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.”

NHRA at Norwalk: Torrence wins 4th race of 2017; Beckman, Butner, Tonglet also win

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Steve Torrence earned a career-best fourth Top Fuel win in a season Sunday, capturing the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Meanwhile, Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) captured their third wins in 2017, while Jack Beckman (Funny Car) earned his second win of the season as the NHRA wrapped up the first half of its 24-race season.

TOP FUEL: Torrence (3.743 seconds at 331.45 mph) defeated Doug Kalitta (3.736 at 331.36) in the final round. Torrence has now reached six final rounds this season over the last eight events, with a 4-2 record.

“I knew I left good on the tree but I could tell it would just be a coin toss who got it and fortunately I was able to come out ahead,” Torrence said in an NHRA media release. “It’s been a great season so far and we are hoping to keep this momentum going.”

The win also keeps Torrence No. 1 in the Top Fuel point standings.

FUNNY CAR: “Fast Jack” Beckman (4.073 seconds at 311.85 mph) earned his 26th career win over Robert Hight (6.673 seconds at 98.53 mph). Beckman has now won two of the last three races.

“We were consistently a bit off this weekend, but we are definitely happy to earn the victory this weekend,” Beckman said. “Now that we are getting down the track consistently, it keeps our opponents honest and that is definitely a formula we will continue to use for the rest of the season.”

PRO STOCK: It was a great jump at the starting line that led Butner (6.601 seconds at 210.50 mph) to defeat Greg Anderson (6.581 seconds at 210.87 mph).

“Today was a great day, we made four pretty consistent runs and my car was good when it needed to be,” said Butner, who added to his lead in the Pro Stock standings. “It’s one thing to have a good car, but we also had a lot of things go our way to get those win lights today.”

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Tonglet (6.824 seconds at 195.76 mph) earned his 13th career PSM win, defeating Matt Smith (6.882 seconds at 195.31 mph).

“I didn’t see any win lights throughout qualifying, but seeing them on Sunday is what matters and we are happy with the results,” Tonglet said. “This is huge for us and our position in the points standings, so getting as many wins as possible is definitely our goal.”

Tonglet, who took over the points lead with the win, leads all PSM riders, having reached the final round in three of the first five races this season, and won all three of those.

The NHRA has an off-weekend coming up before returning to action July 6-9 at the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence; 2.  Doug Kalitta; 3.  Leah Pritchett; 4.  Brittany Force; 5.  Terry McMillen; 6.  Clay Millican; 7.  Tony Schumacher; 8.  Antron Brown; 9.  Shawn Langdon; 10.  Dom Lagana; 11.  Pat Dakin; 12.  Mike Salinas; 13.  Ike Maier; 14.  Troy Buff; 15.  Troy Coughlin Jr.; 16.  Scott Palmer.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Jack Beckman; 2.  Robert Hight; 3.  Bob Tasca III; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 5.  Ron Capps; 6.  John Force; 7.  Matt Hagan; 8.  Alexis DeJoria; 9.  J.R. Todd; 10.  Jim Campbell; 11.  Cruz Pedregon; 12.  Del Worsham; 13.  Jonnie Lindberg; 14.  Jeff Diehl; 15.  Dale Creasy Jr.; 16.  Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner; 2.  Greg Anderson; 3.  Jason Line; 4.  John Gaydosh Jr; 5.  Tanner Gray; 6.  Vincent Nobile; 7.  Jeg Coughlin; 8.  Allen Johnson; 9.  Erica Enders; 10.  Chris McGaha; 11.  Alex Laughlin; 12.  Val Smeland; 13.  Mark Hogan; 14.  Drew Skillman; 15.  Kenny Delco; 16.  Alan Prusiensky.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet; 2.  Matt Smith; 3.  Hector Arana Jr; 4.  Scotty Pollacheck; 5.  Joey Gladstone; 6.  Mike Berry; 7.  Andrew Hines; 8.  Steve Johnson; 9.  Chip Ellis; 10.  Eddie Krawiec; 11.  Karen Stoffer; 12.  Cory Reed; 13.  Joe DeSantis; 14.  Angelle Sampey; 15.  Melissa Surber; 16.  Angie Smith.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.743 seconds, 331.45 mph  def. Doug Kalitta, 3.736 seconds, 331.36 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.073, 311.85  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.601, 210.50  def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.824, 195.76  def. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS: 

