TOMMY JOHNSON RIDING A HOT STREAK INTO DALLAS DALLAS (October 14, 1999) - Although Tommy Johnson Jr. may not have figured out all of the tiny intricacies of driving his nitro-powered Interstate Batteries Firebird, his performance in the...
TOMMY JOHNSON RIDING A HOT STREAK INTO DALLAS
DALLAS (October 14, 1999) - Although Tommy Johnson Jr. may not have figured out all of the tiny intricacies of driving his nitro-powered Interstate Batteries Firebird, his performance in the last two months of NHRA competition clearly demonstrates an ability to master the learning curve. After a disappointing second-round loss at Indianapolis where he charged to the No. 1 qualifying position, Tommy Johnson has rallied at the last three events by advancing to three consecutive final rounds and claiming two victories. The 31-year-old Iowa native picked up his first career Funny Car win at Reading in September by beating Ron Capps in the finals, lost to John Force two weeks ago at Topeka, but claimed revenge on his Castrol rivals by taking out Tony Pedregon in the final stanza at Memphis. Despite the fact that Johnson didn't enter the NHRA points race until June when he took over the Interstate Batteries Pontiac for Joe Gibbs Racing, he now finds himself only 31 points out of the Winston top 10. He'll take that momentum and a winning hot rod into the 14th annual O'Reilly Fallnationals on October 21 - 24, at the Texas Motorplex. "All the breaks that were going against us at first seem to be going our way now," Johnson said. "The consistency of the Interstate Batteries Firebird has been tremendous. I'm giving the guys a lot of good feedback, my driving is coming around on race day, they're comfortable with what I'm doing and what to expect from me - it's just all coming together at once. That was kind of our plan from the beginning. We decided that we weren't really a challenger for the points championship, decided to experiment a little here at the end of the season and then make a run at the championship next year. In my opinion it's coming together quicker than what we all thought it would. "We want to finish in the top 10. The guys didn't think we would have a decent chance and I kept telling them, 'Oh yes we do!' As long as we get in the top 10 that would be a great goal to accomplish. Ninth place, eighth place, it doesn't really matter because that was the main goal when we started. Maybe we have a shot, but we missed quite a few races at the beginning of the season and if we could still crack into that top 10 then it will have been a great year. That would be a pretty good sign for next season." Before grabbing the reins of the Interstate Batteries Firebird in late spring, Johnson was a competitive Top Fuel Dragster racer winning two NHRA national events in four final rounds. Johnson's last Top Fuel victory was in Memphis in 1994 which was coincidentally the site of his most recent Funny Car win. "One of the comments I made to the guys was that it's easy to be a good driver in a Funny Car, but it's really hard to be a great driver, and it's all the little things that you have to put together run after run," Johnson said. "You concentrate on mastering one thing, and the next thing you know, something else bites you. I see now how you have to pay attention and concentrate so much harder in a Funny Car, and that becomes frustrating because then it becomes more than just trying to adjust to driving the thing. "I've waited a long time for an opportunity like this and to be a part of a program like Joe Gibbs Racing. It's been a great opportunity to get this caliber of a ride and to have a chance to win every race you go to. I like being a contender at every event. That's kind of what I've been waiting for; to have the car and the crew and to be able to be this competitive every time we pull up to the starting line."
Al Hofmann is hoping to strike gold again at the O'Reilly Fallnationals, an event where the Pontiac Firebird Funny Car driver has won two (1991, 1997) of his 15 career victories. It was announced at Memphis that Hofmann will be driving the Mooneyes/Red Line Oil Firebird next year for veteran crew chief Jim Dunn. "Jim Dunn and I have been racing a long time," said Hofmann. "He respects what I can do as a driver and I surely respect what he can do as a crew chief and owner. I think it's going to be great for both of us. With Mooneyes as the major sponsor along with Red Line Oil and Pontiac, I really feel that we have a legitimate shot at the championship. I know how good Jim Dunn's race cars can run when he has the funding to do it. This is his 50th anniversary and it's going to be an honor driving his car." Although qualifying in the No. 12 position, the 51-year-old Floridian had one of his best outings of the year at Memphis advancing to round three of eliminations before losing to Tony Pedregon. "With the help that we've had from Jim Dunn since Sonoma, this Firebird is starting to run up to it's potential," said Hofmann. The car's still not where we want it to be, but if we can make a couple more good showings at the next three races, then maybe we can get back into the top 10 for Pontiac and everyone that stands behind us. The way we've been at the last couple of events is starting to put a smile back on my face. Against Tony (Pedregon) at Memphis, we put a cylinder out right at the hit, fast enough that I was starting to wonder why the car wasn't moving. We still ran a 5.16, but if we can get this thing moving on all eight then we'll be in the high 4.90s or five-ohs at Dallas."
What's it like to swap paint at 290 mph in nitro-powered Funny Cars? NEC Pontiac Firebird driver Gary Densham can tell you. During the last round of qualifying on Sunday morning at Memphis, Densham felt the sudden impact of Frank Pedregon's Red Line Firebird when it crossed the centerline at a thousand feet. Densham came back for final eliminations and advanced to round two before losing to Al Hofmann. "We're moving in the right direction but unfortunately we smashed our primary car up in the morning qualifying session," Densham said. "Whenever you have another car run into you at 260 or 270 mph, and you walk away with the car, you've done okay. It got my attention that's for sure. You think you're driving along pretty good and all of a sudden you get hit pretty hard, but like they say, that's racing and that's the way it goes. Actually the car didn't react as badly as I thought it would especially with the jolt I felt. These cars are pretty stable from an aerodynamic standpoint. This Firebird is a pretty nice piece and it planted pretty hard. With the carbon fiber absorbing most of the impact we came out of it all right. "For Dallas the goal will be to go even faster. It's a good racetrack, and we have NEC and the AAA of Southern California coming in so we had better do the best we can."
The 14th annual O'Reilly Fallnationals on October 21 - 24 at the Texas Motorplex is the 20th race on 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Same-day television coverage of final eliminations can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, October 24, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern. Qualifying highlights of the O'Reilly Fallnationals can be seen on ESPN2 on October 24, starting at 1:30 p.m. Eastern.