Photo: Tommy Johnson Jr. official Twitter page

NHRA: Tommy Johnson Jr. looks to keep consistency streak going in Phoenix

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For NHRA Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr., in a way, 50 is the new 20.

It was 30 years ago this weekend that the Ottumwa, Iowa native made his first appearance in a Top Fuel dragster in a NHRA national event at the former Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Arizona (suburban Phoenix), now known as Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

The now-50-year-old Johnson returns to the Grand Canyon State for this weekend’s Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Arizona Nationals, the second race on the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event schedule. And even though he now drives a Funny Car, he’s still looking to make it a momentous anniversary, indeed.

You can definitely see where being a veteran and having experience pays off,” said Johnson, who has 17 career wins across both Top Fuel and Funny Car. “I want to use that now.

“I think it’s all about maintaining focus throughout the year. It’s a long season and you can’t let the lows get you down or let the highs distract you. That comes from years of experience. When you’ve been there and done that, it helps keep you on track. Being a veteran, it gives you a whole different mindset on racing.”

Johnson, who now lives in suburban Indianapolis, has had a noteworthy racing career. He comes into this weekend having made over 400 national event starts. That includes stints driving for NHRA legends Kenny Bernstein, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs and current boss, Don Schumacher.

Johnson hopes to go one step further than he did in last year’s early-season race in Phoenix, when he finished runner-up. He also won there earlier in his career.

Now, after finishing third in the Funny Car final standings last season (and did so despite going winless in 24 races) and ending up runner-up in the final race of the 2018 season, Johnson picked up where he left off with a strong start already in 2019, reaching the semifinals in the season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals two weeks ago.

His team made very few changes during the offseason and it showed in the season-opener. Now, Johnson is ready to claim his first win since the final race of 2017.

It speaks well to the consistency of our tune-up and we’re racing better earlier in the year than we ever have,” Johnson said. “We made minimal changes as far as what we did in the off-season and came out and ran well.

“For our confidence level, that’s tremendous. We ended the season on a really high note and to continue that after a long break, that’s pretty important.”

Having qualified No. 3 two weeks ago in Pomona, California, Johnson understands how significant it is to have as strong of a start to the season as possible – and to continue moving forward with equally strong showings or better in the next several races.

Because it’s a long 24-race season, the more ground he gain can early on, the more it may ultimately help him heading into the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

History shows it’s hard to keep your performance all season, but it’s definitely easier if you have it right away than it is to try and find it,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there will be a point in the season where we have to get back on track, but our focus is trying to maintain this.

“To get into a flow right off the bat is big, and to have a car that runs well no matter the conditions is super encouraging.”

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Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.