2000 was a breakthrough year for Pro Stock racer Kurt Johnson. He scored a career-best six national event victories and finished second in the Winston championship - his best showing since 1993 when he was named the Winston "Rookie of the Year." Kurt finished ahead of his father Warren, a five-time champion, for the first time in his eight-year driving career.
Johnson finished the year with a flourish, winning the rain-delayed O'Reilly Fall Nationals in Dallas and the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., on consecutive weekends. He defeated newly crowned champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the final rounds of both events, and extended his final-round record in 2000 to a perfect 6-0.
Kurt went into his final-round match with Coughlin at Pomona Raceway as the underdog. Jeg put Kurt in the unfavored right lane, but K.J. turned the tables and ran a 6.854-second elapsed time, the quickest Pro Stock run of the event, to score an upset victory.
"The lane really didn't bother me," Kurt declared. "Jeg was running quicker than me, so we had to make some changes for the final round. The car really responded and made a perfect run."
KURT VS. COUGHLIN
Kurt held his own against the "Jeg's juggernaut." He finished the season with a 4-4 record against the 2000 Pro Stock champion - and beat him in all three of their final-round races. With a previous victory over Jeg in 1998, Kurt has never lost to Coughlin in a final round.
"It was really cool that the No. 1 and No. 2 drivers met in the final round of the last race of the year," Kurt commented. "Jeg is like a machine - he lets the clutch out on time every time. He's the champion, and it brings out the best in me when I race him."
* Win/loss record in 2000: 41/16 (72 percent winning average) Average * qualifying position in 2000: 5.14 Average rounds won per event: 1.86 * Average e.t. in 57 rounds of eliminations: 7.443 seconds Average speed in * 57 rounds of eliminations: 185.43 mph * Winning streak: Johnson now has won at least one NHRA national event for six consecutive years. * Top Five Finishes: K.J. has now finished in the Top Five in the NHRA championship for eight straight seasons.
A TALE OF TWO CARS
If a race car can have a personality disorder, then Kurt Johnson's ACDelco Camaro was a case study in schizophrenia in 2000. When it was good, it was unbeatable - but when it was bad, it was undriveable.
Johnson and his team struggled in the first half of the season. K.J. literally hit the wall in the season-opening Winternationals when he swerved to avoid Ron Krisher's out-of-control Firebird. He lost four times in the next five races after shutting off with handling problems. He qualified No. 1 in Dallas, then lost on a holeshot in the first round. In Madison, a transmission broke. With only a pair of semi-final round finishes to show in 11 starts, Y2K was threatening to become Kurt's worst season ever.
With a three-week break in the schedule following the Craftsman Nationals, Kurt and crew went to work. K.J. concentrated on engine development, making more than 90 dyno tests. Crew chief Jeff Perley and mechanic James Reichard attacked the recalcitrant chassis, a radically reworked design with dual frame rails. With nothing to lose, they gave it their all.
When racing resumed, it was a different ACDelco team on the track. Kurt won in Denver, went to the semi-finals in Seattle, and then won back-to-back races in Sonoma, Calif., and Brainerd, Minn. He scored more Winston points on the grueling Western Swing than any other driver, and clawed his way from ninth to second in the championship race. K.J. was back.
With his race car now on its best behavior, Kurt turned the Low ET in Indianapolis and won in Reading, Penn., where he defeated his father in a final round for the first time since 1993. The evil Camaro twin reappeared briefly in Memphis, leaving Kurt outside the field with his first DNQ in 33 races. Then the good Camaro came back, propelling Johnson to consecutive victories in Dallas and Pomona to close out the season.
"If we had a better start, it might have been more interesting at the end of the season," Kurt reflected. "Jeg came out and won six out of seven races, and we were just stumbling. We couldn't put eight runs together in a weekend. Then things started changing. We found the consistency we needed, and I credit that to my crew."
Although Coughlin won the championship in a runaway, the results might have been quite different if K.J. hadn't lost ground early in the season. In the second half of the year, Coughlin outscored Johnson by only 60 points, 1,081 to 1,021.
"We had a tremendous last half of the season, winning six out of 12 races," Kurt noted. "My driving was good, the power underneath the hood was good, and the car was good. Next year I hope we can hit the ground running like we finished this year."
REQUIEM FOR A CAMARO
The NHRA Finals marked Kurt's final race with a Camaro; next year he will campaign a smaller, more aerodynamic Cavalier. Johnson debuted his Camaro at the 1998 Winternationals, signaling Chevrolet's return to NHRA drag racing after a ten-year absence. In three seasons with Chevrolet's sports coupe, Kurt won 11 national events, appeared in 16 final rounds, qualified on the Pro Stock pole 11 times, ran the Low ET at a dozen races, and set the Top Speed seven times. In May 1999 he set the national elapsed time record at 6.840 seconds, a mark he held for five months.
"What a way to retire the Camaro," K.J. said after his NHRA Finals victory. "It's been a great car the last three years and a tremendous race car the last three months.
"My first street car was a '71 Camaro, and I had an '85 IROC Camaro," Kurt recalled. "I was excited about getting into a Camaro race car in 1998 - but I'm pumped up about my new Cavalier. It's going to be a fun race car to drive."
Buoyed by his fast finish in 2000, Kurt will begin his quest for the 2001 championship at Pomona Raceway on February 1. "I hope we can come back here and win again," said Johnson as he savored his best season ever.
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
* Kurt topped 200 mph 17 times in 2000 for a total of 39 runs over 200 mph - 15.5 percent of the 200 mph Pro Stock speeds recorded in NHRA national event competition. * Johnson set track elapsed time records at three stops on the NHRA tour in 2000 - Phoenix (6.890 seconds); Indianapolis (6.892); and Pomona, Calif. (6.854). * K.J. set the track speed record at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix at 200.38 mph - the only 200 mph Pro Stock run ever recorded at the Arizona track. * Kurt was credited with the two fastest speeds in Pro Stock history at the Advance Auto Parts Southern Nationals in Atlanta, recording speeds of 203.68 mph and 202.88 mph on successive qualifying runs. Although Kurt backed up the 203.68 mph run within one percent as required to establish a national record, officials subsequently ruled that the speeds were erroneous.
<pre> LAST RACE: Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, Pomona, Calif., Nov. 12 Qualified: No. 6 Finished: Winner; defeated Jeg Coughlin Jr. in final round.
POINTS RACE: (After 23 of 23 events) Driver Wins Points 1. Jeg Coughlin Jr. 10 2,054 2. Kurt Johnson 6 1,604 3. Warren Johnson 2 1,481 4. Ron Krisher 2 1,392 5. Mark Pawuk 1 1,214
NEXT RACE: AutoZone Winternationals, Pomona, Calif., Feb. 1-4, 2001