Sometimes, it is just your day.
When Tommy Johnson Jr. loaded up in his brand new 2019 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat with a couple of buddies and made the drive from his home in Indiana up I-65 to Route 66 Raceway, he had a feeling it was going to be his weekend.
And boy was he right.
Johnson turned around a 33-race winless streak Sunday at the 22nd annual Route 66 NHRA Nationals with a big win over Funny Car points leader Robert Hight to earn his first Wally since Pomona in 2017.
“I just felt coming here it was going to be our weekend,” Johnson said. “I brought the Hellcat that I won last year from Dodge and took it on a little road trip. A couple of guys and I jumped in the car and drove up here and had a good time. From that time on it just felt right.
“I’m not superstitious, but the way the weekend went, things kept pointing to (a win) and I felt good about it. I went up there for the final and wasn’t even nervous. There was a little bit of a confidence that, I don’t know where it came from, but something just felt good.”
In a battle between two of the quickest cars of the weekend, Hight and Johnson squared off for the second time in 2019, but the fight was short-lived. While Hight took a slight advantage at the tree, his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro lit the tires as Hight’s attempt at a fourth win this year literally went up in smoke.
Johnson didn’t fare much better, popping the blower just past the 800-foot mark as he limped across the stripe with a 4.175-second pass at 229.86 mph in the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car. Hight crossed the line a few ticks later with a 4.438 at 202.55 mph.
“I’ve had that experience before, but that really wasn’t even a blowup, it was a little bang,” Johnson said with a laugh. “It makes your heart stop for a second because you are sitting there coasting and you know he has got to be somewhere and he didn’t come and I thought, ‘ah, thank goodness.’
“It is the longest coasting you have ever done in your life. You are thinking, ‘man, come on, get there.’ I as looking to the right, looking to the finish line. It is amazing how fast your brain can think in these cars. It is incredible how many thoughts go through your head and that seemed like it took five minutes in that split second. I always say that when it blows up like that it is not that big a deal because it happens so fast. I was just lucky it paid off this time.
“When I finally saw the win light come on I was just thrilled for the guys. Doug Chandler, he continued this program and I am just so happy for him to get this win. We have been close a lot of times, so it was nice to finally get it done.”
The win marked Johnson’s 18th career victory and second at Route 66 Raceway. He last won at the Chicago-area track in 2015 over Matt Hagan.
Sunday’s win also served as bragging rights as he and crew chief John Collins took home the win over Hight and Jimmy Prock, a victory made even more special in Johnson’s neighborhood.
“Prock actually lives across the street from me. He is my neighbor, so I get bragging rights this weekend in the neighborhood,” Johnson said.
Johnson added wins over Paul Lee, Matt Hagan and John Force on his way to his second final round of the season. His semifinal matchup against Force, who is still chasing his 150th career NHRA victory, was especially challenging – and a little contentious – as the two engaged in a little gamesmanship at the starting line.
Force lit both bulbs before Johnson could light even one and the decision may have cost him. Force was slow off the line, giving the round win to Johnson with a slower 3.972 at 321.81 to Force’s 3.953 at 322.42 mph.
“I was in the other lane when he won his 100th and I’ve heard it over and over and over. And if I can do anything about him winning 150, I will,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if he did it by accident, or if he was trying to use his experience up there, but he double-bulbed me and I thought, ‘you just did the wrong thing because I am going to let you sit there and think about it for a minute.’ And it paid off. I think it threw him off a little bit.
“He isn’t the only one that has been out here driving for a long time. It is kind of funny because he and I are the two longest running active Funny Car drivers right now. I used some of my experience against him and it paid off. He is a legend of the sport and you respect that, you don’t get to 149 wins by being a chump. He is pretty tough and everytime you go up there you do it with both barrels loaded.”
Hight had wins over Jim Campbell, Cruz Pedregon and Jack Beckman to reach his fifth final in nine races.
It was a big moment for Johnson in particular as he snapped a losing spell that was beginning to wear on the team. But with the team finally over the hump, Johnson is hoping it is only a matter of time before the team starts adding more.
“I think when you get close so many times it kind of builds a hunger and you want it a little more,” Johnson said. “You can easily get dejected and get bummed out because we can’t get it done, but you have to get past that. I think we’ve gotten smarter and better every year. This is my sixth year with this team and what I am proud of is that we learn and we use that to get better. It seems like every year we are just a little bit better and, hopefully, it will all pay off in the end.”
While Sunday was all about confidence for Johnson, he admits that he may have had a little added luck on his side in the form of a star, a star with the name Terry Chandler after the late team owner.
“The Make-A-Wish chapter bought a star and had it named after her and it was John Collins’ idea to put (the coordinates of the star) on the roof hatch of the car,” Johnson said. “All the time you feel like someone is watching over you and she was most definitely with us this weekend.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019