(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.”

IMSA: Corvette Racing’s 100th win highlights Lime Rock winners

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Starworks Motorsport, Corvette Racing and Magnus Racing returned to the top of their respective classes in Saturday’s Northeast Grand Prix for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the two-hour, 40-minute race at the picturesque but tight and occasionally controversial 1.53-mile Lime Rock Park.

Starworks’ pair of Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande won their third race in the last four in the Peter Baron-led Prototype Challenge team’s No. 8 Oreca FLM09, coincidentally all having come since the car switched to a white, red and silver livery.

The pair dominated the race and won overall from PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, which won this race last year.

Van der Zande held on despite a furious late-race charge from PR1’s Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 car, who shared his car with Robert Alon. Kimber-Smith got nearly to van der Zande’s rear wing but was balked in traffic before the start of the final lap.

The finish of the race was cleaner than the start, which was aborted twice after a pair of incidents.

“Alex did a crazy job in the beginning, P4 to P2 after getting hit twice on the start, then the crew did a fantastic job to get me up front. It looked easier than it was! It was a helluva time getting through traffic,” van der Zande told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

GT Le Mans saw Corvette Racing return to the top for the first time since the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, with Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin leading a 1-2 finish in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R over Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in the No. 3 Corvette.

The win also delivers Corvette Racing its 100th win overall as a team, after being stuck on 99 since Sebring.

“What a job today from these guys – Olly and the whole crew. We had some great wins, then had some struggles. What a way to get 100, with 1-2 for the team, it’s so special,” Milner told Adam.

“Ordinarily we would share the victory between the engineering, crew, drivers… but today the engineers and crew guys did their work, today it’s in the drivers’ hands, at Lime Rock Park, this track, the drivers earned it today,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan told Adam.

“Any victory is pretty cool. When you’ve got 99 of them, but 100, who would have ever thought? This is a testament to what this team is capable of doing. With the intense heat, it worked out that way.”

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, which had won the last three races in GTLM dating to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in early May, ended third with Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe driving. Briscoe and Giancarlo Fisichella had late race contact, which took the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE out of a podium spot. Fisichella shared his car with Toni Vilander.

Questionable racecraft occurred elsewhere in class with both BMWs hit during the race, the second incident coming at the downhill, when Earl Bamber (Porsche) hit Dirk Werner (BMW) in a heavy accident. The other BMW, driven by John Edwards, was hit just after the scheduled start.

GT Daytona witnessed an incredible run from Andy Lally in the final half hour of the race, delivering an incredible charge through the field in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS he shared with John Potter to win at a track that’s been a perpetual thorn in Magnus’ side.

“John was on it all weekend. This is so special – these guys worked so hard after the wreck at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Lars planned the setup, we dialed like 80 degrees of wing into this thing, and it stuck,” Lally told FOX’s Justin Bell.

The No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS of Andrew Davis and Robin Liddell was second with the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R third of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen; Bleekemolen finished the race despite a busted diffuser.

Five drivers avoid Hungary grid drops over 107% rule

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands drives the 6 Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez have all avoided grid drops for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix despite failing to lap within 107% of the fastest time in Q1.

During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday, 11 drivers fell outside of the 107% time requied to qualify for the race in a session affected by rain and red flags.

Many were unable to post a late lap time while others improved dramatically on intermediate tires, causing laps to reach as much as 118%.

All six drivers who were eliminated in Q1 were outside of the required time, as were Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez. The latter quintet took part in Q2 as they had got into the top 16, with all bar Perez making it through to Q3.

Ricciardo and Verstappen qualified third and fourth for Red Bull, while Hulkenberg and Bottas were P9 and P10 in Q3.

Teams are ordinarily required to submit a request to the FIA stewards to race if their drivers fall outside the qualifying time.

A request by Renault for Kevin Magnussen was accepted, with the final line of the document reading: “As there is more than one driver that failed to set a qualifying time within 107% of the fastest time in Q1, the cars will be arranged on the grid in the order they were classified in P3.”

However, it now transpires that this will only apply to those eliminated in Q1, with the FIA confirming that due to “exceptional circumstances” Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez will not drop back. All keep their qualifying positions.

The 107% rule was re-introduced in 2011 to prevent drivers from going too slowly in qualifying, requiring them to finish within 7% of the fastest time in Q1.

The rule was last enforced at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix when HRT drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan were not allowed to take part in the race.

Since then, the 107% rule has been triggered but not enforced. For example, drivers who crash out in Q1 and do not set a time come into it, but are ordinarily given permission to race if they have set a competitive time in free practice.

Rosberg called before stewards over Hungary pole lap

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg has been called to see the FIA race stewards over his pole position lap during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Rosberg’s final Q3 lap saw him edge out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for pole position by 0.143 seconds, but was partially completed under double-waved yellow flags shown following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Rosberg was adamant after the session that he lifted enough, and the stewards did not initially investigate it.

However, over three-and-a-half hours after qualifying was completed, Rosberg has now been called in over a possible failure to slow for yellow flags during his Q3 lap.

Rosberg will meet with the stewards at 19:45 local time in Hungary (13:45 ET).

The majority of drivers completing their final laps at the end of Q3 were forced to abort their efforts in response to Alonso’s spin.

Double-waved yellows require drivers to “slow down and be prepared to stop”. Although Rosberg arrived at the scene later than most, he still only lifted, not appearing to slow enough so that he could stop, thus prompting the stewards to investigate.

UPDATE: No penalty for Rosberg after stewards’ meeting

The FIA stewards have confirmed that Rosberg has been cleared of failing to slow for yellow flags on his final Q3 lap, meaning he keeps pole position for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

“The telemetry demonstrated that the driver reduced speed significantly into Turn 8,” a statement from the stewards read.

Rosberg confident he lifted enough during Hungary pole lap

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, of Germany, smiles as he celebrates after setting the pole position during the qualifying session for Sunday's Formula One Hungary Grand Prix, at the Hungaroring racetrack, in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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Nico Rosberg is confident that he slowed down enough to respect the yellow flags during his pole position lap for the Hungarian Grand Prix in qualifying on Saturday.

Rosberg edged out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to score pole at the Hungaroring by 0.143 seconds, his final lap being completed partly under yellow flags following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Drivers are required to slow under yellows, with those who first came across Alonso’s car being forced to abandon their final flying laps altogether as a result.

Alonso had cleared his car by the time Rosberg came to Turn 5, although yellow flags were still being shown, leading to questions about the validity of the German’s time.

“For sure there were double waved [yellows] yeah, but I had a very, very big lift and lost a lot of time as a result,” Rosberg explained.

“I was also slower than on my previous lap in that yellow sector, or in that yellow segment, or whatever it’s called, so I’m sure it will be OK.”

Speaking to NBCSN after qualifying, Rosberg re-affirmed his belief that he had slowed down enough.

“Yeah for sure,” Rosberg said when asked if he did enough.

“I know what I need to do. I did a big lift, so I handled it according to what needed to be done, so it will be OK.”

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.