Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – JOLIET, IL – It has been business as usual for Tommy Johnson Jr. through the first portion of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season and, based on recent years that means something big could be coming for the Funny Car standout at this weekend’s 21st annual JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway.
Johnson has once again put together consistent performances in his 10,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T to open his year, and appears locked in for another big performance in Chicago. He has advanced to the final round at Route 66 Raceway in three of the past four years, winning in 2015, as Johnson has annually come on strong during June and July. Opening up a stretch of four straight races, Johnson is confident that trend can continue starting this weekend.
“It usually takes us a while to get hot, but we never seem way off,” Johnson said. “We’ve been consistent and competitive, and it’s just a matter of time before we string some final rounds and wins together. We’re right there and we’re close, it’s just a matter of continuing to pick at it. Maybe we’re a little better in the warmer weather conditions and that’s where we tend to shine, but I feel comfortable with where we’re at. I’m not panicked or worried. I think we’re right on course.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Drew Skillman (Pro Stock), and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including final eliminations coverage starting at 5:30 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. It is the ninth of 24 races in a 2018 season where Johnson, who has 17 career wins, is currently sixth in Funny Car points after one runner-up appearance and a final quad showing at the four-wide race in Charlotte.
As has usually been the case once June hits, Johnson and his team, led by crew chief John Collins, are ready to take it up a notch. Starting the four-race stretch on a positive note this weekend could go a long way towards building something special this summer heading into the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. After finishing in the top three in points from 2014-2016, Johnson believes his team has built a sound strategy in making a championship run.
“Everybody wants to win every race, but that’s not possible,” Johnson said. “We want to continue to be competitive and consistent and when you start a stretch of four in a row, it pays dividends to be consistent. The points add up quickly and you can gain a whole bunch. It’s super important to have success right at the start and Chicago is a good track to go to for us. It’s a premier facility, it’s a great atmosphere and I like the feel of it. It’s a good track for us to kick off four in a row.”
Johnson fell in the final round to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps a year ago, splitting final-round matchups with DSR counterpart Matt Hagan in 2014 and 2015. He’ll also have to get past the likes of points leader Courtney Force, who has won back-to-back races, 2016 event winner Jack Beckman, J.R. Todd, who has two wins in 2018, defending world champion Robert Hight and Charlotte winner Cruz Pedregon, but facing elite competition in the loaded Funny Car class continues to bring out the best in the talented veteran.
“There’s no easy rounds, and you go into the first round and it might as well be the final round,” said Johnson, who got his Funny Car license at Route 66 Raceway in 1998. “It’s just a tough category and every round is tight. The gratifying part is when you do well you know you did something. It gives you a little more confidence when you come to tracks where you’ve had good success and Chicago has been a place where it seems to happen for us.”
Steve Torrence has continued a strong pace in Top Fuel, grabbing three wins and the points lead in 2018. He will try to hold off Topeka winner Clay Millican, Tony Schumacher, and Brittany Force.
Drew Skillman hopes Chicago is again the place for his first Pro Stock win of the year. He’ll have to get past the likes of points leader Vincent Nobile and defending world champ Bo Butner to get it.
LE Tonglet is the defending event winner in Pro Stock Motorcycle, hoping for a fourth win at the facility against standout Eddie Krawiec, who has two wins in 2018, and teammate Jerry Savoie.
The JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals also features competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, including the popular JEGS Allstars bonus event that pits the best NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series racers from across the country in individual and team competition. After Nitro qualifying, fans can watch the spectacular Pro Jet Motorsports Al Z’s “Hot Blade” and Team Heat “Fifty Caliber” jet dragsters. Jet cars are thrust driven propelled by jet engines with exciting pre-run flame shows.
Those in attendance will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with a few of the most renowned names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This will feature meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals include Don Garlits and more.
As always, fans can 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 gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from 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 Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 5:15 and 7:45 p.m. on Friday, June 1 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, June 2, at 3:15 and 6 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 3.