(Photo courtesy:  TommyJohnsonJr.com)

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.”

Sebastian Vettel dismisses suggestion he could replace Rosberg at Mercedes

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP is congratulated by Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari on the podium during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel has brushed off suggestions that he could take Nico Rosberg’s vacant Formula 1 seat at Mercedes next year, saying his focus lies on working with Ferrari to improve on their 2016 season.

Rosberg sensationally announced on Friday that he would be retiring from F1 with immediate effect, just five days after winning his maiden World Championship.

Rosberg’s move has sent the driver market into a late flux, with Mercedes’ Niki Lauda claiming that half of the F1 grid has been in touch regarding the seat despite many of them having contracts.

Vettel has been named as a possible candidate for Rosberg’s seat despite having one year remaining on his Ferrari deal, but when speaking at the Finali Mondiali at Daytona International Speedway, the German stressed he is focused on his current commitments at Maranello.

“I think it’s no secret the fact that me and Kimi Raikkonen have a contract for next season,” Vettel is quoted as saying by La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“Kimi and I are already committed. In 2017 we will be competitive.

“We have not reached the goal this year, but now it will be important to do the job at the factory in the next two months.

“I am confident that we will definitely present an improved package.”

Vettel signed off with a message to Rosberg, wishing the retiring champion “happy holidays!”

Vettel finished 2016 fourth in the drivers’ championship without a win to his name as Ferrari struggled to keep up with Mercedes and Red Bull in the pecking order.

Mercedes is set to begin its search for a replacement on Monday, with the other big-name driver besides Vettel linked to the seat being McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

Should Mercedes want to promote one of its junior drivers, Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon are both also available, although neither has more than a season of F1 experience.

Hamilton not chasing number one status at Mercedes after Rosberg exit

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says he is not chasing number one driver status at Mercedes as the team begins its search for a replacement for Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg.

Rosberg edged out Hamilton for the F1 drivers’ championship in Abu Dhabi last Sunday before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from the sport five days later.

Mercedes has said it will take its time when looking for a replacement for Rosberg, with the majority of the F1 grid tied up contractually for 2017.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel have both been linked with the Mercedes drive in the wake of Rosberg’s departure, leading to questions about whether Hamilton would want another big-name star alongside him.

Mercedes has always stressed that it does not have a number one driver, and Hamilton said that he would not insist on that changing when his new teammate arrives.

“I’ve never been a driver to ever request that,” Hamilton said when asked about number one status.

“I know a lot of the other drivers Sebastian, Fernando make sure that’s in their contract.

“I’ve just always asked to have equal rights. As long as we’re treated fairly, it doesn’t really matter who’s alongside you.

“But of course, we’ve got great team bosses, who I’m sure will choose the right people to be representing the brand.”

Whoever replaces Rosberg will become Hamilton’s fifth teammate in F1, the Briton having previously worked with Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button during his time at McLaren before joining Mercedes in 2013.

Rosberg: Hamilton’s late-season form ‘the best Lewis I’ve ever seen’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo neads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg believes that Lewis Hamilton produced some of the best performances of his career towards the end of the 2016 Formula 1 season when the Briton had nothing to lose in the championship fight.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ championship by five points in Abu Dhabi last Sunday, defeating Hamilton for the first time during their time as teammates.

Rosberg closed out the season with four straight second place finishes, with Hamilton’s run of victories in the same period not being enough to catch up in the standings.

Speaking in a video produced by Mercedes after his championship win, Rosberg said that he felt the most pressure after his final win of the season in Japan, the result that meant he could wrap up the title without taking another victory.

“The changing moment was Suzuka for me, when all of a sudden I had the 33-point lead and that meant it was in my hands, and it’s mine to lose, because it was enough to do second-second-second and third,” Rosberg said.

“That’s when really the pressure started for me because it became real, the chance to win the championship and to beat Lewis. It was real.”

Rosberg was only assured of the title when he crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi, with Hamilton going deliberately slow in a bid to back the German into the chasing pack.

“Abu Dhabi was intense. It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a race car,” Rosberg said.

“Even qualifying, the laps in qualifying, not easy really. And for sure it has an impact on your performance. It’s not possible that you do the same performance as if you’re in Lewis’ position where he has nothing to lose.”

Rosberg believes that the lack of pressure brought the very best out of Hamilton, as he closed out the campaign with four consecutive victories from pole position.

“That’s why he got the pole positions and why I was second in the last couple of races because he’s free, has no weight and nothing to lose,” Rosberg said.

“It was the best Lewis I’ve ever seen, the last few races, because not only was he completely free, but also the most determined and motivated ever, working as hard as ever.

“[It was] massively difficult to beat him in those circumstances.”

Rosberg announced on Friday that he would be retiring from racing with immediate effect, meaning we have likely seen the last of his rivalry with Hamilton in F1.

Lewis Hamilton escapes punishment for defying Mercedes team orders in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP prepares for the race on the grid  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton will face no punishment for defying team orders from Mercedes during the Formula 1 title decider in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Hamilton took his fourth straight win and 10th of the season at the Yas Marina Circuit last Sunday, but fell five points short of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the final drivers’ championship standings.

In a bid to make Rosberg lose places, Hamilton slowed the pack down in Abu Dhabi, causing concern on the Mercedes pit wall as Sebastian Vettel threatened to snatch victory away.

Hamilton ignored several calls from the Mercedes pit wall to pick up the pace, risking disciplinary action from the team after going against its orders.

However, Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda has confirmed that Hamilton will not be punished and that the team has moved on from the incident.

“There is no need to say anything to Lewis,” Lauda told The Mail on Sunday.

“We have no problem about how he raced in Abu Dhabi. We have drawn a line under it.”

Mercedes’ more pressing concern at the moment is finding a replacement for Rosberg after the German’s shock decision to retire from racing with immediate effect.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes runs for another two years, and without erstwhile rival Rosberg to battle against, is the early favorite for the championship in 2017.