Tommy Johnson Jr. back to fulltime NHRA drag racing after five-year layoff

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A familiar name on the NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car circuits is returning to the sport after a five-year absence from the full-time ranks, as Iowa native Tommy Johnson Jr. will compete the entire 2014 season for the Funny Car championship.

Johnson will drive the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T for Don Schumacher Racing, according to NHRA.com.

Johnson is one of only 15 drivers in NHRA history to have career wins in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car ranks, spread across nine national event wins.

During a recent NHRA teleconference, Johnson admitted that as one year away from the sport turned into another and another, he feared he’d never get back behind the wheel fulltime.

Having last competed for an entire season in 2008, Johnson had all but given up hope after his absence reached five seasons last year.

“You wonder every day, especially the first year (2009),” Johnson said. “Okay, it was tough times economy wise. It’s hard to put a sponsorship package together and get in a car.

“It’s been five years since I ran fulltime in 2008 with Kenny Bernstein, so there was definitely some doubt along the way. But my love for the sport and just everybody asking me all the time, “What would you do if you didn’t drive race cars?” And that isn’t an option. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, and the will to get back here, you get tired of hearing no.

“But if you want to do something bad enough, you put your mind to it, and you continue to put your head down and work towards that goal, and that’s what I did. I just never gave up. It would have been easy to give up several times along the way, but it’s what I want to do, and my desire to do that paid off and the persistence. But every day I wondered, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this shot.'”

Johnson kept himself busy in recent years serving as a part-time test driver for DSR, as well as working in the race shop. And while gathering data from test runs is important for teams to build race setups upon, it was a shy substitute for the competition he thrived on in the NHRA drag racing world for nearly 20 years.

“When I went to work for Don (Schumacher) two or three years ago, he said, ‘Come to work for me. We’ll work on a deal and get you in the car.’ Maybe it didn’t happen as fast as we wanted it to, but it eventually happened, and I’ve got to thank him for the opportunity along with Terry Chandler (sister of Funny Car driver Johnny Gray and primary sponsor for Johnson’s car). She had a lot of say in who got to drive. I got to know her over the last few years as well there working at Don Schumacher Racing when Johnny was driving the car. Just a great lady. I just can’t thank them enough, both of them, for giving me the opportunity.”

Johnson is excited to shake off the rust and cobwebs and show that he hasn’t lost anything behind the wheel.

“I’ve managed to be able to stay in cars off and on throughout those five years,” he said. “It’s not like I got out of the car and haven’t been in one since, so that’s helped me a lot. Just to keep up to speed and the technology and some of the different things that evolve over the years in driving the cars.

“I think a couple races, we’ll be back in the swing of it. It came back pretty quick in testing. As soon as they dropped the body, I felt like they dropped the body in the ’09 season after the ’08 full year, so it came back naturally.”

That Johnson is resuming his fulltime career driving for arguably the best and biggest team in drag racing is an opportunity that rarely comes along. Sure, there’ll be pressure in driving for the best, but he’s ready for it.

“I think you put pressure on yourself no matter what situation you’re in,” Johnson said. “But to know that you have the car that is capable of winning races, and not only winning races, they’ve won championships here in the past few years.

“So to go out there and have that shot at a competitive car and have a shot at a championship, definitely the goal as you start the season is to win races, make the Countdown (for the Championship), and to strive for that championship. I don’t know that there’s anymore added pressure, but it’s certainly a lot because it is a high-profile team, and that is the goal that I was shooting for. I’m going to get all the pressure I asked for.”

Making Johnson’s return all the more sweeter is he begins his comeback at this weekend’s NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. It was in 2005 that Johnson won that race, a feat he’d love to repeat as he begins his new comeback.

“In 2005, I was able to win the Pomona Winternationals, and my dad was there,” Johnson recalled. “It’s history, our sport has a lot of history. To be able to win one of the big ones like Winternationals, to me, it’s one of the big ones. It’s one that’s on the tour that every year you look forward to. To kick off the season with a win and you’re the guy leading the points, there is something special about that every year.

“But to start the tour back full time with Don Schumacher Racing, driving for Terry Chandler, and debuting Make-A-Wish at the Winternationals, it doesn’t get any bigger than that to me.”

Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.

