Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – TOPEKA, KS – If Tommy Johnson Jr. keeps the consistent pace he’s put together for more than a year, he knows that will bode well for the outcome of his 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. But the Funny Car standout is more than ready to add a few wins to his resume.
The veteran has advanced to at least the semifinals at nearly half of his races dating back to the start of the 2018 season, but Johnson is still looking for his first win in that span. That’s something he’ll look to change in his 11,000-horespower Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat at the upcoming Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals presented by Minties, June 7-9 at Heartland Motorsports Park. The 17-time event winner hopes to pick up his first career victory at the facility, while also adding another impressive layer to his run of consistent performances.
“One of these days, that tide will turn and we’ll get a win,” said Johnson, who is currently fourth in the Funny Car points standings. “In order to win, you have to be competitive, so maintaining that is key. There are times the guys get bummed because you come so close to getting it done, but it’s still a lot better than losing first round. It’s a great group and they work really hard, and they’ve learned over time the results of being consistent and going rounds.”
Clay Millican (Top Fuel) and Courtney Force (Funny Car) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including a broadcast of the finals on Sunday, June 9 at 5:30 p.m. (ET). It is the 10th of 24 races during the 2019 NHRA season and action will be intense with a special Primetime qualifying session at 8 p.m. on Friday. Johnson and his team, led by crew chief John Collins, will have to dial up something big under the lights and then run well during the warmer conditions on raceday, but that hasn’t been a problem over the last few seasons.
Johnson has been impressively consistent to the tune of one final round and three semifinal appearances through the first eight races in 2019, running well in any condition. He firmly believes that it will eventually lead to victories, but a good showing during this stretch of four straight races could pay dividends as Johnson seeks his first world title in the loaded Funny Car class.
“If you want to win a championship, a lot of that groundwork is laid in the summer,” Johnson said. “The more consistent you perform, you’re only going to get better and running well at these summer races is kind of our team’s M.O. We’re excited about the summer months. I sure do like the way our car performs in those conditions and it’s a good stretch to really put yourself in a better position. If you can run well, it doesn’t take long for it to have an impact.”
The races start to come in a hurry as it moves to summer, but Johnson welcomes that, especially with his car running well. He’s also less than two rounds out of second place, meaning Johnson has a great opportunity to make a big move in the class. But to pick up his first win in Topeka, which has shown to be a fast track over the years, Johnson will have to deal with the likes of points leader Robert Hight, defending world champion J.R. Todd, Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps, who has enjoyed back-to-back wins, John Force and Matt Hagan.
“As a driver, you don’t mind the back-to-back races,” Johnson said. “You can get into a groove and my team is pretty experienced, so they know how to pace themselves. Growing up in Iowa, (Topeka) was close to a home race for me. The track surface has always been good and yielded some big performances, but you also have that heat and humidity, so it throws everything at you. It’s a really tight rope you have to walk, but we’ve learned how to navigate that.”
After a banner 2018 season in Top Fuel, Clay Millican will look to grab another victory against a star-studded field in Topeka. Defending world champ and points leader Steve Torrence leads the charge in the class on the strength of three straight victories, but Millican will also face off against the likes of three-time world champ Antron Brown, Brittany Force, the 2017 world champ, veteran Doug Kalitta, Leah Pritchett, Gainesville winner Richie Crampton and Terry McMillen.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service makes the sixth of 12 stops in 2019 in Topeka. Stevie “Fast” Jackson is the current points leader in a class that also includes defending world champ Mike Janis, and defending event winner Rickie Smith. The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport, as well as the 2019 Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series. After Nitro qualifying, stick around to see the spectacular jet dragsters.
Former Kansas City Chief great Christian Okoye will be the grand marshal for the event, and he’ll be joined by Chiefs players, cheerleaders and even the mascot during the highly-anticipated weekend. There will be a special Chiefs Ambassadors VIP tent during the race where fans can meet players, and get autographs and photos on June 8-9. Proceeds from the tent will be donated to Big Brothers Big Sisters.
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.
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 Nitro School to learn more about how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Heartland Motorsports Park 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. A can’t-miss experience of any NHRA event is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate race winners as they celebrate their Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals victories.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 4:45 and 8:00 p.m. on Friday, June 7 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, June 8, at 12:30 and 3:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 9.