For whatever reason, this time of year has usually been very good for Tommy Johnson Jr. After snapping a string of four straight first-round losses in Epping, the Funny Car standout hopes he can rely on another hot start to the summer during the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
Johnson Jr. went to two final rounds and posted one win last June. This season he has his sights set on something big in his 10,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T during a stretch of four straight race weekends. That includes doing well at the upcoming 48th annual NHRA Summernationals, June 8-11 at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, a race he won in 2007.
“This is usually the stretch where this team turns it on,” said Johnson Jr., who is currently seventh in Funny Car points. “It’s a good time of the year for our team and seems to be where we shine. We seem to do well when we have the hot conditions and we seem to adapt to those hot tracks really well. You can grab a lot of momentum of these four races. (Points leader Ron) Capps showed what you can do over a four-race stretch, and now we want to try to win four in a row in four weeks.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including finals coverage starting at 6:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, June 11. It is the tenth of 24 events during a 2017 season that has been challenging for Johnson Jr. and his talented team.
As he watched Don Schumacher Racing teammate and reigning world champ Capps win four straight races, Johnson Jr. had been mired in a four-race slump. He picked up a round win in Epping over J.R. Todd, and is looking to build on that in Englishtown. Some of it was expected, as the team has made big changes following an early-season win in Las Vegas, but Johnson believes his group is on the verge of turning things around.
“We went in a different direction with how we tuned the car and we did that to put us in a better position when the (Mello Yello) Countdown (to the Championship) comes,” Johnson Jr. said. “We were able to try different stuff and we’re close to getting what we’re looking for. Sometimes you sacrifice a few races, but I think it will pay off in the long run. It can be tough on everyone, but as a driver you go up and try to do your best every run. It’s so close to performing how it should be.”
Johnson Jr., though, knows the importance of a strong summer and entering the Countdown to the Championship on a good note. He won two of the six playoff races last year, but couldn’t make up enough ground down the stretch to catch Capps, finishing a career-best second. The goal is to improve upon the seventh spot he started the Countdown in 2016 and that means doing well at the iconic Summernationals, where Johnson Jr. posted one of his most incredible wins 10 years ago.
“We learned a valuable lesson last year not starting high enough in the Countdown,” Johnson Jr. said. “We want to be in the top 3-4 spots to have a good shot at it. You ultimately won to win a championship and I feel like this team is capable of doing it. In your career, you need that Englishtown win with the tradition at that race. Probably the most memorable win I’ve ever had was there in 2007. I burned the car to the ground in the first round and we weren’t expected to come back, and we went on to win the race. It was a storybook script.”
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 3:45 and 6:15 p.m. on Friday, June 9 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, June 10, at 1:45 and 4:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 11.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at (732) 446-7800. Tickets also are available online at www.racewaypark.com. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.