Brainerd: Round 16 preview

SIX-TIME CHAMPION WARREN JOHNSON MAKES LAST TRIP HOME TOP FOUR PRO STOCK DRIVERS FROM MINNESOTA BRAINERD, Minn. -- Warren Johnson's world is one of numbers and facts. His mix of meticulous planning, brave innovation and the logic of a...

SIX-TIME CHAMPION WARREN JOHNSON MAKES LAST TRIP HOME
TOP FOUR PRO STOCK DRIVERS FROM MINNESOTA

BRAINERD, Minn. -- Warren Johnson's world is one of numbers and facts. His mix of meticulous planning, brave innovation and the logic of a businessman has resulted in 95 career victories, six Pro Stock world championship titles and a sound two-team stable that continually rips through the NHRA's competitive ranks to final rounds and victories.

Since his first start at the "Big Go" in Indianapolis in 1971, "The Professor" has intrigued and frustrated competitors with a spunk that has not worn off with time. The 62-year-old native of Virginia, Minn., the oldest driver to win an NHRA national event, will strive for his fifth, and potentially last, career win in his home state when the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway, Aug. 11-14. Interestingly, he'll battle three other Minnesota natives to do it.

The $1.6 million event is the 16th of 23 on the $50 million NHRA POWERade Series. Competitors in four professional categories (Pro Stock, Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle) will earn points leading to the 2005 championships and coveted season titles -- a crown Johnson might garner yet again.

For the last two seasons, the Pro Stock field has watched Minnesota-bred Greg Anderson ride to the season championship. This year, however, every professional category points lead has switched with a new speed that can only signal the competitiveness of the sport. In fact, Pro Stock has already seen 10 lead changes and four different leaders since the beginning of the season.

Anderson recently retrieved the lead in the point standings for the first time since June -- from Johnson, who relished his time in the No. 1 spot, but looks to claim it once again for the benefit of the fans who are following his "School's Out" tour.

"The goal is the same every year -- to win the championship," Johnson said. "The fan response has been phenomenal. I think in Englishtown (in mid-June) I signed autographs for over five straight hours. Every race has been that way."

Johnson, who lived in Minnesota for 30 years before moving to Georgia to be closer to the NHRA's tracks, does not mind the attention.

"The spectators are absolutely 100-percent the most important people out there," Johnson said.

As in previous years, Johnson has given his loyal following a riveting season to watch. In Denver, Johnson faced off with 22-year-old Dave Connolly for a much-celebrated lengthy burndown that brought the crowd to its feet. It was the final round, and Johnson brought home the win after Connolly fouled out at the light.

Johnson considers the match the best since his similar confrontation with former driver Scott Geoffrion in the mid-1990s -- and the veteran does not shy away from challenges.

"(Dave) has to do what he thinks he has to do and I have to do what I have to do," Johnson said. "Sometimes they aren't quite compatible. Dave's obviously a pretty decent young driver and he has a great team behind him. He's trying to do the best he can for and with his team and we're trying to do the same thing."

Meanwhile, through the challenges and the hoopla of his last season running a full schedule, Johnson continues to fight for the category title. His son Kurt will as well. Kurt, driver of the ACDelco Chevrolet Cobalt, is ranked third in the point standings, 44 points behind his father and 94 behind the leader. Kurt will continue the family's legacy after his father retires.

Ironically, Warren Johnson credits his success to a slow start -- one that favored smart business choices over winning immediately.

"I wouldn't change anything that I've done," Johnson said. "It's one of those cases where everybody wishes they had done something different -- and I've never understood that, because I think 'Why didn't they do it differently in the first place?' Always look forward to the future. History is behind you. You can't change history, but you can plot your own future."

Johnson hopes his future holds another title. While the Johnson camp looks to tune their rides to a winning combination against the revitalized optimism of Anderson, Jason Line, a native of Wright, Minn., also will strive for victory. Line is fourth in the point standings.

The Top Fuel category is just as fickle as Pro Stock this year, as Doug Kalitta and two-time and defending world champion Tony Schumacher vie for the top spot with four season wins each. Larry Dixon, Brandon Bernstein and Scott Kalitta also are in the hunt for the title with two victories apiece thus far this season.

In Funny Car, 13-time and defending world champion John Force, a 10-time winner at Brainerd, has released his hold over the category by failing to advance past the first round of the last four races. Instead, his son-in-law, Robert Hight, sits atop the point battle over Gary Scelzi, while Force, who has a record 10 victories at Brainerd, is third.

Defending world champion Andrew Hines is the driver to watch in Pro Stock Motorcycle after breaking a lengthy winless streak with a trip to the winner's circle in Sonoma, Calif. The only rider to notch repeat victories in the category this season, Ryan Schnitz, is fourth in the point standings on his Team Muzzy Buell behind series leader Antron Brown, who rides the U.S. Army Suzuki, and Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson riders Hines, and GT Tonglet.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are set for 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 12. Qualifying continues at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday. Final eliminations start at 11 a.m. on Sunday, with pre-race ceremonies set for 10 a.m.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. Call Brainerd International Raceway at (218) 824-7220, or check online at nhra.com or ticketmaster.com.

-nhra-

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Larry Dixon , Warren Johnson , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Greg Anderson , Scott Kalitta , Scott Geoffrion , Brandon Bernstein , Jason Line , Ryan Schnitz , Andrew Hines , GT Tonglet , Robert Hight