Bristol: Tommy Johnson preview

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Tommy Johnson Jr.'s mission is no different than a bevy of war-hardened challengers in NHRA's Funny Car category. They all chant the same battle cry with an undying passion: Beat John Force. And they've been chanting it for years...

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Tommy Johnson Jr.'s mission is no different than a bevy of war-hardened challengers in NHRA's Funny Car category. They all chant the same battle cry with an undying passion: Beat John Force. And they've been chanting it for years now. About 11 to be exact. Within that seemingly endless time warp, only one driver -- Cruz Pedregon -- has been able to dethrone the charismatic driver sure to be revealed among the top-five on the list of NHRA's 50 Greatest Drivers as the sanctioning body continues to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Pedregon, now a color-analyst for ESPN's NHRA telecasts, accomplished the feat in '92, barnstorming Force with five straight victories in the season's closing races to snatch the championship trophy away at the last second. Just as the glitter is fading from the celebration of a successful 2000 -- Force accepted his record-tying 10th Winston crown and moved ahead of Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden to become NHRA's all-time win leader (94) -- there appears to be hope for the frustrated masses in the wild and unpredictable 6,000 horsepower category. Bruce Sarver and Del Worsham -- virtual youngsters when sized up against the 51-year-old master of the quarter-mile -- have defeated Force at his own game this season by clocking powerful performances. Force is the current Winston point leader with two wins on the season, but for the first time in several years he's looking over his shoulder at a host of hungry challengers.

Johnson, who joins Ron Capps as teammates for Funny Car legend Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's two-car operation, hopes to add to the youth invasion at the inaugural Mac Tools NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, April 27-29, at state-of-the-art Bristol Dragway. Johnson will be going for his second win of the season at the $1.9 million race, the sixth of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Johnson, who experienced Funny Car success in 1999 in a Joe Gibbs-owned machine, is excited about the opportunity to go head-to-head with Force for the Winston championship.

"The first person to knock John off the top, everyone is going to know who you are," said the 33-year-old Johnson, who often day-dreamed of racing against Force while growing up in his hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa. "That is the one thing that attracted me to Funny Car -- John Force. You mention that you beat John Force and you don't have to say anything else." Johnson, currently third in Winston points following a win at Las Vegas, is quickly adapting to his new surroundings. He drives the Skoal (Blue) Chevy Camaro alongside teammate Capps' Skoal (Green) machine. Together, they represent a tough tandem and the evolution of the category. This season there's seven two-car teams overall. The likelihood of such pairing of talent and resources seemed improbable in 1996 when many traditional independents scoffed at Force for creating the first two-car team. Since adding Tony Pedregon in an identical Ford Mustang and a cast of many crew members and technical advisors, Force has experienced tremendous success. So much so, he recently added a third driver to his stable -- longtime independent Gary Densham.

Johnson says this multi-car team thing is now past the stages of being called a fad.

"We've already seen the potential of the two-car team," said Johnson, who has five career NHRA victories (2 in Top Fuel, 3 in Funny Car). "You gain the information so quickly that you can change one car without waiting three hours. The knowledge is double. Instead of making eight runs, we make 16 in the same amount of time. I think to be able to run with the front-runners you are going to have to have a two car team. Force kind of led the way with that and now we're going to see if we can take it one step forward." Force's vision gave him the advantage for several years, but now Johnson says it's time for other teams to begin the process of tracking down his empire.

"A lot of his domination over the years has come because of the concept," Johnson said. "That allowed him to try a lot of different things and he's had resources that other teams didn't have. I think this year you're going to see a lot of guys closing the gap on him. With more competitive cars, that may be a distraction for him. Instead of one or two guys able to compete against him, there's maybe six or eight who are threats to him. It should make it tougher for him to go rounds. The whole class is pretty impressive this year."

The results are staggering. Nearly every Funny Car driver has reset their personal best performances in both elapsed time and speed. At three events this year-- Phoenix, Gainesville, Fla., and Las Vegas -- the quickest Funny Car fields in NHRA history were set and then reset twice. Just qualifying for the coveted field of 16 has become incredibly cut-throat. "It's surprising to me how many Funny Car teams are competitive this year, how quick and fast the fields are and how much the drivers have improved their performances," said Johnson, who lowered his career-best time to 4.838 seconds. "Some of the drivers who were just semi-competitive last year are now front-runners. Right now there is no clear-cut favorite and there's nobody running away with the Winston Series lead. The competitive level in Funny Car is as good as Pro Stock, as far as tightness of the fields." And competition tends to bring out the best in people. Johnson feels certain that he and teammate Capps will be there at the end, duking it out with Force for the Winston championship.

"Last year Ron finished second to John Force," Johnson said. "He shouldn't do anything else but get better -- the team should get better. By adding another team to our mix, and more knowledge and equipment, it's time to perform. I've done it before with less funding and less parts. Now is the time for me to take advantage of this opportunity."


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Series NHRA
Drivers Bruce Sarver , Del Worsham , Ron Capps , John Force , Tommy Johnson , Bob Glidden , Cruz Pedregon , Tommy Johnson Jr.