Commerce: The "Professor" returns home

PROFESSOR RETURNS HOME, PERHAPS FOR FINAL TIME PRO STOCK LEGEND WARREN JOHNSON RETURNS HOME FOR WHAT MAY BE HIS LAST COMPETITION AS A DRIVER AT THE ATLANTA DRAGWAY ATLANTA -- Warren Johnson's final season as a competitive driver, dubbed "The...

PROFESSOR RETURNS HOME, PERHAPS FOR FINAL TIME

PRO STOCK LEGEND WARREN JOHNSON RETURNS HOME FOR WHAT MAY BE HIS LAST COMPETITION AS A DRIVER AT THE ATLANTA DRAGWAY

ATLANTA -- Warren Johnson's final season as a competitive driver, dubbed "The Professor's School's Out Tour," has been going so well, there have been rumors of a sequel in 2006.

But for now, this remains the Pro Stock legend's final season as a competitive driver and the 25th annual Summit Racing NHRA Southern Nationals May 12-15 at the Atlanta Dragway, the seventh of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, will represent his final scheduled race at his "home" track. Johnson lives in nearby Buford, Ga., owns a shop in Sugar Hill, Ga., and his five wins at the Atlanta Dragway are the most all-time by a Pro Stock driver there.

"We've always considered Atlanta Dragway as our home track," Johnson said. "We've been pretty fortunate to win there five times. Over the years, it's been a pretty decent facility, and we seem to have a pretty good record on the better racetracks that we run on so our success at Atlanta follows suit."

It's far from the only track where he's had success; in fact, Johnson has imposed his will as an engine-builder and driver on virtually every track on the circuit.

As evidence of that, he dotted the final 'I' in a career that has left few stones unturned when he earned the No. 1 qualifying position at the NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals in April. The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway had up to that weekend been the only track on the NHRA circuit at which Johnson had failed to earn a No. 1 qualifying position. Now, the circle has been completed.

It's as good an illustration as any that Johnson's final tour of the NHRA circuit has been and will continue to be anything but ceremonial.

Touting his new DRCE-III engine, Johnson has added two No. 1 qualifying runs in 2005 (Houston and Las Vegas 1) to up his record total to 132, he won for the first time (at the NHRA O'Reilly Spring Nationals) in more than a year (dating back to the rescheduled Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals Oct. 5, 2003), and he is second in the Pro Stock standings after five events (to Dave Connolly).

"Everything really started to jell during the off-season," Johnson said. "We got a new GM Performance Parts Pontiac, the engine program came along nicely, and we refortified other areas with a considerable amount of work. Right now, we have a pretty complete package. There are still a few areas that we need to work on to maintain consistency, but that certainly can be addressed."

Johnson's win in Houston on April 10 made him the oldest driver in NHRA professional drag racing history to win. At 61 years, nine months, he surpassed the former mark held by Top Fuel driver Eddie Hill, who was 60 years and four months at the time of his last win in 1996.

"We look at different facets of our racing program every day to see where we're a little weak and how we can shore that area up without jeopardizing our strong points," Johnson said. "It's a total team effort, and I'm fortunate to have two great guys with me at the track, and people back at the shop who are dedicated to what we do. Their hard work has given me a better race car and put us in a better position to win.

"My outlook for this season has not changed. We still enter every race to win, and our goal is to bring the championship back to our shop in Sugar Hill," Johnson said.

In what was a difficult 2004 season -- Johnson made it to just one final round and did not qualify at the final four events -- Johnson qualified ninth at the Summit Racing NHRA Southern Nationals and was eliminated in the first round by Bruce Allen.

The 2004 Pro Stock champion in Georgia was none other than Greg Anderson, who was later rewarded for his total dominance in the category by being just the second NHRA driver to win the prestigious Speed Channel Driver of the Year award.

Anderson has gone winless through the first five events of 2005, but he has been steadily climbing in the standings and he stands in third place after five events. He and Johnson will be the Pro Stock drivers to watch, but not to be overlooked are Pro Stock neophytes Connolly (leading in Pro Stock points) and Jason Line.

The other winners at the 2004 Summit Racing NHRA Southern Nationals were Cory McClenathan in Top Fuel, Whit Bazemore in Funny Car, and Angelle Sampey in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This year in Top Fuel, look for defending champion McClenathan or Larry Dixon to figure in the championship as they are both in the top 5 in the Top Fuel standings and will enter the week tied for most all-time wins in Atlanta with three; also, don't count out Morgan Lucas, still looking for his first series win; or the top two in the point standings, Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta.

In Funny Car, Bazemore already has an impressive 2005 with wins at the Gatornationals and SummitRacing.com Nationals and he was first in the NHRA POWERade point standings through five events. Defending Funny Car champion John Force will be looking for his seventh win in Atlanta, but first since 2000 and Robert Hight has won once in his rookie season and twice been a No. 1 qualifier.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, none of the current riders has enjoyed as much success at this track as Sampey, who has four wins (including 2004) in Atlanta. Sampey's U.S Army teammate Antron Brown and defending series champion Andrew Hines should figure in the mix as well.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 13. Qualifying continues at noon and 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 14 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 15.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Summit Racing NHRA Southern Nationals. Call the Atlanta Dragway at (800) 884-NHRA (6472) for ticket information, or check online at atlantadragway.com or tickets.com.

ON TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of qualifying of the Summit Racing NHRA Southern Nationals at 7 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, May 14. ESPN2 will televise NHRA 2DAY, a 30-minute weekly news magazine show, at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 15. ESPN2 will televise three hours of final eliminations coverage beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 15.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Warren Johnson , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Cory McClenathan , Bruce Allen , Morgan Lucas , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Robert Hight , Dave Connolly