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Clay Millican, 3.775, 311.63 def. Scott Palmer, Broke; Leah Pritchett, 3.760, 324.12 def. Ike Maier, 8.295, 105.60; Steve Torrence, 3.786, 326.32 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., 8.501, 87.48; Brittany Force, 3.772, 324.98 def. Pat Dakin, 3.832, 293.60; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 329.99 def. Troy Buff, 8.421, 82.77; Antron Brown, 3.768, 323.35 def. Dom Lagana, 3.828, 322.34; Terry McMillen, 3.806, 323.04 def. Shawn Langdon, 3.787, 324.90; Tony Schumacher, 3.789, 326.56 def. Mike Salinas, 7.129, 96.03;

QUARTERFINALS — Torrence, 3.792, 326.79 def. Millican, 3.872, 312.86; Force, 3.808, 325.53 def. McMillen, 3.859, 291.32; Pritchett, 3.848, 322.04 def. Brown, 5.187, 142.16; Kalitta, 3.782, 325.85 def. Schumacher, 4.099, 232.03;

SEMIFINALS — Torrence, 3.751, 326.08 def. Force, 8.630, 75.66; Kalitta, 3.768, 328.62 def. Pritchett, 3.800, 314.46;

FINAL — Torrence, 3.743, 331.45 def. Kalitta, 3.736, 331.36.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.993, 310.27 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Toyota Camry, 8.596, 84.51; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.913, 329.75 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.101, 307.65; Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.349, 216.62 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 14.165, 61.22; John Force, Camaro, 3.930, 326.32 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Charger, Broke; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.942, 322.34 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.032, 318.69; Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.944, 326.56 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, Foul – Centerline; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.972, 324.75 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 7.528, 98.54; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.060, 319.82 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.180, 266.11;

QUARTERFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.960, 324.44 def. Capps, 3.965, 324.83; Hight, 3.978, 321.73 def. DeJoria, 4.741, 180.16; Tasca III, 4.006, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.047, 301.00; Beckman, 4.078, 310.84 def. Hagan, 4.152, 275.06;

SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 4.074, 319.45 def. Johnson Jr., 6.049, 118.22; Hight, 3.925, 328.62 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Beckman, 4.073, 311.85 def. Hight, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.627, 209.43 def. Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.595, 210.37 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.567, 210.64 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.676, 209.26; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.562, 210.50 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 14.694, 58.11; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.558, 210.64 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 7.790, 130.97; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.579, 210.70 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.759, 198.76; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.570, 211.16 def. Mark Hogan, Pontiac GXP, 6.814, 203.52; John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.663, 208.01 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 7.212, 149.95;

QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.615, 210.73 def. Nobile, 6.687, 209.95; Anderson, 6.597, 210.90 def. Johnson, Foul – Red Light; Gaydosh Jr, 6.695, 207.18 def. Coughlin, 12.760, 68.65; Line, 6.585, 211.33 def. Gray, 6.599, 210.77;

SEMIFINALS — Butner, 6.606, 210.34 def. Gaydosh Jr, 6.701, 207.50; Anderson, 6.599, 210.80 def. Line, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.601, 210.50 def. Anderson, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Mike Berry, Buell, 6.950, 192.22 def. Cory Reed, 6.991, 189.31; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.43 def. Angelle Sampey, Foul – Red Light; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.853, 195.25 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, 22.220, 24.02; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.907, 193.74 def. Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.890, 193.93; Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.880, 194.80 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.915, 195.96; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.910, 196.13 def. Angie Smith, Buell, Broke; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.867, 194.69 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.16; Matt Smith, 6.849, 196.27 def. Joe DeSantis, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light;

QUARTERFINALS — Pollacheck, 6.905, 194.46 def. Gladstone, 6.904, 193.49; Arana Jr, 6.846, 197.36 def. Hines, 6.925, 193.02; Tonglet, 6.823, 196.22 def. Johnson, 6.962, 182.72; M. Smith, 6.876, 196.50 def. Berry, 6.916, 192.77;

SEMIFINALS — M. Smith, 6.872, 195.48 def. Pollacheck, 6.969, 186.30; Tonglet, 6.831, 195.08 def. Arana Jr, 6.863, 195.22;

FINAL — Tonglet, 6.824, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

POINT STANDINGS AFTER NORWALK:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence, 1,071; 2.  Leah Pritchett, 1,021; 3.  Antron Brown, 990; 4.  Tony Schumacher, 856; 5.  Doug Kalitta, 781; 6.  Brittany Force, 734; 7.  Clay Millican, 695; 8.  Terry McMillen, 477; 9.  (tie) Troy Coughlin Jr., 464; Scott Palmer, 464.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,095; 2.  Matt Hagan, 946; 3.  Jack Beckman, 855; 4.  Robert Hight, 809; 5.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 739; 6.  Courtney Force, 714; 7.  John Force, 683; 8.  Tim Wilkerson, 525; 9.  J.R. Todd, 508; 10.  Cruz Pedregon, 431.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner, 1,067; 2.  Greg Anderson, 941; 3.  Tanner Gray, 887; 4.  Jeg Coughlin, 820; 5.  Jason Line, 781; 6.  Erica Enders, 690; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 670; 8.  Drew Skillman, 575; 9.  Chris McGaha, 454; 10.  Allen Johnson, 448.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet, 480; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 389; 3.  Scotty Pollacheck, 325; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 322; 5.  Andrew Hines, 317; 6.  Hector Arana Jr, 314; 7.  Joey Gladstone, 278; 8.  Matt Smith, 256; 9.  Steve Johnson, 219; 10.  Karen Stoffer, 217.

