Las Vegas: Tommy Johnson Jr preview

Johnson, Blue Skoal Racing crew look for repeat win at Nationals LAS VEGAS, March 28, 2002 - Memories of good times seem to leave lasting impressions. Tommy Johnson Jr., for example, vividly remembers beating Whit Bazemore in ...

Las Vegas: Tommy Johnson Jr preview

Johnson, Blue Skoal Racing crew look for repeat win at Nationals

LAS VEGAS, March 28, 2002 - Memories of good times seem to leave lasting impressions.

Tommy Johnson Jr., for example, vividly remembers beating Whit Bazemore in the Funny Car final round of last year's Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was, as Johnson described, a "storybook victory" because not only was it his first as a member of drag racing icon Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's Skoal Racing team, it came on April 8, two days after driver and owner celebrated their April 6 birthdays.

That win will soon take on special meaning for Johnson and Prudhomme because they are preparing to return for this year's event, April 5-7 at LVMS, as defending champions. A birthday party is in order again and the wish before the candles on the cake are extinguished will certainly be for a repeat performance from Johnson's Blue Skoal Racing Camaro.

Johnson and his Blue crew are still on the prowl for a second victory and their confidence is bolstered by the fact Ron Capps, Johnson's teammate, won the fall race at LVMS, giving crew chief Ed "The Ace" McCulloch a 2001 sweep at the track. Johnson also wants to get back into title contention. He enters this fourth of 23 NHRA Powerade Series events in ninth place with 138 points.

Following are some of Johnson's thoughts on the season as he prepared for the Nationals.

Q - How does it feel to be going back to Las Vegas, the site of your first win driving for Prudhomme and Skoal Racing?

A - We haven't set the world on fire so it's nice to go back to a racetrack where you won last year and have a lot of confidence going in. As far as the team goes, we swept Las Vegas last year with Ron winning the second race there. As a driver, I like that confidence factor going in there thinking that it's kind of our track. I'm hoping that continues.

Q - Because Las Vegas is the series' next stop, what are the odds that you'll be able to give you and Prudhomme a nice birthday present?

A - I'm not sure about the odds, but if that's what it takes to win races, then I'm going to have a lot more birthdays. It would be nice to have a good race like that again so both of us could celebrate our April 6 birthdays. It was like a storybook weekend last year.

Q - Does it surprise you that it has been a year since your last win?

A - Yes, actually I am . . . a little surprised and a little bit frustrated at the same time because it's been a year. It shouldn't have been a year, we're a better team than that. If this is what it takes to start all over and get on a roll, win some races and get back up in the top of the points then I'm ready to get it going in Las Vegas.

Q - Did you have other opportunities last year?

A - We missed out on a lot of opportunities. There should've been a lot more round wins and event wins. I don't know if it was the luck of the draw or different circumstances or what it's been but we haven't been able to capitalize on anything. Our race at Phoenix this year is a good example. I was pulling away from John Force in the semifinals when our blower blew and he passed me to get to the finals. We're a seasoned team now and we should be capitalizing on things like that, and we need to do that soon.

Q - The first three races of the season were run in eight weeks, but the Las Vegas event begins a string of seven races in nine weeks. How does that impact the team? Is it good or bad?

A - As far as the driver goes, I think it's great. The more races we run in a short period of time the better you drive. We're just finishing a stretch where we had two weeks off between races - that I don't like. I like to just get right back at it. As far as our Blue Skoal Racing crew is concerned, it shouldn't bother us. We have enough guys. It is hard on them to run that many weeks in a row. The guys get kind of worn down but we can spread our work load out evenly among them and this is the part of the season where the good teams rise toward the top. Hopefully that's what we'll do.

Q - How has Larry Meyer helped the Blue crew since he joined the team two races ago?

A - Larry's brought a lot of good ideas to the team, especially in the fuel system department where the engine was dropping cylinders and he had a lot of ideas of what to do. Some of those ideas cured a few of the problems. His biggest asset is that he makes sure all the parts are working properly. It's pretty hard to tune a car when everything isn't working right, so Larry's done a good job of making sure all the equipment on the car is working right. As time goes on, I think we'll see more of what he can do to improve the team, as far as new ideas and implementing them.

Q - You were down to your final qualifying run without being qualified at two of the first three races. How do you cope with situations like that?

A - I'm only going to be 34 on April 6, but stuff like that makes me feel a lot older in a hurry. It puts pressure on everybody . . . the driver, the crew chief, the crew, the owner and sponsors. We haven't been able to go out there in Friday's first qualifying session and get in the show and work from there. We kind of worked on that a little bit in testing the Monday after the Gainesville race. As close as the field is and as tight as point standings are, you just can't afford not to qualify. That hurt us a couple times last year. The teams that get in the show on the first run Friday will have a big advantage because they can try different combinations on other qualifying runs.

One of the things we're going to see in Las Vegas is a Friday night qualifying session for the first time this year. The tires are going to react much differently than they do in warm weather because they are a much better tire at night. I think you'll see better qualifying numbers at this race than you did at Gainesville. They might be artificial numbers because they'll come from that night session. It's going to be extremely important there to make a good Friday afternoon run so you can be at the back of the pack on the Friday night run. Depending on the weather, the No. 1 qualifier will probably come from Friday night's session.

Q - After going 26 races without racing Capps, was it a relief to finally get that one out of the way in the first round at Gainesville?

A - I don't know if it was a relief or not. We both agreed we hated it. I told Ron it wasn't just the pressure of the round win; it was the pressure of not wanting to make any mistakes on the run because you'd never hear the end of it from your crew. I knew how tough he was going to be. I knew the cars were set up the same. I like going against drivers where you don't know what they're going to do. If we're going to race each other, I'd rather have it come later in the day so we aren't taking each other out so early. The only good thing to come out of it was that we knew there was going to be a Skoal Racing car in the second round. (Capps won with a 4.966-second run to Johnson's traction-troubled 7.008.)

For the Record . . .

The Johnson-Capps Skoal Racing showdown at Gainesville was the first time the drivers raced as teammates. Overall, they are 2-2 in head-to-head competition. Johnson won the first two meetings, defeating Capps at the 1996 Winternationals when both were driving Top Fuel dragsters and in the Funny Car finals at Reading, Pa., in 1999. Capps has taken the last two, beating Johnson in Memphis in 2000 and at Gainesville.


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