Hamilton endures ‘difficult’ Russia F1 practice, impressed by Ferrari

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Lewis Hamilton was left disappointed by a “difficult” day of Formula 1 practice in Russia on Friday for Mercedes as Ferrari stole a march on the field.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi looking to take his third win in Russia and claw back the championship lead after falling seven points behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the standings.

The Briton was left to settle for fourth place in the final timesheets in FP2 as Mercedes struggled to match Ferrari’s one-lap pace, finishing over half a second back from Vettel in P1.

“Bit of a difficult day for us,” Hamilton admitted. “We managed to complete everything that we needed to do on our runs, but in terms of the balance of the car, the Ferrari seemed very, very fast on the long runs.

“So we need to work out how we can improve our pace. But there’s still everything to play for. The tires feel very peaky, so it’s easy to drop out of the window of performance, but when they’re working they seem to be good.”

Teammate Valtteri Bottas finished third-fastest in FP2 for Mercedes, and said the team had work to do overnight to ensure it could get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire for qualifying.

“It’s been an interesting day. It’s a very different situation here with the asphalt and the temperatures compared to what we experienced in Bahrain,” Bottas said.

“We were learning about the tires on long runs and short runs and it seems like over one lap we still have work to do to get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire – that’s our focus tonight. But we can’t forget how important the race is.

“We have started the weekend in the right way. The car feels good and the balance is there. A good start but we definitely need to work hard to find some lap time for qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET on Saturday.

Stoffel Vandoorne set for 15-place F1 grid drop in Sochi

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Stoffel Vandoorne is set to receive a 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix after exceeding the number of permitted power units components for the season.

McLaren’s problems with engine supplier Honda have been well-documented, with a revision of the design of the power unit by the Japanese manufacturer backfiring to create further reliability and performance issues.

Vandoorne has taken the brunt of the issues in 2017, failing to score a point and recording just one classified finish – P13 in Australia, two laps down on the lead car – as well as being forced to change a number of components on his power unit.

Drivers are only permitted to use four of each power unit component across the course of the season before triggering a penalty, but Vandoorne’s usage has been so high that he is set to receive a grid drop for the Russian Grand Prix – only the fourth round of the season.

By taking an all-new power unit for the event in Sochi, Vandoorne has moved onto his fifth MGU-H and fifth turbocharger of the year, combining for a 15-place grid penalty on Sunday.

For every other ‘fifth’ component Vandoorne takes this season, he will receive another five-place grid drop. His first ‘sixth’ component will be worth 10 places; every remaining ‘sixth’ is five places; his first ‘seventh’ is 10 places and so on.

Ferrari dominates Russian GP second free practice

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Once Pirelli’s softest compound, the ultrasoft tires, came out to play in second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, Scuderia Ferrari dropped the hammer compared to Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen ran at 1:34.120 and 1:34.383, respectively, in the pair of SF70H chassis – which easily eclipsed the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. This followed Raikkonen’s leading FP1 this morning.

It’s only practice but the thinking going into the race weekend was with a couple long straights, it would play to Mercedes’ strengths and its top-end speed. But Ferrari’s fired a warning salvo into that thinking in this session.

Bottas and Hamilton were six and seven tenths adrift on the same ultrasoft tires, before long runs commenced for the final 35 to 40 or so minutes of the 90-minute free practice. The Russian Grand Prix is expected to be a one-stop race.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were next, far off the top four and far ahead of the midfield. Verstappen’s session ended early inside of 20 minutes, as he parked his car with an apparent loss of power just before pit lane.

Williams’ Felipe Massa, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez – making it four teams in as many positions from seventh through 10th in the crowded midfield. In fact while 1.790 seconds covered first to sixth, just 1.18 seconds covered seventh to 18th, covering all remaining teams!

Romain Grosjean, who tries new Carbon Industrie brakes this week, made several radio transmissions noting he wasn’t yet satisfied with the new supplier. There’s still been a lot of brake dust released from the fronts on both his and Magnussen’s car.

Meanwhile further down the grid, McLaren Honda has made yet another power unit change to Stoffel Vandoorne’s car, which cost him the opening minutes of the session. This will resign the Belgian to his fifth turbocharger and MGU-H of the season, and see him saddled with a grid penalty.

FP3 is next up, streaming online live on Saturday morning from 5 a.m. ET. Qualifying commences at 8 a.m. ET live on CNBC.