Denver Funny Car Preview

JOHNSON GETTING COMFORTABLE IN INTERSTATE BATTERIES PONTIAC MORRISON, Colo. - Expectations are high for Tommy Johnson Jr. since he entered NHRA Funny Car competition, especially his own. Johnson was named driver of Joe Gibbs' ...

JOHNSON GETTING COMFORTABLE IN INTERSTATE BATTERIES PONTIAC MORRISON, Colo. - Expectations are high for Tommy Johnson Jr. since he entered NHRA Funny Car competition, especially his own. Johnson was named driver of Joe Gibbs' Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird prior to the recent national event in Columbus, Ohio. It's an assignment that Johnson welcomed with open arms. The car, previously driven by Cruz Pedregon, has a reputation as one of the quickest and fastest in the category. Johnson, who built a name for himself driving Top Alcohol Funny Car and Top Fuel in the past, wants to make sure the Wes Cerny-tuned Firebird continues the legacy. After two events, Johnson, 31, is beginning to feel more comfortable in the machine, which is very different from the Top Fuel dragster he has piloted off-and-on since 1994. "After the race in St. Louis I feel good enough driving the car that I don't even think about it," Johnson said. "Now I'm thinking about what I have to do at the starting line and what I have to do to cut a good light. At Columbus, I was more concerned with keeping it in the groove than I was the starting line. Now that's all reversed. I'm as comfortable driving this car as I was driving the dragster. It's nice to get that out of the way. Now I can just get in the car and concentrate on racing." He earned his first No. 1 qualifying effort at the recent St. Louis event, and hopes more good things are ahead. Like a win. He'll take a shot at getting that first victory at the 21st annual Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, July 15-18, at Bandimere Speedway near Denver. The $1.6 million race is the 12th of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. "The progress that we made from a team standpoint was huge," Johnson said. "We got our first No. 1 qualifying effort of the year. We got that, went to the semi-finals, and for a team just starting to gel together you can't ask for too much more. I think we did really, really well. The guys have told me that the training wheels are off the car now so we'll be going after it pretty hard. We'd like to get the Interstate Batteries Pontiac back into the top ten in points and even though that's going to be tough, a couple of wins would also be nice. I expect this Firebird to be running pretty fast at the next couple of races." Johnson earned his first pro category final round appearance at Denver in 1991 driving a Top Fuel dragster. Although he posted a runner-up effort in that first final, he went on to post two career victories in Top Fuel ('93 Seattle and '94 Memphis) in five final rounds. After his early success, Johnson's team lost its major funding when sponsor Team Mopar decided to change the direction of its drag racing program. Johnson then put together several limited sponsorship programs, but finally decided to sit and wait for a better ride to come along after the 1996 season. It took a little over two years, but Johnson is back and excited about the opportunity to drive a well-established car that has the ability to win each time it hits the track. "As a driver you have to get it down there and the car has always had the capability of doing that," Johnson said. "There's no pressure for me to do that, but at the same time you feel it a little bit because the car always has the potential of running No. 1. Now I have to do my job. We're beginning to gel as a team. I can't see things slowing down much."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Cruz Pedregon , Tommy Johnson Jr.