Baytown: Tommy Johnson Jr preview

Skoal Racing Change of luck finds Tommy Johnson Jr., Blue Skoal Racing Funny Car team in thick of championship race. BAYTOWN, Texas, April 11, 2002 - His first year as a member of Don Prudhomme's Skoal Racing Funny Car team was dotted with ...

Skoal Racing
Change of luck finds Tommy Johnson Jr., Blue Skoal Racing Funny Car team in thick of championship race.

BAYTOWN, Texas, April 11, 2002 - His first year as a member of Don Prudhomme's Skoal Racing Funny Car team was dotted with extremes - like the highs of a Las Vegas victory and a ride on the Stratosphere's roller coaster to the lows of not qualifying - but Tommy Johnson Jr. never gave up hope.

Hope, it seems, is a drag racing driver's elixir, capable of pushing unwanted memories to the far recesses of the mind. And, in Johnson's case, it worked.

He finished 10th in the final point accounting last year - not nearly as high as he wanted, but resolute that the 2002 campaign would be better. Judging from the performance of his Blue Skoal Racing Camaro through the first four events, he's right.

Johnson finds himself in the thick of a congested NHRA Powerade Series championship battle with about nine other drivers as the title chase moves to Houston Raceway Park for the O'Reilly Spring Nationals, Friday through Sunday. He's in a tie for sixth place and doesn't mind being a contender, either.

"Actually it's kind of nice," Johnson said. "There's been no dominant, favorite driver, nobody out in the lead by much. We've already seen things like Del Worsham, who's in second place, not qualify once, so the parity is really good. There's a lead pack that seems to be pulling away, but not by much. Even No. 10 is still within striking distance and I'm glad to be a part of that."

He is, thanks to a runner-up finish Sunday at Las Vegas where he lost a close race to Gary Densham. Johnson's car had traction problems, got hooked up again and almost caught Densham, whose car was coasting due to a mechanical problem. It was Johnson's second straight final-round visit at the Summitracing.com Nationals and only his third since joining Prudhomme's team. It just might be a signal that more good results are in his future.

Last year, Johnson only went to the semifinal round twice, each time on the way to the finals. He's already been to the semis twice in 2002, and there are 19 races remaining.

Here is Johnson's take on the season to date, via questions and answers:

Q - Does it look like the pendulum is beginning to swing in your favor this year?

A - Two semis, two first rounds . . . we just seem to have things going our way a little better for a change. We haven't won them with dominant horsepower but maybe things are kind of leaning our way in some rounds. That's a nice mental set. You know things are going your way and it makes you a little happier.

For example, I probably shouldn't have gone past the second round Sunday in Las Vegas but things went our way. You've got to get a break. In the final it kind of went against us. We could have easily won that one. (Densham was powerless but got the win in 5.409 seconds at 205.13 mph, followed closely by Johnson's 5.447 at 272.61 mph.)

Q - What kind of performance do you expect when you get to Houston?

A - I'm hoping the track conditions there will be more what we've become used to in the last year. It's always been a track where you could run big numbers and it always has great traction. Where some of the other tracks are just okay, this one has always been excellent. I'm hoping that we can go there and come up with one of our better performances. I'm hoping the bump (elapsed time of the 16th qualifier) will be respectable instead of being slow like we've had lately (5.024 seconds last week).

Q - How important is Friday night qualifying?

A - You'd think we had naturally-aspirated cars like Pro Stock the way qualifying is going because if you screw up Friday night there's a good chance you probably aren't going to play on Sunday. It used to be important to run good Friday night to try and get the No. 1 spot but now the importance is to try and get the No. 1 through 16 spots. The Pro Stock drivers used to complain if they didn't get in Friday night because they didn't get to race. Well, there's almost a complaint for that in the fuel cars now. The track conditions have such an impact that you have to get in Friday night or you may not make it.

Q - What does that do to you as a driver?

A - It makes you treat Fridays much differently. You have to go into Friday with a mindset that we don't want to go out and set low e.t. in the first session, we just want to get down the racetrack and have a tuning baseline. Hopefully it's a decent enough run that you can be in the back of the pack in the night session because the later it gets, the better the track gets.

You run the car differently than you normally do. The biggest problem is it is such a drastic change between a nighttime tune-up and a daytime tune-up that it's hard to hit the nighttime thing. You don't have any practice at it; you just say "this should be ok." In Las Vegas, we said we just need to go down the track. Well, it was good for 14th. It could've been a lot quicker but we just had to go down the racetrack. It was almost not good enough. Both Friday runs are now really important. If you don't go down the track on the first run Friday you're going to be behind all weekend. That's putting a lot of pressure on and I don't like it at all. In three of the last four races it's come down to the last session for us and we've either been in danger of getting bumped or had to make it in on the last shot. I don't care for that at all. That's too much stress.

For the Record . . .
Johnson is tied with Gary Scelzi for sixth place at 229 points in the standings. John Force leads with 308, followed by Worsham, 288; Densham, 286; Ron Capps, 252; and Tony Pedregon, 235.

-sr-

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Ron Capps , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Tommy Johnson , Gary Densham , Tommy Johnson Jr.