Reading: Skoal Racing preview

Capps, Johnson set goals for final six 2002 races: win as many as possible, beginning with Keystone Nationals. READING, Pa., Sept. 10, 2002 - This was supposed to be the year either Ron Capps or Tommy Johnson Jr. - or both Skoal Racing Funny Car...

Capps, Johnson set goals for final six 2002 races: win as many as possible, beginning with Keystone Nationals.

READING, Pa., Sept. 10, 2002 - This was supposed to be the year either Ron Capps or Tommy Johnson Jr. - or both Skoal Racing Funny Car drivers - challenged for the NHRA POWERade championship.

After 17 of the 23 races it has become a roller-coaster ride of thrills and thumps. It's been the kind of journey that could make seasoned drag racing veterans queasy from the highs and the lows.

As Capps and Johnson survey the scene and prepare for the final six events, their goals are to wind up this campaign on a good note by winning several races so they will build a solid foundation from which to grow 2003 title aspirations.

The work begins with the Lucas Oil Keystone Nationals, Friday through Sunday, at Maple Grove Raceway in nearby Mohnton.

Johnson and crew chief Rob Flynn believe their Blue Skoal Racing Camaro will reach the winner's circle at least once this year. Johnson already has been to three finals - including the prestigious U.S. Nationals, run on Labor Day at Indianapolis - but has come away empty-handed each time.

"I really thought we were going to win at Indy," said Johnson. "I said so after our race in Sonoma (Calif., on Aug. 4), that we were concentrating on winning Indy. And we almost pulled it off. Now the goal is to go out there and win at least a few races, because now we have the car to do it."

Johnson's prognostication was within a few feet of coming true. That was the difference between his finish and that of winner John Force. And what chafes Johnson more is the margin of victory - three-hundredths of a second - was the result of Force's quicker starting-line reflexes.

"I guess it really doesn't aggravate me as much as it does disappoint me," Johnson commented. "I always get up when I race Force. It was my first finals at Indy and I should've been up . . . and I was, but I still didn't get it.

"But the good news is we had a good racecar at Indy and I'm excited to go to Reading. I feel like we can run well again. I'm not thinking that we can just go to Reading and race; I'm going there thinking that we can win the race."

The Avon, Ind. resident already has a fondness for Maple Grove because he earned his first career Funny Car win there in 1999 when he beat Capps in the title round. Johnson added another victory last year at Las Vegas (in April) - his first after joining Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's team to start the 2001 season - and is still searching for that elusive first 2002 trip to the winner's circle.

"What says it all about Indy is that we went into the U.S. Nationals hoping to qualify and came out of it with a runner-up," he pointed out.

The car's performance - it made excellent runs of 4.920 and 4.903 seconds in the midst of a very hot Sunday of qualifying - was punctuated by runs of 4.950, 4.973, 5.127 and 4.996 in eliminations. Force ran a 5.028 at 280.02 in beating Johnson's 4.996.

"That last run has helped me," said Johnson. "I think I lost my focus, but now I feel like I've found it. I know where I went wrong and what I have to do now. We are competitive and I'm very excited to be racing again."

Capps Looking Forward to Keystone Nationals, Too

Capps, like Johnson, had a bittersweet Labor Day weekend. Most memorable was winning the $100,000 top prize in the Big Bud Shootout, his third victory in five appearances in the special eight-car event.

"It's like running two races in a row on back-to-back days with the Shootout on Sunday and the U.S. Nationals on Monday," Capps said. "Now we've won the Shootout three times and that's remarkable.

"At the same time, the bigger picture was Monday's U.S. Nationals - not to take anything away from the Shootout - but there were POWERade Series points at stake Monday. Beside that, there was the history of the U.S. Nationals. We were really focused on Monday."

Capps' Green Skoal Racing Camaro smoked the tires in a first-round pairing against Dean Skuza - whom Capps defeated in the Shootout finals some 18 hours earlier - to put an early end to his competitive afternoon.

"We didn't know what happened Monday," Capps added. "Ace (crew chief Ed "Ace" McCulloch) and the guys didn't change anything on the car (from Sunday's tune-up) for the first round. We got about a second and a half into the run when the car smoked the tires. Now we've put that behind us and are ready to go to Reading."

Capps has back-to-back runner-up finishes on his Maple Grove resume - in 1999 against Johnson and 2000 against Bruce Sarver.

"Our car was very consistent on Sunday at Indy, and now we are starting to get to tracks where we will have cooler conditions. I think we're going to see some very quick elapsed times," commented Capps. "We're not going to have the hot, humid conditions like we had at Indy and some of the other tracks during the summer, so Ace and Todd (Okuhara, assistant crew chief) will start focusing on a completely different setup, a different way of running the car.

"We'll just put all of what we've been through behind us and go to Reading, Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas - all the tracks that are capable of running quick elapsed times in the cooler weather. The summer months are always a grind, but after Indy and before Reading everything kind of changes in terms of racing conditions. It's a different way of running the car. Ace, Todd and the Green crew feel pretty good about the tune-up we'll be using at Reading.

"When you look at how well both Skoal Racing cars ran at Indy, it looks like Snake's team is back in competitive form," Capps concluded. "Yes, it was cool to see Tommy's car step up and run with the guys on Monday."

Maybe the improved performances bring about a Johnson vs. Capps meeting in the Keystone Nationals title round on Sunday. It's a match they feel is long overdue.

Capps, who has a win and a runner-up in two final rounds this season, is seventh in points with 809 while Johnson moved up to ninth (758 points) after the U.S. Nationals.


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Series NHRA
Drivers Bruce Sarver , Dean Skuza , Ron Capps , John Force , Tommy Johnson Jr.