NHRA: It took 35 years, but Tommy Johnson Jr. finally gets elusive Denver win

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From now on, whenever someone looks up the definition of the word “persistence” in a dictionary, a photo of NHRA Funny Car drag racer Tommy Johnson Jr. should be alongside.

For 35 years, Johnson has sought to get a do-over of one of the toughest losses in his career, something that gnawed at him. It was back in 1984 at Bandimere Speedway in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colorado, that a 15-year-old fresh-faced kid from Ottumwa, Iowa, reached the final round of the Super Gas category, but fell short of victory.

It was the first final round appearance (in any of the four classes he’s raced in) in what would become a lengthy and successful drag racing career.

Still, no matter how hard he tried in all the subsequent appearances he made at Bandimere over the next 3 1/2 decades, Johnson could never avenge — nor forget — that first final round loss.

He would go on to reach the final round a total of four times over the ensuing years at Denver – including finishing runner-up in the 2017 Funny Car race there – but every time Johnson looked at his trophy case, a Bandimere winner’s trophy was still missing.

Even if he had a road map, every time Johnson – who now lives in suburban Indianapolis – tried to go through four elimination rounds at every race at the mile-high drag strip, he wound up being detoured by faster opponents.

That is, until Sunday.

Johnson, who drives the aptly appropriate Make-A-Wish Funny Car, finally saw his own wish come true, capturing the Dodge Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere.

 

When Johnson climbed out of his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, 35 years of frustration, angst and disappointment was finally lifted off his shoulders.

With a face charged with emotion, Johnson had finally finished what he started and got his Rocky Mountain high in the process, you might say.

“Winning races is great, but winning the Dodge Mile-High Nationals, to me today, is my biggest victory ever,” Johnson said. “Thirty-five years ago, in 1984 when I was a kid, I got runner-up.

“I got runner-up three more times in three different categories. I wanted to win this race so bad, and I did it in my Dodge Charger Hellcat today. I knew we had a great race car and if we could control it on the track with the sun being out, we’d be good.

“The team did a great job. We’re so much of a better team than we have been in the past and we’ve really grown as a team.”

Johnson defeated, in order, Jeff Diehl, Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman and Cruz Pedregon in the first three elimination rounds Sunday.

Then, when it counted the most, Johnson (4.102 seconds at 308.50 mph) defeated Bob Tasca III (4.158 seconds at 302.14 mph) to take home the “Wally” winner’s trophy (below) he had coveted for so long. Johnson is now 8-0 vs. Tasca in head-to-head round meetings over the years.

After recording a Denver career-best run (3.978 seconds at 317.72 mph) during Saturday’s qualifying, Johnson and his team was locked, loaded and ready for victory on Sunday.

“It wasn’t easy today, we had some close ones,” Johnson said. “Beckman was right there, Tasca was right there in the final. We struggled on Friday (first two rounds of qualifying), like a lot of teams, and we felt pretty confident that Saturday (final two qualifying rounds) would be okay.

Photo: Don Schumacher Racing

“We had a nice get-down-the-track run on Q3, but last night we made a great run (3.978 seconds, 317.72 mph), my quickest and fastest ever up on the mountain, and that gave John (Collins, crew chief), Rip (Reynolds, assistant crew chief) and the guys a ton of confidence.

“They did a great job. We’re a much better team than we have been in the past and we’ve really grown as a team.”

Not only was the win – his second of the 2019 season and 19th of his Funny Car career – personally gratifying, it also was pivotal in a big way for Johnson. He made a big jump upward in the NHRA Funny Car point standings, climbing to No. 2 in the rankings, now just 49 points behind points leader Robert Hight.

“This has been the best season ever, and I think we’re just getting started,” Johnson said.

NOTES:

  • Defending champion Steve Torrence won his eighth Top Fuel race of the season and tied legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for No. 8 on the NHRA Top Fuel all-time national event wins list (35). Other winners were Greg Anderson in Pro Stock, who earned his first victory in a year, and Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
  • 16-time champion John Force has quietly been moving up in the Funny Car standings and leaves Denver in third place. The 70-year-old Force has yet to win this season, but he’s definitely knocking on the door. When he finally knocks that door down, it will be yet another milestone in Force’s illustrious legacy: the 150th Funny Car triumph of his career.
  • With 14 races of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule now in the books, four races remain before the start of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
  • The second of the three-race “Western Swing” is this weekend (July 26-28), with the NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway, north of San Francisco.

Here are videos of the final winning rounds in Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle:

 

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Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”