 

Penske drivers lament missed victory at Road America (VIDEO)

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Team Penske dominated the entire Kohler Grand Prix weekend at Road America, twice going 1-2-3-4 over the three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday and then doing the same in qualifying, with Helio Castroneves taking pole from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud.

However, race day represented a missed opportunity. Though Castroneves led early, it was Newgarden who emerged as their best hope for victory following a spectacular outside pass on Castroneves entering turn 1 on lap 19. That put Newgarden in the lead, and he seemed to be in full control.

Still, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon had been stalking the Penske foursome all race long, and sat behind Newgarden in second for a lap 30 restart. With Newgarden on primary blacks and Dixon on alternate reds, Newgarden was somewhat of a sitting duck, and Dixon muscled his way into the lead with an equally spectacular outside pass in turn 1, with Newgarden briefly falling to third behind teammate Castroneves.

Josef Newgarden led several laps, but could not find his way around Dixon for the win. Photo: IndyCar

Although Newgarden regrouped, overtook Castroneves during the final pit stop sequence, and closed to within a second following a restart with seven laps remaining, he was never close enough to make a move for the win.

Even though the Team Penske drivers all finished in the top five, going 2-3-4-5 with Newgarden leading Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power, missing out on victory was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” Newgarden revealed in the post-race press conference.

He added that an ill-timed lap 28 caution for a spinning Takuma Sato ultimately put paid his chances of victory. “The caution didn’t fall our way. You can’t predict that stuff. It hurts when it comes at the wrong time. That’s pretty much what happened today. With (Tim Cindric calling the strategy), I feel confident with all our decisions, everything those guys do on the pit box. Things just didn’t fall our way today.”

For Castroneves, a slight error before his final pit stop saw him pit earlier than the team wanted, due to an alarm that went off in the cockpit. However, as he explained to NBCSN’s Marty Snider, it was of little consequence to the outcome of the race.

“We mentioned in the debrief that if in turn 14, the blue lights come on, you are to come right away. So I came in. I am sure they had a little buffer, and they knew what exactly was going on. (Race engineer Jonathan Diuguid) said keep going but I couldn’t quite understand him. But at the end of the day it didn’t cost us anything in terms of a win or second place.”

Still, the strong results see Pagenaud and Castroneves sit second and third in the championship, while Newgarden and Power sit fifth and sixth, respectively.

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F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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One of the crazier, most eventful Formula 1 races in recent memory took place at the Baku City Circuit today in Azerbajian.

That makes it a challenge to recap but it’s something NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, along with producer Jason Swales, attempt to do in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

You can see it below. Thursday’s pre-race edition is linked here. A full roundup of Sunday videos from Baku is linked here.

 

Bottas gives everything in Baku fightback from a lap down to P2

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Valtteri Bottas says he “gave it absolutely everything” after falling a lap down and running last early on in Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Baku before fighting back to finish second for Mercedes.

Bottas qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, but dropped back after contact with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2 on the opening lap, sustaining a puncture.

Bottas fell a lap down on the field immediately, but was waved past and able to get back onto the lead lap during the first safety car period.

From there, Bottas produced a stunning fightback, dodging the minefield of incidents through the race to eventually cross the line second after a drag race to the checkered flag with Williams’ Lance Stroll.

“Today was a crazy race, especially for me. I had a puncture on the first lap after the contact with Kimi on Lap 1,” Bottas said.

“I was a lap down, then had to overtake the field under the Safety Car. The second Safety Car after that really helped me out and, step by step, I moved forward from there.

“My main goal today was to fight for the win but that went out of the window after the first lap. I was actually last at one point, but I got my head down, gave it absolutely everything and tried to get the absolute maximum out of every single corner.

“We didn’t quite manage to win but P2 from where we were is a great feeling. Importantly for the team, we scored more points in the fight with Ferrari and I got some good points for myself as well.”

Bottas ultimately finished as Mercedes’ lead driver following Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop when his headrest came loose, resigning the Briton to fifth place at the checkered flag.