A clutch performance by Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) driver Tommy Johnson Jr. at the Mopar® Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals Presented by Pennzoil not only gave the MD Anderson Dodge Charger SRT® Hellcat driver his third Wally trophy of the year, but it kept him firmly in contention and fighting for his first Funny Car world championship with just one race left in the 2020 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Drag Racing Series season.
From his sixth place seeding, Johnson began his run through eliminations with a first round win over Jim Campbell, followed by a close battle with J.R. Todd in the quarterfinals that advanced him into the semifinals to meet top-ranked Matt Hagan and his No. 2 seeded Pennzoil Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat for a match-up with critical championship implications. Johnson’s 3.941-second run to beat Hagan’s 3.981-second lap lessen the points margin between them in the standings and sent the MD Anderson Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat driver to his fourth final of the year.
Johnson continued to show his mettle against Ron Capps in a head-to-head battle for a Wally, marking the sixth time this season that DSR teammates would meet in a final elimination.
Johnson double-bulbed his opponent, then by posted a 3.929-second pass at 321.04 mph to beat Capps’ 3.9520-second run at 325.14 mph for a three-thousandths-of-a-second margin of victory at the finish line.
“It was a must-win,” said Johnson who moved up into the second place in the standings just 42 points behind Hagan and one point ahead of Jack Beckman heading into the Dodge NHRA Finals next weekend in Las Vegas.
“I think we’ve been a thorn in their side a little bit because we just keep coming back every time. It’s like a heavyweight battle. We get back up and here we come again and keep swinging. Just really proud of these guys. They don’t quit. You can’t quit. It’s been a weird year and it’s been a good year for us. Three wins this year. Just super happy to see the fight in these guys.”
While Johnson finished third in the championship on three occasions (2014, 2015 and 2018) and runner-up in the 2016, this is the first time he has had a viable chance to win a championship with just one race remaining.
“This has got drama written all over it when we go to Vegas,” said Johnson of the three-way battle with his teammates thanks to a points-and-a half format that will likely only see a winner determined in the final round. “It’s probably our best shot. In the years past we have been third three times and been second once and we weren’t expected to be. We’re kind of like, ‘oh where they come from’ and this time we’re there and wanting to go.”
The victory at Houston Raceway Park has also kept DSR’s quad of Funny Cars undefeated this season, extending the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat win streak to 13 national events that dates back to October 2019. The DSR Dodge foursome continue to dominate the Funny Car championship rankings, occupying the top four spots with Hagan, Johnson, Beckman and Capps respectively heading into the season finale.
Capps for his part came into the penultimate race weekend fourth in the standings, and the Pennzoil/NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat driver did everything he could to do to remain in the fight. He upset the No. 1 qualifier Jack Beckman in the opening round, dropping his teammate to third in the standings with the loss. He then used a holeshot win to defeat Cruz Pedregon and advance to the semis where he crossed the finish line ahead of Alexis DeJoria but on fire after the engine expired, necessitating a swap to the backup car for the final against Johnson. While finishing runner-up doesn’t completely mathematically eliminate Capps from the battle for the crown, the Vegas odds are not on his side.
From her third place spot in the Top Fuel standings, Leah Pruett was looking to keep championship hopes alive for her black and yellow Pennzoil dragster after qualifying in the top half of the eliminations ladder. A win over Lee Callaway meant a second round pairing with Billy Torrence with important points on the line. Both posted identical 3.708 second elapsed time runs, but her opponent’s quicker start brought Pruett’s day and championship hopes to end as it allowed category leader Steve Torrence to further his lead to an insurmountable 198-point margin.
The Factory Stock Showdown (FSS) championship was determined by a semifinal match-up that pitted the top-ranked competitors in the category. No. 2 qualifier Mark Pawuk and his Empaco Equipment Mopar Drag Pak lined-up against points leader Aaron Stanfield but unfortunately saw a quick end to his race and title chase with a rare red-light start, thus handing Stanfield the round win and allowing him to also claim the FSS championship. While the title chase might be over for Pawuk, he will work to secure his No. 2 ranking with four more rounds of racing left to contest in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile Pawuk’s teammate Pruett qualified her Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak 11th in a quest to post a win this season, but unfortunately saw an early end to her day after hitting the throttle in the opening round only to lose traction and watch her opponent turn on the win lights. The 2020 NHRA season will conclude next weekend at the Dodge NHRA Finals in Las Vegas with television coverage to be broadcast on FS1 on Sunday, Nov. 1, from 4- 7 p.m. ET featuring live coverage of the final rounds.