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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Eli Tomac’s near-perfect season ended perfectly

ProMotocross.com
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From the start, Eli Tomac wanted to go into the season-ending race at Ironman Raceway with the 2020 red plate already in his possession. That final race has been know to devolve into muddy conditions and it is best not to leave things to chance.

For a rider with an almost perfect record of overall podium finishes, one would not have thought there would be much drama at the end of Round 11 at Budds Creek, but it took until the last lap of the final moto for Tomac to achieve his goal.

One reason was that Tomac’s near-perfect season was not so perfect. From the very beginning at Hangtown, Tomac struggled with poor starts to his events. Getting a bad jump out of the gate and finishing fourth in Moto 1 that weekend was not the auspicious beginning he wanted in search of his third consecutive 450 outdoor championship.

The hallmark of Tomac’s season has been overcoming bad starts. He rode through the field at Hangtown and nearly stood on the podium. Then he won Moto 2 and finished second overall. It was his first of nine consecutive overall podiums. Tomac came back the following week for a perfect sweep at Pala.

In Round 3, Tomac once again got off to a bad start. He finished fifth in Moto 1 at Thunder Valley – and then won Moto 2 in a duplication of his opening round.

In Round 5, Tomac had his worst performance until that time. He finished seventh in Moto 1. Nearly halfway through the season, a pattern was firmly established with his Moto 2 win.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

One should recall that the hallmark of Tomac’s season was strong finishes. Four the next four weeks Tomac failed to podium only one time in a moto. On that occasion, he would stumble in Moto 2 at Spring Creek in Round 8 before scoring his second perfect race at Washougal.

And that is where it got interesting. Tomac left Washougal with a 50-point advantage over Marvin Musquin. It was just the scenario Tomac had seesawed his way through the season to achieve. But it was too good to be true.

In most of his previous bad performances, there was an extenuating circumstance for Tomac’s bad start: a fall or an off course excursion. This time, he simply rode an uninspired race and finished seventh again to match his worst single moto performance. He could not fully rebound in Moto 2 and finished third.

For the first time in 2019, Tomac failed to stand on the overall podium in fourth. Worse still, he lost 10 points to Musquin and no longer had his one-race cushion.

But this is a season of recovery for Tomac. At Budds Creek last week it was reported that Tomac’s lackluster performance in Washington was due to his overdoing his chores on his Colorado ranch. Rested and restored, Tomac scored his third perfect race with Moto 1 & 2 wins. And this time, he looked sharper than he had in any previous race.

Tomac did all the could do by winning both motos, but in the closing laps at Budds Creek he needed a little help to clinch the title. As it turned out, Tomac needed the perfect performance to clinch his third consecutive championship.

In Moto 1, he narrowly edged Ken Roczen and Musquin, to give the three championship contenders a sweep of the top three spots; that was not enough to regain his cushion.

Roczen was close enough to force Tomac into The Ironman needing to score points to permanently affix the red plate on his Kawasaki in 2020, but just as Tomac’s season has been marked by second half improvements, Roczen’s has been marred by a lack of performance in the second motos.

Musquin passed Roczen late in Moto 2 last week and could have extended the drama one more week if he could have caught second-place Jason Anderson. Musquin could not erase an 11-second deficit to the runner-up and now Tomac’s almost perfect season has a distinctly perfect feel to it.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

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