Tommy Johnson Jr. is thrilled to be back driving in a full-time role, and he’s pleased with the progress he’s made through the first three races of a loaded Funny Car class in the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
But don’t mistake pleased with satisfied; Johnson is thinking big even as this season marks the first time since 2008 that he will drive full time in Funny Car. His expectations match the power produced by his 8,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger, and the Don Schumacher Racing driver is honed in on showing even more improvement at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, which takes place this weekend at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and is the fourth of 24 events in 2014.
Sixth in Funny Car points, Johnson has started 2014 strong, advancing to the semifinals in Phoenix. But being content is not on Johnson’s radar.
“It all came back pretty quickly,” said Johnson, who has nine victories in 22 final-round appearances and is a member of an exclusive club of 15 drivers in NHRA history who have won Wallys in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Johnson raced full time on the circuit from 2001 to 2008 but since then has been mostly on the sidelines working diligently to get back in the driver’s seat. He kept a high profile around the pit area by doing various jobs, most notably serving as a track-condition specialist for Don Schumacher Racing. During the last two years, he made limited starts as a driver for various teams.
“The biggest thing is probably that the cars accelerate a little harder on the top end than they used to, but that hasn't been too difficult to adjust to,” Johnson continued. “Every run I get more comfortable, and three races in, I feel like I'm doing pretty good. I'm probably back to 90 percent. I set the bar pretty high for myself, so it's going to take a lot to make up that last 10 percent.”
A year ago, Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) won the event that will again be televised on ESPN2. T.J., who scored his last victory in 2007 in Englishtown, will be even more comfortable in Las Vegas given his strong history at one of the crown-jewel venues on the NHRA Mello Yello Series circuit, winning in 2001 and advancing to three final rounds at the famed facility.
“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to going to Vegas because of the history I've had there,” Johnson said. “You have a lot of tracks where you have success for unknown reasons, and Vegas is one of those tracks for me. It just seems to happen for me there, and I always like going to that track. I would love nothing more than to return and get that first win for the Make-A-Wish team. Things have been good, but there is nothing like a win.
“Our confidence is pretty high going there. We were able to test in Las Vegas before the Winternationals, and the car ran extremely well there, so we already have a baseline for that track. It also gave me the opportunity to make a few runs down that particular racetrack, so I'm excited to go there.”
The difficult part comes from finding a comfort level on the fly against a field that has become markedly tighter, quicker, and faster in recent seasons. This season is a perfect example, though everyone is chasing legendary Funny Car driver John Force, who holds the points lead and is coming off his 16th world championship in 2013.
Other title contenders include Robert Hight, who has won four times in Vegas and posted a victory at the most recent event in Gainesville; Ron Capps with a class-best five wins at The Strip; defending race winner Pedregon, who has three Vegas wins; Courtney Force; Jack Beckman; Del Worsham; Bob Tasca III; and Alexis DeJoria, who earned her first victory in Phoenix.
It has all added up to one of the tightest Funny Car fields in history, which Johnson noticed immediately upon returning to full-time driving.
“The class, as a whole, is about as strong as it's ever been,” Johnson said. “Qualifying is close, and on race day, you have to be almost perfect to get that victory. Pro Stock used to be the most competitive class and the closest, but nowadays, Funny Car and Top Fuel are right there with them. It's as competitive as it has ever been.”
One major aspect that could help Johnson make even greater strides is John Collins recently being named the full-time crew chief for the team. After having a number of DSR team members help throughout the first three races, officially inserting Collins as the crew chief could bring additional stability to the team. Johnson believes it will have a profound effect starting as early as this weekend in Vegas.
“Having a full-time crew chief and it being John Collins is very comforting,” Johnson said. “It’s just nice to know that there is one guy dedicated to this car now and things won't get missed. It gives me a lot of confidence, and as John's own confidence builds, the Make-A-Wish team will get better and better.”
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds and enjoy cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food, and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins Friday, March 28, with sessions at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, March 29, at 1:10 and 4:50 p.m. The K&N Horsepower Challenge will run at 1, 3:45, and 4:45 p.m. Saturday. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, March 30.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to www.LVMS.com or call Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 800-664-4444. General-admission tickets for children 12 and younger are free with any paid adult ticket.