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.”

Penske, Roush voted into NASCAR Hall of Fame, but earned first success in other forms of motorsports

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Roger Penske and Jack Roush, who both began their own racing and team ownership careers — in open-wheel and sports car competition for Penske and drag racing and sports cars for Roush — were named Wednesday to the 2019 induction class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The duo will join Jeff Gordon and the late Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki when the 2019 Class is formally inducted into the Hall on February 1, 2019, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

MORE: Jeff Gordon leads 2019 Hall of Fame class

While they’re being honored for their success in NASCAR, here are some of the highlights of both Penske’s and Roush’s highly-successful careers, including outside of NASCAR, as well:

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Penske, 81, has been involved in motorsports for over six decades. He began racing at the age of 19 in 1958 and quickly became a prolific presence behind the wheel.

However, his driving career lasted just seven years until he retired in 1965 to concentrate on building both his business empire, as well as established Penske Racing (later renamed Team Penske) in 1966, making its debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona (now known as the Rolex 24 Hours).

The most notable success Penske has earned as a team owner is a record 16 Indianapolis 500 victories between 1972 (Mark Donohue won) and 2015 (Juan Pablo Montoya).

Penske has four drivers entered in this Sunday’s Indy 500: 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, 2016 IndyCar champ Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, who is attempting to win a fourth 500, which would tie him for most wins in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Being named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame adds another honor to a lengthy list of milestones for Penske, including induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1998), the Motorsports Hall of Fame (1995) of America, Auto Racing Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame (2015).

Team Penske has won 200 Indy car races (most recent win was Will Power’s triumph on May 12 in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis), as well as 10 USAC open-wheel championships, as well as three IndyCar Series titles.

He also has 108 NASCAR Cup (including two Daytona 500s) and 65 Xfinity Series wins as a team owner, as well as one championship in each series, including the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski.

In total, Team Penske’s has earned 489 major race wins across all series and 556 poles. Included are wins in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

He also was an early owner of Michigan International Speedway and led construction of Auto Club Speedway. He was also involved in the operation of several other facilities including Nazareth Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and North Carolina Speedway.

Here are some comments from some of Penske’s current and former IndyCar drivers on his induction into NASCAR’s shrine:

Rick Mears (Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, three-time INDYCAR Champion, 29 INDYCAR wins): “It’s been an incredible relationship between myself and Roger since day one. Roger never pressured me from the moment I met him. There was never a time he came and said ‘you need to do this.’ He always let me do things at my pace. He never pressured me to be a great driver up front. He let me learn at my pace. And that is the type of person Roger Penske is.

“This is an incredible honor for someone who has been such a big part of my life, and the lives of so many within the racing industry. It’s not always about race wins and championships, but the type of influence you are able to have on people. Roger has always prided himself on his people. He will be the first to tell you he would never be where he is now without the people he had around him.  And that humility and humbleness is what makes him a great leader. I am really excited for him and for this honor. To be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame is something that is so deserving of so many people, but very few are more deserving for what they have done for the sport and for so many people within the sport than Roger Penske.”

Sam Hornish Jr. (2006 Indianapolis 500 Champion, 2006 INDYCAR Champion, 3 NASCAR XFINITY Series wins): “For me, driving for Roger Penske was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. You know he’s going to give you the tools to win and you want to hold up your end of the bargain. There’s a great amount of desire that takes place for someone to be a NASCAR team owner and it takes an even larger commitment of the most precious resource: time. There shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame that doesn’t have him in it and it’s without question that he should be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.”

Josef Newgarden (2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, current series point leader): “Congrats to Roger on this achievement. He is a legend in so many aspects of motorsports, so it is only natural for him to receive this kind of recognition in NASCAR as well. It has always been a team effort for Roger and that has spread across all of his motorsports platforms.  For me, it is fun to keep up with what the NASCAR teams are doing. I have always been a fan of that style of racing so it is great to see Roger get recognized for all the time and energy he has put into that part of Team Penske.”

Simon Pagenaud (2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, 7 IndyCar Series wins): “Congratulations to Roger on such a great honor. I don’t know if he fully understands everything he has done for our sport of auto racing. All of us drivers can’t thank him enough for being such an incredible man for motorsports, for the history that he’s built and the empire around racing that is Team Penske. Thank you Roger for everything you’ve done and what an honor.”

Will Power (2014 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, 30 IndyCar Series wins): “Congratulations to Roger for his election into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s a very deserving honor for someone who has meant so much for motorsports and for me personally in my career. His accomplishments in NASCAR are certainly impressive and there’s no question that he’s established a legacy there from his time as a driver to owning and managing successful racetracks to all the production on the track as a team owner. I feel so privileged to drive for Roger and for Team PenskeHe represents everything that you think about when you consider a Hall of Famer.”

Helio Castroneves (Longest-tenured Team Penske driver, 32 total wins, 53 total poles): “If there was ever a person that deserved to be inducted into any racing Hall of Fame it would be Roger Penske. He deserves it not only for what he has done in motorsports but also for the person he is. He is a leader for all of us and someone I have always admired throughout my career. Congratulations, Roger, on your induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It has been such an honor to drive for you during my career. I hope to give you many more race wins in the future.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (2015 Indianapolis 500 Champion, Acura Team Penske driver): “I think Roger’s election into the NASCAR Hall of Fame is something that people expect. Everything that Roger has done, not only in NASCAR, but in racing in general has been amazing. He has been an enormous influence in motorsports all over the world. For me personally I just want to give him a huge congratulations on this honor. I am very proud to be a part of this organization and everything Roger and the team stands for.”

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Jack Roush, 76, is NASCAR’s winningest all-time owner.

He was previously inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (2008) and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (2010).

Before he achieved success in NASCAR, Roush was first known for his success as a both a driver and then team owner in NHRA, IHRA and AHRA drag racing events in the 1960s through the early 1980s.

He moved into the world of sports cars, including the IMSA Camel GT series in the early 1980s, a tenure that continued into the early 1990s, as well as the Trans-Am Series.

He began competition in NASCAR in 1988 when he founded a Cup team with Mark Martin as his driver. Martin was inducted last year into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Jack Roush’s and Mark Martin’s paths to induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame began together in 1988. (Photo courtesy Roush Fenway Racing)

It’s in NASCAR that Roush has achieved the most success, with a NASCAR record 325 wins across NASCAR Cup, the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series.

He’s also won six championships across those three series.

Like Penske, Roush is also highly successful not only in racing, but also in business, with much of his corporate empire encompassing performance products and services.

Follow @JerryBonkowski