(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.”

Davidson would not turn down Jaguar Formula E drive

Anthony Davidson (GBR) 
Toyota Hybrid Racing
World Endurance Championship. 6 Hours of Bahrain. 18th-21st  November 2015. Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain.
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SPA – Anthony Davidson is open to a move into Formula E with Jaguar upon its entry to the championship later this year, but is yet to receive a serious offer from the British manufacturer.

Jaguar confirmed at the end of last year that it would be entering Formula E from the 2016-2017 season, and is expected to be competitive from the very beginning thanks to its relationship with championship battery supplier Williams.

As a result, the Jaguar seats are among the most coveted for the new season, leading to speculation that 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship winner and Toyota racer Davidson could become the latest driver to combine endurance racing duties with Formula E.

Davidson confirmed to NBC Sports that he’d be interested in doing so, but said he is yet to receive a serious approach.

“If I was approached seriously and wasn’t messed about by having to do a driver shoot-out or anything ridiculous like that, then maybe I would,” Davidson said.

“So far I haven’t had a serious approach. I would be up for it. I’m always up for racing in different cars, especially to drive a single-seater again would be nice, but it’s not high on my priority list at the moment.”

When asked by NBC Sports if a move to Jaguar would be of interest, Davidson confirmed that preliminary talks had been held but nothing had been firmed up.

“I got in touch, we were in touch. We had a chat and that’s about all that came from it,” Davidson said.

“I wouldn’t turn down an offer, let’s put it that way. But I’m not going to break a leg falling over myself to get into one.

“I’m 37 years old now. If I can’t sell myself now then there’s no point.

“If people don’t know what I’m capable of then that’s their loss.”

Verstappen never saw a reason to leave Red Bull setup

MILTON KEYNES, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Red Bull Racing arrives at the Red Bull Racing Factory on May 5, 2016 at the Red Bull Racing Factory, Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen says that he did not consider leaving the Red Bull setup for a rival before being promoted to the energy drink giant’s senior Formula 1 team.

Red Bull announced on Thursday that it would be swapping Verstappen, previously of Toro Rosso, with Daniil Kvyat in a bid to ease the pressure on the Russian following a disastrous Russian Grand Prix.

Verstappen has made a significant impact on F1 since making his debut with Toro Rosso last year at the age of 17, leading to speculation about a possible move away.

However, the Dutchman said that he never considered leaving Red Bull as he feels happy within its racing programme.

“To be honest, I was always very happy at Red Bull,” Verstappen said.

“I never saw reason to change and of course with this opportunity there is no reason to change so I’m happy to be here.

“It’s a great honor and it’s a top team and that’s where every driver wants to drive I think. I can’t wait to get started.”

Verstappen paid his first visit to Red Bull’s factory in Milton Keynes, England on Thursday to meet his new team, but says he has no expectations for the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix.

“I go there with no expectations to be honest,” Verstappen said.

“I just want to adapt to the car, understand it better and better every session and like I said before, study the data and see what my teammate is doing because the most important thing is to score points.

“Of course I’m driving for a top team now, but in the end you always try to do your best which is what I always try to do. For me, I don’t feel more pressure.”

Porsche sweeps to one-two in Spa WEC qualifying

Porsche 919 Hybrid, Porsche Team: Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, Mark Webber
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SPA – After seeing its streak of pole positions in the FIA World Endurance Championship end at Silverstone, Porsche bounced back in style by sweeping to an impressive one-two finish in qualifying for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.

Porsche debuted its low downforce aero kit in Spa on Friday to prepare for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, and it proved to be potent from the outset as the no. 1 car shared by Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard set the pace in qualifying.

Under unusually sunny skies at Spa, Hartley set the early pace despite reporting a clutch issue before Bernhard went faster still on his run, resulting in a two-lap average for the car of 1:55.793.

Porsche’s Silverstone-winning no. 2 car followed in P2 with Marc Lieb and Neel Jani sharing driving duties, albeit seven-tenths of a second down.

