Winning Performance Puts Chevrolet's Kurt Johnson Back in Championship Picture Competitors Head East For Thunder Valley Battling For Top Positions BRISTOL, Tenn., April 20, 2006 - Add Kurt Johnson's name to the rapidly expanding list of ...
Winning Performance Puts Chevrolet's Kurt Johnson Back in Championship Picture
Competitors Head East For Thunder Valley Battling For Top Positions
BRISTOL, Tenn., April 20, 2006 - Add Kurt Johnson's name to the rapidly expanding list of individuals to win an NHRA Pro Stock national event in 2006. This season, five different drivers have claimed victories at the first five events, and after struggling at four of those contests, the 43-year-old driver of the ACDelco Chevy Cobalt turned things around at Las Vegas with a winning performance that puts his team back into the POWERade championship hunt.
"We knew we had the team to get it done, the car, the sponsors behind us, and everybody knows we can win, it's a matter of doing it," said Johnson. "The car did its job, the crew did theirs and I drove good enough to win the race. It was awesome. Everything came together - it's about time.
"Sometimes you have to back up to move ahead, and we've tried so many different things lately - things that many teams haven't thought about. You think you're doing good and you stay on that path for awhile, and finally we threw in the towel when we realized things weren't quite panning out."
The O'Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals on April 28 - 30 will mark the first anniversary of Johnson's debut of the Chevy Cobalt into NHRA Pro Stock competition. Johnson and his crew quickly got a handle on the racecar after its introduction last year at Bristol Dragway, closing out the remainder of the schedule with four wins, seven final-round appearances and only one first-round loss (Topeka). During the 18-race stretch from Bristol to Pomona, Johnson earned four No. 1 qualifying awards, won 41 rounds of eliminations (an average of 2.28 rounds per event), set low e.t. of the meet three times and top speed five times.
"We're back to running the ACDelco Chevrolet the way we did during the last part of last season," said Johnson. "We were pretty consistent, we were going rounds and we put four wins together. We're going to stick with this package for awhile, or at least until we come up with something a little bit better. We're pretty pleased with what we have right now, but we know everyone else is working hard to move ahead, and so are we."
It's been since 2002, when it took 10 races before Bruce Allen became the first repeat winner in the factory hot rod category, that the class has been this tight. At Las Vegas, Johnson's ACDelco Chevy Cobalt was one of seven cars to qualify within a hundredth of a second of each other and part of a 16-car field with a top-to-bottom qualifying spread of only .045 of a second.
"There are so many good cars out there now that anyone can win on Sunday," said Johnson. "When you look at the spread at Las Vegas it's obvious that the field has tightened, but that makes it more fun for the racers, and the fans and everyone involved. Now it's a matter of going over the details, making good runs and being consistent. It's no different than it was five or six years ago, it's just that it's a lot closer right now."
Johnson's 33rd career victory was also his second straight win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and it extends his streak of scoring at least one win per season to 12 straight years (the longest streak in Pro Stock). Now 10th in the POWERade standings after an admittedly slow start to the season, Johnson is confident that his team can capitalize on their most recent performance and edge closer to the points leaders.
"It's never been easy to win a race," said Johnson. "But to go out on Sunday like we did in Las Vegas, we had to run Mike (Edwards), who was the guy who'd just won the last race, in the first round. We had lane choice so we were pretty pumped. But then we had to run (Dave) Connolly, and Jason (Line), and Erica's (Enders) been doing a great job - it felt like going four final rounds. Regardless of where you're qualified, you can win from anywhere in the field and you can lose from anywhere in the field - it's a double-edged sword.
"Winning like we have over the years is the result of a lot of help from a lot of people more than anything. In 1994 we didn't win a race but we won the Pro Stock Challenge. To be able to keep the consecutive streak going is pretty cool because you never know if you're going to win again. You're just glad when it happens. Hopefully we can keep on going, and the points deal, it's going to be interesting in the end. Five winners in five races is fabulous, and I'm just glad it's still early in the season."
After ending the 2005 campaign outside the POWERade top 10, even Mike Edwards is a little surprised by the scope of his team's resurgence. The driver of the Young Life Pontiac has already tacked his name onto this year's list of winners with his 12th career victory at the O'Reilly Spring Nationals in Houston where his GTO ran top speed of the meet. A runner-up at the season-opening Winternationals and four races where he's qualified in the top half of the field has helped the 1996 co-Rookie of the Year climb all the way to second place in the Pro Stock standings, just 40 points behind first-place Greg Anderson.
"We've had a tremendous season already and hopefully we can keep it going," said Edwards. "We made a lot of changes over the winter and didn't expect this kind of turnaround, but hey, I'll take it. Compared to what we had last year, we've done pretty well and hopefully we can keep it going. When it's this close, though, you never know what's going to happen. The competition level right now in Pro Stock is just incredible. You have a 16-car field at every race where every qualified car is very, very competitive, and at Las Vegas you had two or three that didn't make it that were top-10 cars. It's a real competitive class, and with five different winners, that makes it exciting for me, for the fans, for everybody involved. Now if you qualify and get a break or two on Sunday, you can win one of these races - I proved that at Houston. As a racer you look forward to going again.
"Getting qualified is always the first objective when you pull out there on Friday for the first run, but now getting into the top half is more of an achievement because then you know you get lane choice and it gives you more momentum going into first round. If it stays like this the rest of the year, there's going to be some really, really good racing in Pro Stock, that's for sure."
Another driver off to a strong start as the tour makes its eastward swing toward Tennessee is two-time NHRA champion (1996-97) Jim Yates. At the last two races the Sea-Ray Pontiac GTO driver has scored a runner-up at Houston (to race-winner Mike Edwards) and a semifinal-round appearance at Las Vegas which has helped place Yates fifth in the standings.
"The best is yet to come," said Yates. " I really like the way this team is progressing and I'm excited about the way this Sea-Ray Pontiac GTO is running. I've always said that in addition to performance, you need momentum to compete in Pro Stock, and right now, we have both of those factors working for us - that's the exciting part. The car is fast, we've seen that, but we're putting it all together at the right time. We're only five races into the season and it's a whole new program with us working with Bill Jenkins, learning how to race his engines and learning how to finesse the chassis to make it work efficiently with his power. We've turned that corner pretty quickly and every race we go to it feels like we're only scratching the surface.
"When we make a run and run well, we think we can run a little better - that's encouraging. Since Gainesville, I've felt like if we can make a good run we can put this GTO on the pole - I like our chances that much and that shows how the team has come together. Bill Jenkins brings so much to this program besides just a fast engine. He has a winning attitude that inspires us all to do a better job and work that much harder."
Yates was runner-up at the Thunder Valley Nationals in 2001, a year in which he finished second in the Pro Stock points standings to Warren Johnson. The 52-year-old Virginia resident is another driver who feels the Pro Stock category could be in for one of its most competitive years in a long time.
"It looks like it's going to be a banner year for Pro Stock," said Yates. "Even if you look at qualifying, there are so many cars at the top of the pack right there together that it's a great opportunity for the fans to see some great racing. It's also a great opportunity for us to win some races because it looks like it's going to be spread around quite a bit and we're right there in the running.
"I think we're going to have 10 different winners. Our goal is to be one of those 10. That means being in the right place at the right time and doing a good job of driving. Not only will it take a fast car and a good engine, but the driver's going to have to be on their game. The cars are so close right now and everyone's doing a good job of driving. Now it's a matter of having a good light at a good time and winning rounds."