Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – READING, PA – Tommy Johnson Jr. has had no trouble finishing his NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season on a high note. After arguably the most consistent regular season in his Funny Car career, the veteran standout hopes it translates into more clutch performances in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship and possibly his first career world championship.
Johnson heads into the six-race NHRA playoffs in third place, just 30 points behind leader Robert Hight. With a history of strong Countdown to the Championship performances in his 11,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, Johnson, who has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons, will look to continue that trend at this weekend’s 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway. He knows what it will take to compete for a world title and Johnson will try to send an impressive opening statement at a track where he has two career victories.
“The biggest thing you have to do in the Countdown is avoid mistakes,” said Johnson, who has 19 career victories. “You have to eliminate them and minimize them, because one bad race kills your chance for a championship. The key definitely is minimizing the mistakes and being consistent. You have to bring it every round from now on. Everybody has to focus on their job and do it perfectly. You don’t get many chances to make it up in this Countdown.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including final eliminations on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 2 p.m. (ET). Both Torrence and Todd used that momentum last year to win their first world titles, and it’s a trend Johnson would love to repeat at the 19th of 24 total races during the 2019 season. It’s a year that has already included two wins, four final rounds and six semifinal appearances, but Johnson wants more.
Specifically, he’s after his first world title, but his team, led by crew chief John Collins, is built for the arduous playoff road. It’s a group that has been together for a number of years, building the chemistry and cohesiveness necessary to win a championship. Johnson continues to be impressed with the maturity of the team, something that is needed during the tense moments of the playoffs. Starting that journey in third also adds momentum for what’s at stake.
“It definitely gives you more optimism,” Johnson said. “It makes it a little easier to get to the top if you don’t start clear at the back. I know this is a time where we shine, so that gets me excited. We’ve ran better all season than we have in the past and knowing in the past we’ve done well (at Maple Grove), and getting off to a great start definitely sets the tone. You still have to do the job, but it’s nice to know this is the time of the year where your team usually does the job.”
With a loaded championship field, nothing will come easy. Hight and teammate John Force, who won at Indy, are in the first two spots, while the Don Schumacher Racing foursome of Johnson, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps and Matt Hagan follows. Add in title contenders Bob Tasca III, Todd, Shawn Langdon and Tim Wilkerson, and Johnson knows he has his work cut out for him over the final six races of 2019. But he’s thrived in the Mopar-sponsored races this year, winning in Denver, and that added attention seems to fuel Johnson’s focus during an otherwise busy weekend.
“It would be cool if we could win another Mopar race,” Johnson said. “There’s no more diehard fans than the Mopar and Dodge people. They turn out in droves for these races, and it’s cool because Reading has such a long history. The race fans are so passionate out there. It’s just cool to go out there and I look forward to it. It’s all about hitting our stride at the right time.”
Top Fuel’s Torrence will look for a second straight win at Maple Grove and what he hopes is a second straight world title. He’ll enter the playoffs with the points lead, but will be challenged by Indy winner Doug Kalitta, Brittany Force, Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and Clay Millican.
Pro Stock points leader Bo Butner picked up his first career win at Maple Grove in 2017, a year that also ended with his first world title in the class. Doing that again is the goal, but he’ll have to get past the likes of Indy winner Alex Laughlin, Greg Anderson, Jason Line and Erica Enders.
Hector Arana Jr. is after his first world title in Pro Stock Motorcycle and a third win at Maple Grove would certainly help. He’ll have to go through points leader Andrew Hines, who has seven wins in 2019, Eddie Krawiec, Indy winner Jerry Savoie and defending world champ Matt Smith.
The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport. Fan favorites in the Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car categories are sure to delight as well. After nitro qualifying, watch the thrilling “Beast From The East” jet car driven by Ernie Bogue.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Pro Stock School and Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Maple Grove Raceway will host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Cruising with Castello Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their victories.
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 as a DJ plays hit music.
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.
The Mopar Mega Block Party will rev up the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil race weekend for the fourth consecutive year. The free-admission fan event, set to roll into FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading from 4-10 p.m. ET on Thursday, September 12, will offer a jam-packed slate of fun activities for Mopar and Dodge//SRT enthusiasts. NHRA stars and TV personalities will step up to the plate for the annual Mopar Mega Block Party home run derby with NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart providing the play-by-play.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 12:45 and 3:00 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15.
Television coverage includes Friday Nitro Live from 7-8:30 pm ET on FS1 on Friday, Sept. 13, as well as live coverage on Sunday, Sept. 15 from 2-5 p.m. ET on FS1.
NHRA ANNOUNCES 2020 PRO MOD SCHEDULE
Today, NHRA officials released the 2020 national event schedule for the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service. This exciting series featuring an eclectic mix of powerful vehicles will compete at 12 of the 24 events on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
Pro Mod cars excite and intrigue fans as competitors can use superchargers, turbochargers, or nitrous-oxide injection to run more than 250 mph. In 2020, these fierce competitors will visit a few new stops including the Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Chicago, the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., and the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in Dallas.
NHRA’s two nitro categories – Funny Car and Top Fuel – will participate at all 24 national events in the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Stay tuned all week to NHRA.com as we announce more national event specialty series schedules for the 2020 season including Factory Stock Showdown and Top Fuel Harley. The national event schedule for the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series will be released later this fall.
2020 E3 SPARK PLUGS NHRA PRO MOD DRAG RACING SERIES SCHEDULE
March 12-15 – AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, Gainesville, Fla.
April 24-26 – NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, Charlotte, N.C.
May 29-31 – Virginia NHRA Nationals, Richmond, Va.
June 12-14 – Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, Topeka, Kan.
June 19-21 – NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Bristol, Tenn.
July 9-12 – Route 66 NHRA Nationals, Chicago
July 17-19 – Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals, Denver
Aug. 13-16 – Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, Brainerd, Minn.
Sept. 2-7 – NHRA U.S. Nationals, Indianapolis
Oct. 2-4 – AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, St. Louis
Oct. 15-18 – AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Dallas
Oct. 29-Nov. 1 – Dodge NHRA Nationals, Las Vegas