Tommy Johnson Jr. -- Red Hot in Gibbs' Funny Car DALLAS/FT. WORTH (Oct. 15, 1999) -- Tommy Johnson Jr. has been a remarkable driving student. If grades were given, he'd likely be the 1999 NHRA rookie class valedictorian. OK, so he ...
Tommy Johnson Jr. -- Red Hot in Gibbs' Funny Car
DALLAS/FT. WORTH (Oct. 15, 1999) -- Tommy Johnson Jr. has been a remarkable driving student. If grades were given, he'd likely be the 1999 NHRA rookie class valedictorian.
OK, so he wasn't a total novice when he accepted Joe Gibbs' offer to drive his Interstate Batteries Hot Rod Pontiac Funny Car, beginning with the 10th race of the year. But he did find out that making the transition from Top Fuel (where he'd raced since 1990) to Funny Car was more difficult than he expected.
He endured some tough times - like successive first-round losses at Denver, Seattle and Sonoma, Calif., NHRA's western swing - but never was discouraged. Now he is beginning to show why Gibbs sought his driving services.
Johnson - 10 races into his Funny Car career with three events remaining on the schedule - is the hottest Funny Car driver going into the O'Reilly's Fall Nationals, Oct. 22-24, at the Texas Motorplex. He's won two of the last three races (at Reading, Pa., and Memphis) and was runner-up in the other (Topeka, Kan.). While that might have him in title contention had he been in the seat all season, Johnson and the Interstate Batteries team are on course to earn a place in the top 10, something that was simply a long-shot goal four months ago.
"The guys didn't think we would have a decent chance of getting a top 10 finish, but I kept telling them, 'Oh yes we do,'" Johnson said. "As long as we get in the top 10, that would be a great goal to accomplish. We missed quite a few races at the beginning of the season so if we could still make the top 10 that would make this a great year."
He's really not that far from finding a place in the top 10. He is 14th with 677 points, 31 behind 10th-place Scotty Cannon and 81 behind No. 7 Jim Epler.
"Racing at the Motorplex gives us good track conditions," Johnson said of owner Billy Meyer's concrete racing surface. "Our car really likes running on the good tracks and that makes us even more confident going into not only this race, but the ones in Houston (Oct. 31) and Pomona (Calif., Nov. 14).
"When we went to Reading, we really didn't have a very good tune-up for the tricky track surfaces, like the ones that bit us earlier on the western swing, but all of the sudden we stumbled across something."
That "something" - from crew chief Wes Cerny's tuning tricks - produced four very consistent runs at Memphis, where rain played havoc with qualifying, limiting drivers to two qualifying attempts. Johnson made the most of his, running 4.972 seconds at 305.29 mph to take the No. 2 position. During eliminations, he beat Cruz Pedregon (5.005, 295.72) and Cristen Powell (4.999, 300.73) before meeting eight-time champion John Force in the semifinals.
Johnson ousted Force (4.990, 299.66), then defeated Tony Pedregon, Force's teammate, in the finals, 4.996, 300.33 to 5.916, 176.72.
"When you can take out both Force's cars it doesn't get any better than that," commented Johnson, who lost to Force in the Topeka final.
Unless, Johnson could've added, more race wins and seventh place are included later.