Pro Stock driver had a slow start, but has made a solid comeback.
After a slow start to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, Allen Johnson knows he is a longshot to claim his second career Pro Stock world championship.
But thanks to a strong turnaround and final round appearance at the circuit’s most recent event in Reading, that glimmer of hope is all Johnson needs to get fired up for the final two events of the 2014 NHRA season.
The first of those comes at this weekend’s 14th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Johnson enters the event in fifth place, 106 points behind Jason Line. It also means Johnson remains alive in the championship hunt in his Team Mopar/Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart, which is all he needs to hear.
“It puts a competitiveness in me that is really unmatched,” Johnson said. “I will fight to the end. I haven't been surprised at all with how tough the competition has been this year and specifically in the Countdown, I knew everyone would be tough and it’s all about rising to the occasion. We have two races to go for broke and we intend of giving it all we got. The winners in all of this will be Pro Stock fans because it’s been a fantastic fight. We will try our best as a championship team right to the end.”
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car), Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the penultimate Countdown playoff event that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2.
Johnson, who won the world championship in Pro Stock in 2012, appeared to have his championship hopes dashed early in the Countdown to the Championship after collecting just two round wins in the first three races, dropping all the way to eighth in points.
But the true sign of the tremendous parity in Pro Stock was obvious in Reading, as numerous upsets caused a shuffle in the points standings. Johnson lost in the final round to Roger Brogdon, but an impressive bounce back left Johnson in fifth thinking more success may be coming soon.
“We definitely have made some changes that helped,” Johnson said. “We fought a bad set of tires, which was the entire problem. We have two more races to show what we’re made of. We’re going to give it our all no matter where we end up.
The added stress of competing in the Countdown, especially during the four consecutive race weekends to open the NHRA playoffs, was something Johnson had to address and he has been impressed with his team’s strong effort to get better in a hurry. That mindset could also bode well for Johnson trying to climb a steep mountain to claim a world title.
“We are still in the fight,” Johnson said. “Yes, the competition is fierce, as much as we have ever seen. Having the first four races of the Countdown all in a row like that was a big challenge. You’ve got a lot of nerves and emotions involved in the Countdown with the extra stress of being away from home for that span. We tried to have some team dinners and do something as a team, a family, to calm everyone down and remember to have fun.”
That approach will be key since Johnson is in a mix of five drivers that are capable of winning a championship in the wildly-competitive Pro Stock class. Erica Enders-Stevens sits in second behind series leader Jason Line while Dave Connolly and Shane Gray are both firmly in the championship mix. Jonathan Gray, Jeg Coughlin, V Gaines, Vincent Nobile and Chris McGaha are Countdown-eligible drivers who are looking to close out their seasons with a victory.
Four wins this season
Johnson, who has four wins this season and 24 in his career, realizes The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been very good to his team in recent years. He has posted three wins at the track since 2012, possibly adding more momentum to his late-season charge.
“We are confident and have done really well at Vegas the last few years,” Johnson said. “It is one of our favorite tracks right behind Denver. We must win and need a lot of little points also to have a chance but all things are possible in Las Vegas, right?”
In Top Fuel, Brown, the 2012 world champ, is a two-time winner at Las Vegas but the driver in command in is seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher. After winning the three of the first four races of the Countdown, Schumacher, an eight-time winner at the Strip, holds a 134-point lead over Doug Kalitta. Steve Torrence sits in third, reigning world champion Shawn Langdon is fourth in points while other Countdown competitors include Spencer Massey, reigning Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Khalid alBalooshi, Indy winner Richie Crampton and J.R. Todd.
In Funny Car, Force locked up his 16th world championship in Las Vegas last season but he is chasing points leader Matt Hagan once again late in the season. Hagan, searching for his second world title, won in Reading to jump to first and is trying to hold off a talented field that also includes Courtney Force, three-time season winner Alexis DeJoria, Tommy Johnson Jr., Robert Hight, Ron Capps, Tim Wilkerson, Del Worsham and three-time Las Vegas winner Cruz Pedregon.
Smith was victorious in Pro Stock Motorcycle last season en route to his second championship ring. But the 2014 season has belonged to Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Both have won this event three times and Hines holds a 25-point advantage over Krawiec. Hector Arana Jr. is in third and other marquee challengers in the two-wheeled category are Steve Johnson, Angie Smith, Scotty Pollacheck, John Hall, Hector Arana Sr. Michael Ray, Jerry Savoie and Angelle Sampey.
The event will also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and one driver will be crowned world champion in the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series season finale.
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 and get autographs from 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.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, Oct. 31, with sessions at 1 and 4 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Nov. 1, at 1 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2.