Less than a month ago, Tommy Johnson Jr. was sitting at home watching drag racing on television.
Off the NHRA circuit for the season after he lost sponsorship for his Make-A-Wish car, Johnson could only dream about racing again, let alone winning another event.
On Sunday at Maple Grove Raceway, the veteran Funny Car driver filled in for reigning world champion Matt Hagan and pulled off an improbable victory at the 36th Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals.
“It was pretty cool,” Johnson said. “I was astonished. When I saw the win lights come on, I just burst out laughing because I couldn’t believe it happened.”
Billy Torrence in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson in Pro Stock and Steve Johnson in Pro Stock Motorcycle also won in the first race of the Countdown to the Championship, the NHRA’s version of the playoffs. Anderson’s win was the 97th of his career, tying Warren Johnson for the most Pro Stock victories.
The points Tommy Johnson Jr. earned will be awarded to Hagan when he returns. Hagan tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the U.S. Nationals the previous week at Indianapolis. Johnson said he got a last-minute call to fill in for Hagan. He didn’t qualify in the top 16 to make the eliminations at the NHRA’s biggest event of the season.
“We’ve come a long way in a week,” Johnson said. “Two weeks ago when I was sitting at home I didn’t think I’d have a trophy from this season.”
Johnson said he got the call on Wednesday this time to let him know that Hagan’s team needed him to drive again. He didn’t disappoint this time.
Johnson made a solid run in qualifying Friday and said he felt he could compete for the title.
“Each run it just got more comfortable,” Johnson said. “As the day went on I kept getting more relaxed. By the final round there was nothing to it.”
Except that in the final round he had to face 16-time world champion John Force, winner of 154 career races. Johnson made a 1,000-foot pass of 3.926 seconds at 330.23 mph to edge the 72-year-old Force.
“He may be old but he’s pretty good still,” Johnson said. “To race Force in the final, that just made it even more special. Let’s face it, he’s the best the class has ever had.”
Warren Johnson was always considered the best the Pro Stock class ever had, winning six world championships. But Anderson, a former crew chief for Johnson, has won four world championships and now is even with Johnson in career wins.
“It’s a huge day to finally tie Warren Johnson for the wins record,” Anderson said. “That’s saying a lot.”
Anderson edged four-time world champion Erica Enders to pull into the tie. Enders, the reigning champion, has 33 career wins but has yet to win at Maple Grove.
“It’s fantastic the way everything worked out,” Anderson. “You start the playoffs on a high note.”
Steve Torrence’s playoffs got off to a rough start when the three-time reigning Top Fuel champion lost to Justin Ashley in the semifinals. He had won eight of the 11 races during the regular season and entered the Countdown in first place.
But Billy Torrence, Steve’s father, took down Ashley in the final round after knocking off No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force in the semifinals.
Steve Johnson, who entered his first NHRA event in 1997, moved into the Countdown lead for the first time in in his career with his victory. He knocked off four-time world champion Eddie Krawiec in the final, going 6.775 seconds at 196.87 mph.
Source: Berkshire mont