JOHNSON JR. SEEKS MORE FUNNY CAR SUCCESS AT HEARTLAND PARK TOPEKA TOPEKA, Kan. - Tommy Johnson Jr. can finally breathe a sigh of relief. After eight races behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs-owned Funny Car, the Ottumwa, Iowa driver claimed an...
JOHNSON JR. SEEKS MORE FUNNY CAR SUCCESS AT HEARTLAND PARK TOPEKA
TOPEKA, Kan. - Tommy Johnson Jr. can finally breathe a sigh of relief. After eight races behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs-owned Funny Car, the Ottumwa, Iowa driver claimed an NHRA national event trophy. The former Top Fuel driver turned Funny Car pilot entered the cockpit of the highly-touted Interstate Batteries Pontiac with many high expectations and was happy to finally deliver a victory to his team at the recent NHRA event in Reading, Pa.
"With Tony (Stewart) finally winning in (NASCAR) Winston Cup and Cory (McClenathan) winning at Indy I figured it was time for us to step it up a notch to keep up with my teammates," said Johnson, a two-time winner in NHRA Top Fuel competition. "I feel like there's a huge monkey off my back. It feels good to get that first win out of the way so we can move on." While to many, winning after only eight races seems like a huge accomplishment; for Johnson the time period seemed like an eternity. After being the No. 1 qualifier at two events, he quickly realized the race-winning potential of the Wes Cerny-tuned machine.
"The pressure was starting to get to us," said Johnson, who'll lead competitors in his category into the 11th annual Advance Auto Parts NHRA Nationals, Sept. 30-Oct. 3 at Heartland Park Topeka. The $1.7 million race is the 18th of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
"I guess maybe I tried a little harder because we came into Reading as the underdog instead of the No. 1 qualifier," Johnson continued. "I really like that role better than being the favorite. I guess winning there sort of makes up for some of the other races we should have won and didn't, like Indy when we were No. 1. For once, it all finally came together." Johnson, a 31-year-old drag racing veteran, says driving a Funny Car has been a very new experience. He says funny cars and top fuel dragsters have very little in common.
"They're two totally different animals," Johnson said. "The Funny Car darts around a lot more and it's much more critical to keep it in the groove. With a dragster, you can let it slide out of the groove a little bit and steer it back. It doesn't make violent moves. I didn't believe the guys when they said these cars move around a lot when they drop cylinders. It's amazing how much down force you lose out of that side of a header in a Funny Car." He expects to improve as a driver with more seat time. "The experience I've gained has been tremendous," Johnson said. "It's been frustrating at times, because of the little things. I think it's really easy to be a good driver in a Funny Car, but it's really hard to be a great Funny Car driver. You concentrate really hard on mastering one thing, and next thing you know, something else bites you." Johnson, one of several new young guns in the Funny Car class, says his goal this season is to make it into the Winston top 10. He's currently 17th, 200 points out of 10th. "John Force has kind of made a mockery of the Funny Car class," Johnson said. "It's my goal to get in there and butt heads with him and try to make a difference. We're learning a lot this year so we can make an assault on the championship next year. That's the plan. We've got such a good team, all the ingredients are there to win, so I definitely believe we can win (the championship) in the future. This year we're looking to make it into the top 10. If we could salvage a 10th place finish, that would be great." Force struggles: The last two outings have been simply miserable for Funny Car power John Force, as he and his Castrol GTX team works to put the finishing touches on a ninth NHRA Winston championship. Force suffered back-to-back first round losses for the first time in over a decade during outings at Indianapolis and Reading, Pa. The last time Force posted consecutive first round exits was in 1989, when Tom Hoover beat him at Houston and Chuck Etchells did the same at Gainesville, Fla. "We've got to stop this cylinder-dropping," said Force, an eight-time winner this season who suffered first round losses to Frank Pedregon at Indy and Cory Lee at Maple Grove. "We have no consistency. You get out there and you don't know which way to jump. You're either too scared or too aggressive. We're just lucky that we have a big lead." Capps rebuilding: The Don Prudhomme-owned Copenhagen Funny Car team is starting to put the pieces back together following a season filled with struggles. After winning the $100,000 Big Bud Shootout at Indianapolis, Ron Capps drove his Chevy Camaro to a runner-up effort at Maple Grove Raceway. Capps, who had won only four rounds of competition prior to the event in Reading, Pa., moved from 13th to 10th in the Winston point standings with the effort. Capps' last victory came at Topeka one year ago. "It did feel good to go rounds, that's for sure," said Capps, who won five races and finished a close second to Force in the '98 standings. "You start to forget how it feels after the season we've had. This team is made up of champions, so it's been disappointing. We were so close (to winning) I could taste it. We want to go into Topeka and keep working to get into the top five. That would be a great achievement for us this season. There's not too many races left, but we have to continue to go rounds and keep making up ground."