Tommy Johnson, Jr. accelerated teammate Matt Hagan’s recovery from COVID-19 Sunday, scoring an improbable “super sub” victory in Funny Car during the 36th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals.
Johnson collected his 23rd career Wally trophy competing on behalf of Hagan, the three-time/reigning Funny Car world champ who sat out his second consecutive national event after testing positive for the virus.
“This has always been a special track for me,” said Johnson, referring to Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa. “I won my first Funny Car race here (1999). I don’t want this to be the last one. I want to get another shot at it again. It was very cool and it meant a lot.”
Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Steve Johnson (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won their professional classes at the 14th of 20 races during the 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season and opening round of the seven-event Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Johnson has been a spectator in 2021 after his Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car team was shut down at the end of last season. That forced retirement ended in a hurry after Hagan tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the prestigious Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals over Labor Day weekend. Hagan withdrew from the Indianapolis-area event ranked No. 1 in “regular-season” points.
“It’s pretty amazing actually,” said Johnson, who finished second in the standings to Hagan in 2020. “I got a call a week ago after I’ve been sitting on the sidelines for 10 months, saying ‘We need you!’^”
Johnson’s task at the U.S. Nats was to maintain Hagan’s top-seeded ranking. That plan went awry when Johnson failed to qualify after a mechanical malfunction forced him to abort his Friday attempt following his burnout. Rain washed-out Saturday’s two scheduled qualifying sessions, with Johnson’s DNQ dropping Hagan from first to sixth in the standings heading into the Countdown.
Looking for redemption at Maple Grove, Johnson and the Dickie Venables-led Mopar Dodge team unloaded with a 3.895-second 1,000-foot run at 333.82 mph on Friday night _ second-quickest pass of the session and T.J.’s career-best speed.
On Sunday, Johnson took down Jim Campbell, DSR teammate Ron Capps and J.R. Todd to reach the final against John Force. Johnson trailered the 16-time world champ with a pass in 3.926-seconds at 330.23 mph.
“To come back and up your game that good, I mean, Dickie and the guys have been racing all season while I haven’t been doing anything,” said Johnson, driver of the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. “I thank them for the opportunity. Dickie and all these Mopar guys, they came, they rose to the challenge and dove in and made me fit in this car and made everything happen.
“After Q1, I thought we had a pretty good chance to win this race. It’s hard to sit out that long. These cars accelerate so fast and you want to keep up and keep ahead of the car and be able to drive them good. Each run, it just got more and more comfortable, and as the day went on I kept getting more relaxed and more relaxed. By the final round I was like, ‘Oh, OK, there’s nothing to it now.’ I was astonished when I threw the parachutes (in the final) and saw the win light come on. I just burst out laughing because I couldn’t believe it happened. We’ve come a long way in a week.”
Johnson dedicated the win to his father, Tommy Johnson Sr., who passed earlier this year. “I kept thinking of my dad all day,” Johnson said. “He and I had our own Top Fuel team for a few years and came out here and raced together with a lot of memories. I’ve been talking about them with my wife all weekend; joking about my dad yelling at me for scratching the truck driving in here with all the trees. The sport of drag racing is my whole life. I’ve got all my memories from drag racing.”
Hagan, meanwhile, followed the action knowing all the points Johnson gained went to him per NHRA’s replacement policy for medical reasons. Hagan now sits second in the recalibrated point standings, five points behind “Brute” Force. Capps, the 2016 world champion is third, 15 points behind Force.
“I’m so proud of my guys,” said Hagan, who is awaiting clearance to return to competition. “They got it done. T.J. did a phenomenal job in the race car. He’s a wheelman. We battled each other the last two years and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he could get it done. Everybody adapted to adversity and the driver change and I’m just so proud of what these guys accomplished.
“There’s a huge hole in my heart not being there with them racing and it was really tough to watch, but at the end of the day, I knew these guys were going to do a great job and they did. Dickie Venables is just an amazing guy, an amazing leader, and a great crew chief, and does what it takes to get it done.”
Force knocked off U.S. Nats winner Tim Wilkerson, Paul Lee and teammate Robert Hight to reach the final round for the fifth time this season and 261st time in his career.
Round 2 of the Countdown, the DeWalt NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., is booked for Sept. 17-19.
Greg Anderson celebrated a long-awaited milestone, tying NHRA legend Warren “The Professor” Johnson for most wins in Pro Stock with his 97th career victory. Anderson covered the quarter-mile in 6.578-seconds at 208.30 mph in the final to beat Erica Enders and earn his third victory of the season. Tying Johnson had become Anderson’s quest since winning at Atlanta Dragway in May, and the four-time world champ took care of business by beating John Gaydosh, Matt Hartford and Troy Coughlin Jr. to reach the final.
“It feels pretty cool to make some history,” said Anderson, who claimed victory No. 97 in his 164th final. “After the Atlanta race we were on a roll and I kind of dropped the ball and couldn’t find a way to the Winner’s Circle.
“I was absolutely shocked that the win light came on. There’s been so many races in a row where it simply wouldn’t come on. You think you have everything going well and the light just doesn’t come on in the final round. What a great, great feeling. There’s nothing better than when that win light comes on.”
Anderson, who expanded his championship lead over Enders to 42 points, had recorded three runnerup finishes after the Atlanta victory in pursuit of Johnson’s mark. Anderson started in drag racing as a crew member and later crew chief for Johnson during four of his six Pro Stock championship seasons. John Force is the all-time NHRA leader with 154 victories.
“It was a huge day to finally tie Warren,” said Anderson, driver of the Chevrolet Camaro SS. “Obviously, I respect Warren; I learned a ton from him and it’s kind of a cool story. That was my other life, this is a new life and we’re tied. Now I get a chance to try and beat him, and we’re going to Charlotte with a chance to break that record.
“You can’t break the record until you tie it and I just finally got it done. Starting the playoffs on a high note. There are a lot of great cars in the class and anybody can win, but I think deep down we all know that Erica is going to be the one to beat, that you’re going to have to get around if you’re going to win the championship. She doesn’t make mistakes. I’m so proud of this team that I race for and I’m having a blast. I’m 60-years-old and I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in a race car.”
Enders, who won the U.S. Nats, beat Larry Morgan, Chris McGaha and Dallas Glenn to reach the final for the fourth time in 2021 and 59th time in four-time championship career. Aaron Stanfield is third in points.
In Top Fuel, Billy Torrence delivered one consistent performance after another, turning in a 1,000-foot pass in 3.720-seconds at 326.08 mph in his family-owned Capco Contractors dragster in the final to knock off Justin Ashley. Torrence made a huge jump in points, moving from eighth to third on the strength of his second win this season and eighth in his career. He beat Josh Hart, Shawn Langdon and No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force to reach the final, running 3.71 or 3.72 on all four passes in eliminations, including his run against Ashley in the championship.
“That’s a really good team that ran really well and I had a good car,” said Torrence, the father of three-time/reigning Top Fuel world champ Steve Torrence. “I’m certainly the weak link in my car, but they made me look good in the end. It says a lot for the ‘Capco Boys.’ It’s a shame they don’t have a better driver, but the car is really good. I have a good time and at my extended age (63), I’m going to take all the wins I can get.”
Ashley reached his second final in 2021 by knocking off Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican and point-leader Steve Torrence, whose advantage has shrunk to just 12 over Force. Billy Torrence trails his son by 42 points and Ashley moved up to fourth.
Popular veteran Steve Johnson is leading Pro Stock Motorcycle for the first time in seven years after beating Eddie Krawiec in the final aboard his Mac Rak/Slick 50 Suzuki with a quarter-mile run of 6.775-seconds at 196.87 mph. The quickest run of eliminations in PSB helped Johnson earn his second win this season and eighth in his career. It’s also the first time Johnson has won two races in a season since 2008. Johnson knocked off Jim Underdahl, Scotty Pollacheck and No. 1 qualifier Angelle Sampey to reach the final after an admittedly sluggish start.
“Clearly you want to be leading the points and it’s great, but what it really boils down to is the process,” Johnson said. “Leading the points is just a dream. The driver that was here on Friday and Saturday, he was atrocious. I just got sideways and everybody said go back to fundamentals. I was out here for a long time before racing started just working on the fundamentals. You can always learn. I was really, really bad on Friday and Saturday, and everyone was going fast. That’s a classic example of riding a bike or driving it, and the driver was here on Sunday.”
Krawiec, a four-time world champ, reached his second straight final and 78th in his career aboard his Vance & Hines Buell by defeating Kelly Clontz, Angie Smith and four-time/reigning world champ Matt Smith, who trails Johnson by 12 points. Krawiec is 36 points back of Johnson.
Final finishing order (1-16) at the 36th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa. The race was the 14th of 20 events in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series and Round 1 of the seven-event Countdown to the Championship:
Top Fuel _ 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Justin Ashley; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Steve Torrence; 5. Shawn Langdon; 6. Clay Millican; 7. Leah Pruett; 8. Mike Salinas; 9. Doug Kalitta; 10. Josh Hart; 11. Doug Foley; 12. Antron Brown; 13. Joe Morrison.
Funny Car _ 1. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2. John Force; 3. J.R. Todd; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Paul Lee; 6. Ron Capps; 7. Cruz Pedregon; 8. Tim Wilkerson; 9. Bob Tasca III; 10. Alexis DeJoria; 11. Cory Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Jim Campbell.
Pro Stock _ 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Erica Enders; 3. Troy Coughlin Jr.; 4. Dallas Glenn; 5. Matt Hartford; 6. Aaron Stanfield; 7. Kyle Koretsky; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Alan Prusiensky; 10. Deric Kramer; 11. Bob Benza; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Larry Morgan; 14. Mason McGaha; 15. Vincent Nobile; 16. John Gaydosh Jr.
Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 1. Steve Johnson; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Matt Smith; 5. Angie Smith; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Cory Reed; 8. Scotty Pollacheck; 9. Andrew Hines; 10. Joey Gladstone; 11. Ryan Oehler; 12. Jim Underdahl; 13. Jianna Salinas; 14. Ron Tornow; 15. Kelly Clontz; 16. Chris Bostick.
Final class results from the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway:
Top Fuel _ Billy Torrence, 3.720-seconds, 326.08 mph def. Justin Ashley, 3.784-seconds, 313.22 mph.
Funny Car _Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.926, 330.23 def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.946, 328.54.
Pro Stock _ Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.578, 208.30 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.604, 206.73.
Pro Stock Motorcycle _ Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.775, 196.87 def. Eddie Krawiec, Buell, 6.870, 197.16.
Top Alcohol Dragster _ Matthew Cummings, 5.211, 276.69 def. Robin Samsel, 5.267, 268.60.
Top Alcohol Funny Car _ Doug Gordon, Chevy Camaro, 5.445, 269.51 def. Sean Bellemeur, Camaro, 5.489, 266.48.
Competition Eliminator _ Frank Aragona, Roadster, 9.652, 88.29 def. Chip Ippolito, Chevy S-10, Foul/Red Light.
Super Stock _ Bobby Fazio, Ford Mustang, 10.627, 122.54 def. Jonathan Allegrucci, Dodge Challenger, Foul/Red Light.
Stock Eliminator _ Joe Santangelo, Chevy Camaro, 10.456, 117.88 def. Allison Doll, Pontiac Firebird, 10.580, 123.96.
Super Comp _Taylor Iacono, Dragster, 8.919, 175.14 def. Lee Ream, Dragster, 8.930, 174.37.
Super Gas _ Jason Kenny, Chevy Corvette, 9.899, 166.17 def. Bill Nuzzo, Ford Mustang, 9.882, 120.88.
Top Dragster presented by Vortech Superchargers _ Tom Martino, Dragster, 6.620, 195.31 def. Alan Kenny, Dragster, 6.236, 219.44.
Final round-by-round results from the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway:
ROUND ONE _ Justin Ashley, 3.703, 328.62 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.768, 321.81; Clay Millican, 3.698, 325.45 def. Doug Foley, 3.861, 287.41; Brittany Force, 3.655, 333.49 was unopposed; Shawn Langdon, 3.751, 318.54 def. Mike Salinas, 3.750, 304.32; Billy Torrence, 3.721, 328.78 def. Josh Hart, 3.781, 292.84; Steve Torrence, 3.716, 328.22 def. Joe Morrison, 6.108, 103.62; Leah Pruett, 3.930, 279.44 def. Antron Brown, 5.755, 121.47;
QUARTERFINALS _ Ashley, 3.697, 328.70 def. Millican, 3.819, 315.12; Force, 3.704, 334.48 def. Pruett, 4.025, 227.23; B. Torrence, 3.719, 329.18 def. Langdon, 3.797, 302.89; S. Torrence, 3.718, 327.43 was unopposed;
SEMIFINALS _ B. Torrence, 3.725, 328.46 def. Force, 3.777, 318.84; Ashley, 4.084, 298.67 def. S. Torrence, 4.162, 245.85;
FINAL _ B. Torrence, 3.720, 326.08 def. Ashley, 3.784, 313.22.
ROUND ONE _ Cruz Pedregon, Dodge Charger, 3.908, 318.62 was unopposed; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.875, 334.65 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.892, 322.81; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.889, 330.72 def. Cory Lee, Mustang, 4.239, 296.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.892, 333.58 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, Foul/Outer Boundary; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.929, 327.82 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 5.500, 131.65; Paul Lee, Charger, 3.911, 331.77 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.906, 329.91; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.919, 332.75 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.999, 316.67;
QUARTERFINALS _Todd, 3.931, 328.86 def. Pedregon, 3.981, 315.86; Force, 3.861, 332.67 def. P. Lee, 3.909, 333.99; Hight, 3.880, 332.92 was unopposed; Johnson Jr., 3.892, 332.02 def. Capps, 3.924, 331.12;
SEMIFINALS _ Johnson Jr., 3.902, 331.53 def. Todd, 3.905, 332.75; Force, 3.909, 329.10 def. Hight, 3.909, 329.42;
FINAL _ Johnson Jr., 3.926, 330.23 def. Force, 3.946, 328.54.
ROUND ONE _ Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.616, 207.56 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.638, 206.92; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.589, 208.33 def. Mason McGaha, Camaro, 10.019, 93.44; Troy Coughlin Jr., Camaro, 6.588, 206.76 def. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 10.390, 86.39; Kyle Koretsky, Camaro, 6.600, 207.59 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.693, 185.03; Dallas Glenn, Camaro, 6.590, 207.75 def. Bob Benza, Camaro, 6.682, 205.82; Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.599, 206.76 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 206.67; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.555, 208.55 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Camaro, Broke; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.587, 207.08 def. Larry Morgan, Camaro, 6.717, 205.07;
QUARTERFINALS _ Glenn, 6.627, 204.94 def. Koretsky, 6.680, 206.48; Coughlin Jr., 6.613, 205.98 def. Stanfield, 6.632, 207.40; Enders, 6.596, 206.35 def. C. McGaha, Foul/Red Light; Anderson, 6.585, 207.85 def. Hartford, 6.597, 208.07;
SEMIFINALS _ Enders, 6.602, 206.51 def. Glenn, 6.642, 207.02; Anderson, 6.614, 208.01 def. Coughlin Jr., 6.613, 207.05;
FINAL _ Anderson, 6.578, 208.30 def. Enders, 6.604, 206.73.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ROUND ONE _ Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.972, 192.63 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.977, 193.96; Angie Smith, 8.428, 110.82 def. Andrew Hines, Buell, Foul/Red Light; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.825, 197.19 def. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.015, 193.02; Scotty Pollacheck, 6.892, 195.08 def. Chris Bostick, 20.043, 32.30; Eddie Krawiec, Buell, 6.858, 198.58 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 10.608, 73.75; Matt Smith, 6.882, 201.07 def. Ron Tornow, 7.070, 186.38; Angelle Sampey, Suzuki, 6.815, 196.79 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 7.067, 191.10; Cory Reed, Suzuki, 6.972, 193.40 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.984, 194.21;
QUARTERFINALS _ M. Smith, 6.855, 199.20 def. Reed, 6.986, 191.59; Krawiec, 6.886, 197.57 def. A. Smith, Foul/Red Light; Johnson, 6.788, 197.31 def. Pollacheck, 7.559, 133.14; Sampey, 6.847, 196.30 def. Stoffer, 6.940, 193.85;
SEMIFINALS _ Krawiec, 6.906, 196.79 def. M. Smith, 6.942, 187.89; Johnson, 6.804, 197.22 def. Sampey, 6.860, 194.52;
FINAL _ Johnson, 6.775, 196.87 def. Krawiec, 6.870, 197.16.
Countdown to the Championship point standings (top-10) following the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway:
Top Fuel _ 1. Steve Torrence, 2,179; 2. Brittany Force, 2,167; 3. Billy Torrence, 2,137; 4. Justin Ashley, 2,124; 5. Leah Pruett, 2,113; 6. Antron Brown, 2,103; 7. Shawn Langdon, 2,102; 8. Mike Salinas, 2,078; 9. Clay Millican, 2,067; 10. Doug Kalitta, 2,032.
Funny Car _1. John Force, 2,172; 2. Matt Hagan, 2,167; 3. Ron Capps, 2,157; 4. J.R. Todd, 2,133; 5. Robert Hight, 2,121; 6. Bob Tasca III, 2,106; 7. Cruz Pedregon, 2,083; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 2,063; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,048; 10. Blake Alexander, 2,032.
Pro Stock _ 1. Greg Anderson, 2,224; 2. Erica Enders, 2,183; 3. Aaron Stanfield, 2,129; 4. Dallas Glenn, 2,125; 5. Kyle Koretsky, 2,117; 6. Troy Coughlin Jr., 2,114; 7. Matt Hartford, 2,098; 8. Chris McGaha, 2,078; 9. Mason McGaha, 2,067; 10. Deric Kramer, 2,062.
Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Steve Johnson, 2,195; 2. Matt Smith, 2,183; 3. Eddie Krawiec, 2,159; 4. Angelle Sampey, 2,136; 5. Scotty Pollacheck, 2,125; 6. Angie Smith, 2,089; 7. Karen Stoffer, 2,082; 8. Ryan Oehler, 2,077; 9. (tie) Joey Gladstone, 2,073; Cory Reed, 2,073.
(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was the inaugural recipient of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Media Award (2010). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).