mar 26, 2014 - 05:28 PM
NHRA
2014 NHRA: Growing Comfort Level In Full-Time Return Has Funny Car's Johnson Jr Ready For NHRA Nationals Las Vegas


Tommy Johnson Jr. is thrilled to be back driving again in a full-time role and he’s pleased with the progress he’s made through the first three races of a loaded Funny Car class in the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

 

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But don’t mistake pleased with satisfied, as Johnson is thinking big even as this season marks the first time since 2008 he will drive full-time in Funny Car. His expectations match the power produced by his 8,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger and the Don Schumacher Racing driver is honed in on showing even more improvement at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, which takes place this weekend at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and is the fourth of 24 events in 2014.

Currently sixth in Funny Car points, Johnson has started 2014 strong, advancing to the semifinals in Phoenix. But being content is not on Johnson’s radar.

“It all came back pretty quickly,” said Johnson, who has nine victories in 22 career final round appearances and is a member of an exclusive club of 15 drivers in NHRA history who have won Wallys in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Johnson raced full-time on the circuit from 2001-2008, but since then has been mostly on the sidelines working diligently to get back in the driver’s seat. He kept a high profile around the pit area by doing various jobs, most notably serving as a track condition specialist for Don Schumacher Racing. During the last two years he made limited starts as a driver for various teams.

“The biggest thing is probably that the cars accelerate a little harder on the top end than they used to but that hasn't been too difficult to adjust to,” Johnson continued. “Every run I get more comfortable and three races in I feel like I'm doing pretty good. I'm probably back to 90 percent. I set the bar pretty high for myself, so it's going to take a lot to make up that last 10 percent.”

A year ago, Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) won the event that will once again be televised on ESPN2. Johnson’s last victory came in 2007 at Englishtown, but with each run he starts to get more comfortable.

Plus, he has a strong history at one of the crown jewel facilities on the NHRA Mello Yello Series circuit, winning at Vegas in 2001 and advancing to three final rounds overall at the famed facility.

“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to going to Vegas because of the history I've had there,” Johnson said. “You have a lot of tracks where you have success for unknown reasons, and Vegas is one of those tracks for me. It just seems to happen for me there, and I always like going to that track. I would love nothing more than to return and get that first win for the Make-A-Wish team. Things have been good, but there is nothing like a win.

“Our confidence is pretty high going there. We were able to test in Las Vegas before the Winternationals, and the car ran extremely well there so we already have a baseline for that track. It also gave me the opportunity to make a few runs down that particular racetrack, so I'm excited to go there.”

The difficult part comes from finding a comfort level on the fly against a field that has become markedly tighter, quicker and faster in recent seasons. This season is a perfect example of that, though everyone is currently chasing legendary Funny Car driver John Force, who holds the points lead and is coming off his 16th world championship in 2013.

Other title contenders include Robert Hight, who has won four times in Vegas and posted a victory at the most recent event in Gainesville, Ron Capps and his class-best five wins at The Strip, defending race winner Pedregon, who has three Vegas wins, Courtney Force, Jack Beckman, Del Worsham, Bob Tasca III and Alexis DeJoria, who earned her first career victory in Phoenix.

It has all added up to one of the tightest Funny Car fields in history, something Johnson noticed immediately upon returning to full-time driving.

“The class, as a whole, is about as strong as it's ever been,” Johnson said. “Qualifying is close, and on raceday you have to be almost perfect to get that victory. Pro Stock used to be the most competitive class and the closest, but nowadays Funny Car and Top Fuel are right there with them. It's as competitive as it has ever been.”

One major aspect that could help Johnson make even greater strides was John Collins recently being named the full-time crew chief for the team. After having a number of different DSR team members offer various help throughout the first three races, officially inserting Collins as the crew chief could bring additional stability to the team. Johnson believes it will have a profound effect starting as early as this weekend in Vegas.

“Having a full-time crew chief and it being John Collins is very comforting,” Johnson said. “It’s just nice to know that there is one guy dedicated to this car now, and things won't get missed. It gives me a lot of confidence, and as John's own confidence builds, the Make-A-Wish team will get better and better.”

In Top Fuel, Schumacher has ruled The Strip, piloting his U.S. Army dragster to seven career wins while Antron Brown, the 2012 Top Fuel world champ, won the most recent event in Phoenix. Everyone, however, is looking up at series points leader Doug Kalitta and his Mac Tools dragster after he qualified No. 1 at the first two events of 2014, posted a runner-up finish at the Winternationals and won the Gatornationals. Al-Anabi Racing’s Shawn Langdon took home the 2013 world championship, and his teammate, Khalid alBalooshi, has started strong by winning the illustrious Winternationals to start the season. Other contenders include Brittany Force, Spencer Massey, Steve Torrence, Leah Pritchett, rookie Richie Crampton and veteran David Grubnic.

In Pro Stock, the reigning champion is Jeg Coughlin Jr., while his Mopar Dodge Dart teammate Allen Johnson is the defending winner and has posted back-to-back victories in 2014 to take over the points lead. Winternationals winner and one-time Las Vegas winner Jason Line and his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro are after another early-season victory and his teammate, Jimmy Alund, who is filling in for Greg Anderson, is also expected to challenge for the win. Erica Enders-Stevens, V Gaines, Shane Gray, Vincent Nobile and Dave Connolly always provide tough competition in the ultra-competitive factory hot rod category.

The SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals is always a big weekend for Pro Stock drivers as the lucrative K&N Horsepower Challenge will showcase the 200-mph factory hot rod category. Eight Pro Stock drivers will duke it out for bragging rights and a hefty $50,000 paycheck on Saturday of race weekend. Allen Johnson is the defending K&N Horsepower Challenge winner.

As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.

Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.

On Thursday, March 27, NHRA will host a FanFest at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino (5-7 p.m.). The NHRA FanFest will give fans an opportunity to meet and greet drivers, get autographs, check out some show cars, take photos with their favorite drivers and more before the drivers go full throttle at LVMS.

Mello Yello Series qualifying begins on Friday, March 28, with sessions at 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, March 29, at 1:10 p.m. and 4:50 p.m. The K&N Horsepower Challenge will run at 1 p.m., 3:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on Saturday. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 30.

To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to www.LVMS.com or call Las Vegas Motor Speedway at (800) 664-4444. General admission tickets for children 12 and younger are free with any paid adult ticket. For more information about NHRA, log on to www.NHRA.com.

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