Joe Gibbs Names Funny Car Driver

INDIANAPOLIS (June 1, 1999) -- NHRA team owner Joe Gibbs has selected Tommy Johnson, Jr. as the permanent driver for his Interstate Batteries Hot Rod Pontiac Funny Car, replacing Cruz Pedregon, who mutually agreed with Gibbs to part ways last ...

INDIANAPOLIS (June 1, 1999) -- NHRA team owner Joe Gibbs has selected Tommy Johnson, Jr. as the permanent driver for his Interstate Batteries Hot Rod Pontiac Funny Car, replacing Cruz Pedregon, who mutually agreed with Gibbs to part ways last week.

Johnson's first race under the Joe Gibbs Racing banner will be at the NHRA Pontiac Excitement Nationals, June 11-13 in Columbus, Ohio. Johnson had previously agreed to a one-race sponsorship with Fram SureGrip to drive his Top Fuel dragster at this weekend's (June 4-6) NHRA national event -- Fram Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, IIl. Randy Anderson, who competed in a Funny Car the past two years (1997 & 1998), will drive the Gibbs entry in Joliet.

"Tommy is not only a talented race car driver, but he is a person who will represent the team and our sponsors in the highest standard," Gibbs said. "He came highly recommended from Wes [crew chief Wes Cerny) and we're delighted that he has agreed to join our team. I also want to thank Randy Anderson, another talented driver, for agreeing to drive our car at this weekend's race."

"Driving for Joe Gibbs and Wes Cerny is the kind of ride that I have been hoping and patiently waiting for," said Johnson, whose last NHRA race was in July of 1997. "It does end a frustrating period for me because I started to question if the right kind of offer was ever going to come. I've had other opportunities, but not what I was looking for.

"I am excited to get started and begin a new career. To be associated with Joe Gibbs Racing and driving the Interstate Batteries Hot Rod Funny Car is a dream for any driver and I feel honored to have been chosen. When I competed on a limited budget I went to races hoping just to qualify. But with this team you go to races knowing that you'll be a contender."

Johnson, 31, of Ottumwa, Iowa, was a standout Alcohol Funny Car driver from 1986-1989. He joined the professional ranks in 1990 as a Top Fuel dragster driver. As part of a his family-backed operation, Johnson ran a limited schedule in his first two seasons of Top Fuel racing before doing full season schedules from 1992-95.

Due to limited funding, Johnson ran a part-time schedule again in 1996 and 1997. Last year he competed on the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) circuit where he won twice and finished second in the season point standings.

For eight consecutive NHRA seasons (1988-1995) Johnson held the No. 1 ranking in driver reaction times -- two seasons in Alcohol Funny Car and six in Top Fuel.

He has three NHRA national event wins -- two in Top Fuel and one in Alcohol Funny Car -- and five IHRA national event wins -- four in Top Fuel and one Alcohol Funny Car. His best NHRA season finish in Top Fuel racing was eighth in 1995. He won the NHRA Division 5 Alcohol Funny Car season title in 1987.

Johnson said the accomplishment he is most proud of is being one of only five Top Fuel drivers who are members of both the Cragar 4-Second Club and the Slick 50 300-mph Club. The other four are: Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme and Eddie Hill. "That's four legends and a kid," said Johnson in 1994 after achieving the double.

Asked if he had any thoughts about never competing in a AA Fuel Funny Car, Johnson said, "The functions are basically the same in a Funny Car and a Top Fuel dragster. The big difference is that you can see better in a dragster. Frankly, I like a body around me and since I drove an Alcohol Funny Car for four years it's just like going home for me. It's no different than when Bernstein and Prudhomme went from Funny Car to Top Fuel. But by going from Top Fuel to Funny Car you get to race John Force."

In another Joe Gibbs Racing team development, Rick Cassel (as in castle) has been hired as co-crew chief of the Cory McClenathan-driven MBNA Top Fuel dragster. Cassel will share the Top Fuel crew chief duties with Jim Brissette, who has been the team's technical advisor since 1997. As previously announced, Wes Cerny, the team's Funny Car crew chief, will oversee the operation of both teams.

Cassel, who was the crew chief in 1997 & 1998 for Bob Vandergriff's Top Fuel dragster, had previously worked with Cerny -- in 1990-1991 with the Roland Leong-owned Hawaiian Punch Funny Car and from 1994-1996 with Don Prudhomme's Top Fuel teams. Cassel will also serve as shop manager at the team's base in Indianapolis.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , John Force , Joe Amato , Tommy Johnson , Cruz Pedregon , Cory McClenathan , Don Prudhomme , Bob Vandergriff
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing