Veteran Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr. was back in the seat of a nitro-burning Funny Car last weekend at the Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals after it was announced that championship contender Matt Hagan tested positive for COVID-19. Johnson, who’s been on the sidelines all season, will again drive Hagan’s Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Funny Car at this weekend’s Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pennsylvania.
Johnson didn’t qualify at the U.S. Nationals because a broken wheelie bar pin prevented him from making the lone qualifying session on Friday. When rain forced the cancellation of Saturday’s two qualifying sessions, Johnson was on the outside looking in. A promising test session between races suggests Johnson will have a better weekend at Maple Grove.
“The past several days have been such a whirlwind and a roller coaster of emotions,” Johnson said. “From the excitement that I’d get to drive a nitro Funny Car again, and then a letdown when we didn’t get to make a run. I got the call earlier this week that I may be needed again, and fortunately, we were able to test and it allowed me to knock some rust off, and get familiarized with the car and the team. That just shows you how professional this team is, and how seriously they’re focused on making sure this car runs for a championship. It’s an unfortunate circumstance for sure, but I’m glad I’m able to help them out. Now that I’ve gotten a few laps under my belt, I feel very prepared going into this weekend’s race in Reading. I actually ran a career-best speed in testing (333.00 mph). It was a really good test session overall, and I’m looking forward to going back to a track where I’ve had a lot of success in the past, and a lot of history.”
Johnson has won twice at the historic Pennsylvania track, in 1999 and 2016.
“My first Funny Car win was at Reading in 1999, and I was fortunate to win it again a few years back with DSR,” Johnson said. “So, there’s a lot of excitement and positivity going into the weekend.”
The 22-time national event winner finds himself in a unique position this weekend, as he’ll be helping his former teammate and championship rival earn points toward the 2021 world championship. Due to an NHRA rule created in response to the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, drivers who sit out races due to the virus can receive the points earned by replacement drivers. Hagan is fifth in points going into the Countdown to the Championship.
“This Mopar team has done a great job in this circumstance,” Johnson said. “I hate it for Matt (Hagan) that he is not able to get back behind the wheel this weekend, but I’m happy to hop in and help these guys out in their championship chase. Last year, Matt and I battled it out for the championship, and now here I am trying to help him win it, and it would be cool to be a part of another championship for him.”
Johnson isn’t taking this opportunity lightly. Along with Jack Beckman, he’s been out of a ride since Don Schumacher Racing’s pair of “charity cars” funded by the late Terry Chandler were parked at the end of the 2020 season. Johnson sees the part-time ride as a chance to not only help Hagan and team, but also to remind potential car owners of his abilities behind the wheel of a nitro car.
“We’re going to go out there, do the best we can, and try to win some rounds and hopefully win the race,” Johnson said. “I’m not coming back just to take the car down the track, I want to come back and win the race, and maybe raise some eyebrows on my talents. The fans have been so great, it really makes me want to do my absolute best and I want to do whatever I can to help these guys stay in the hunt.”
Johnson and the other Funny Car competitors will get one qualifying run Friday evening, followed by two sessions on Saturday. Eliminations begin Sunday.