Following his Funny Car victory at Denver last month, Tommy Johnson Jr. might have earned a double-take when he said, “This has been the best season ever, and I think we are just getting started.”
Try to pass that off as a winner’s euphoria if you wish, but he’s right.
That’s saying something for a racer who’s been a championship runner-up in addition to posting a trio of third-place points finishes.
After finishing second to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps at Brainerd, Minn., Johnson is second in the Funny Car seconds heading into the U.S. Nationals next weekend. He’ll be among the 10 drivers vying for gold in the Countdown to the Championship.
“It has been the best season I’ve ever had — up to this point,” Johnson, 50, clarified. “And I’ve never gone into Indy second in points.”
With wins at Denver and Chicago, Johnson’s Make-A-Wish ride hasn’t exactly flown under the radar. Neither has it been the center of attention, but that could all change at Indy and beyond in the six Countdown events.
“Obviously, these are the most important seven” races of the year, Johnson said. “Yes, we’ve had a great season, but it doesn’t mean anything. Now is the time it actually means something. You can’t lose focus by looking back and saying, ‘we’ve been great, we’ve got a shot,’ because it doesn’t mean anything.
“You can easily get distracted by how you’ve had a good season, and it can all fall apart in the next two or three races and you’re done. The most important focus is right now. You’ve got to continue to push and be better. I started the Countdown last year seventh and almost finished second; finished third, a round away from finishing second. So you know there are people back there coming for you. … It should be a whole lot easier to get to the top when you start closer to the top.”
Johnson began the 2019 campaign with a semifinals loss to another teammate, Jack Beckman. He lost in the second round in the ensuing events at Phoenix and Gainesville, and mechanical failures cost the team a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat body thrice in the course of six passes.
“We came right out of the gate and ran well,” Johnson said. “At Phoenix, we blew the body up twice, and at Gainesville blew the body off in Q4. They were just three freak breakage problems that rarely ever happen (broken axle, ignition misfire, intake issue), but did. I said, ‘Well, we’re good, we got those out of the way, we should be good the rest of the season.’
“The biggest positive was that it didn’t affect our performance at all. We continued to come back and run strong.”
In fact, the team bounced back in Las Vegas with a runner-up performance, falling to J.R. Todd in a duel of matching 3.97-second blasts. At Houston, Johnson was outrun by his third teammate, Matt Hagan, then enjoyed consecutive semifinals outings at Charlotte, Commerce and Richmond. He followed those with a victory over Robert Hight in the finals at Chicago and continued to pile up the points.
Johnson kicked off the recent Western Swing with his first victory at Denver, lost in the semis to Hight at Sonoma, fell to Beckman in the Seattle opener, and was runner-up to Capps at Brainerd.
The wins, runners-up and semifinal showings have him in second behind Hight as the regular season wraps up at Indy. It’s a steady performance that Johnson believes can be traced to his crew’s long tenure together and the decision-making of crew chief John Collins, who, like Johnson, is a native of Ottumwa, Iowa.
“This is our sixth season together as a team, and I think we’ve only had two or three different guys in the mix come and go,” Johnson said. “We’ve learned, and we’re doing a good job of taking the information we’re getting every year and changing things to make it better.
“When I got with this team, we tended to be slow starters but would come on pretty good at the end. It would take us awhile to get our groove. By midseason or the Western Swing, we’d start to really come on. This year we started good right off the bat. It shows you can learn and get better as you go.”
Collins’ involvement in professional drag racing came pretty much by accident. He raced at the same local track and Johnson, and prior to the last race with the family’s Top Fuel car in 1999, Tommy Johnson Sr. happened to run into Collins at a gas station. He asked if Collins wanted to help the team that weekend “and he got the buzz to go pro racing,” Johnson Jr. said.
Collins worked with Joe Gibbs Racing, Don Prudhomme’s team (where Johnson was the driver), and Larry Dixon before hooking on with Schumacher. He was the assistant to Capps’ current crew chief, Rahn Tobler, when he got promoted to be Johnson’s crew chief.
“He’s one of those guys that I don’t care if it’s your phone or the generator on your trailer or what it is, he just knows how it works and how to fix it — a quality I don’t have,” Johnson said.
“We’re the team nobody talks about, doesn’t get the notoriety and all the hoopla,” he continued. “But my guys are pretty proud of what they do, and it doesn’t take much to get them going. I think it’s because they don’t get a lot of recognition — not that they have a chip on their shoulder, but they know we’re good.”
Johnson said he has developed a deep appreciation for the opportunity to compete at drag racing’s highest level. There were multiple times when he didn’t have a ride — or at least a full-time position with a well-funded team — that he thought, ‘Maybe I’m not going to ever do this again.”
“I enjoy it more now, I think, and don’t take it for granted. When you win, it might be the last time you win. You’ve got to enjoy it and take it all in,” he said. “The only thing that bothers me sometimes are missed opportunities. That aggravates me, motivates me. Those opportunities don’t come around all the time. I feel fortunate to be doing this right now because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to do it.”
The same can be said about the upcoming Countdown, which ramps up — as will the pressure — Sept. 12-15 at Maple Grove Raceway.
“You don’t dwell on it. You recognize it, but can’t dwell on it or you will make mistakes,” Johnson said of the Countdown’s intensity. “It’s easy to say, but you need to keep doing what you’ve been doing. You’ve got to continue to not change what you’re doing, just do what you’re doing. You know how to do the job, just do it.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019