The battle for P3 between Toyota and Audi appears to be closer than ever at Spa, with just three-tenths of a second separating all four cars. Traffic for the Audis allowed the Toyotas to edge ahead, with the no. 6 car finishing third ahead of Audi’s no. 8. Toyota’s no. 5 followed in P5 ahead of the sister no. 7 Audi.

In LMP2, G-Drive Racing secured class pole thanks to Roman Rusinov and Rene Rast as their two-lap average was half a second clear of the field. The no. 36 Signatech Alpine team followed in P2, while Manor enjoyed a strong showing to get its cars third and fifth on the grid, with the Jota Sport-run no. 38 Gibson car splitting them.

GTE Pro’s qualifying saw the new Ferrari 488 GTEs excel once again as AF Corse stormed to a one-two in class with the no. 71 of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon taking pole. The duo claimed victory at Silverstone in their first race together, and managed to edge out the sister no. 51 Ferrari by three-tenths of a second in the first qualifying session.

Aston Martin Racing finished as the best of the rest with its no. 97 Vantage V8 slotting into P3 ahead of the two Ford GTs in fourth and fifth, both seven-tenths down on the pole time. Porsche struggled once again as the no. 77 911 RSR ailed to P7 in class, 2.3 seconds off the pace.

AMR made up for its GTE Pro qualifying defeat in GTE Am as the no. 98 car took pole by 1.8 seconds in the hands of Pedro Lamy and Paul Dalla Lana. AF Corse followed in a distant second place, while the Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR followed in third.

The 6 Hours of Spa kicks off at 2:30pm local time (8:30am ET) on Sunday.

For full results from Spa qualifying, click here.

Webber: Red Bull decision to drop Kvyat ‘harsh’ but not surprising

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16:  Mark Webber of Australia and Porsche Team 919 Hybrid talks to the media during previews the FIA World Endurance Championship Six Hours of Silverstone race at the Silverstone Circuit on April 16, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
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SPA – Ex-Formula 1 driver Mark Webber believes that Red Bull’s decision to drop Daniil Kvyat in favor of Max Verstappen is “harsh” but has been brewing for some time.

On Thursday, Red Bull announced that Verstappen would be moving up from junior team Toro Rosso to take Kvyat’s seat from the Spanish Grand Prix, with the Russian moving in the opposite direction.

Webber enjoyed a turbulent spell with Red Bull in F1 between 2007 and 2013, enjoying a particularly frosty relationship with team advisor Helmut Marko who was instrumental in the decision to promote Verstappen to the senior outfit.

Speaking at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps ahead of this weekend’s FIA World Endurance Championship race, Porsche driver Webber said he was not surprised by the call.

“It was probably on the cards even before Russia, so in a way you probably feel there was something brewing,” Webber said when asked about the decision by NBC Sports.

“They’ve done it. And let’s see if Max can break Red Bull records again. He’s got no choice [to be ready]. He has to be ready.

“[Kvyat has] had a year and 30% there in terms of time. They don’t believe that he’s done enough. In their eyes he hasn’t done enough and they see that one other guy is doing enough.

“Normally you wait until the end of the year but obviously you know that doesn’t happen sometimes, particularly with Red Bull. They change it whenever they feel – bang.

“Helmut just wants performance. He wants to put the fastest guys in the best scenario as quick as possible.

“People just say that the mistakes that Dany made, it was off the back of that, but obviously it was probably accumulating to a point where they were not overly happy with his performance in the build-up.”

Webber said that he felt it was harsh on Kvyat, but believes that part of the move was a ploy by Red Bull to ensure that Verstappen is tied down to them for longer and prevent rivals from signing him for the 2017 season.

“Yeah, I feel it’s harsh but it’s a big business and things move fast and I think also again getting ahead of the ’17 market a bit, making sure everything’s ready,” Webber said.

“It’ll be a complete non-topic in six months as usual in F1, even three months. Everyone moves on.

“In Formula 1 you have nowhere to hide.”