A Mopar® machine roared its way to the winner’s circle at the Mopar Express Lane Nationals Presented by Pennzoil as the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) kicked off the “Countdown to the Championship” seven-event playoff series at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pennsylvania. Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr. powered the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT® Hellcat to victory as a reserve driver for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) after defending Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan was unable to compete as he continues his recovery from COVID-19.
In rising to the occasion, Johnson secured his 23rd career win and took home the Wally trophy while the points earned from the victory were awarded to DSR and Hagan. The result moved the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat entry from fifth to second place on the Funny Car leaderboard with six events left to battle for the world championship.
“Congratulations to Tommy Johnson Jr. for his win at the Mopar Express Lane Nationals Presented by Pennzoil,” said Mark Bosanac, North America Vice President, Mopar Service, Parts & Customer Care. “It’s great to see Tommy step in and skillfully drive to the winner’s circle at a key event representing the Mopar and Dodge//SRT brands.”
Johnson, who finished the 2020 NHRA season runner-up to Hagan in the Funny Car world championship and who had not since been behind the wheel of race car, slipped into the driver’s seat of the HEMI®-powered DSR entry and promptly drove it to the second quickest pass in Friday’s provisional qualifying session with a 3.895-second run at 333.82 mph to record his career-best speed and put himself in the No. 4 position for eliminations.
From there, Johnson and the Mopar team made their way through the rounds, defeating Jim Campbell, DSR teammate Ron Capps and J.R. Todd to advance to a final showdown against John Force. With a solid 3.926-second elapsed time run at 330.23 mph, Johnson turned on the win lights ahead of Force’s 3.946-second pass.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually,” said Johnson. “I got a call a week ago after I’ve been sitting on the sidelines for 10 months, saying ‘we need you.’ To come back and up your game that good, I mean, (Crew Chief) Dickie (Venables) and the guys have been racing all season, while I haven’t been doing anything. I thank them for the opportunity. They rose to the challenge and dove in and made me fit in this car and made everything happen.”
Watching the action live on FS1 from home, Hagan was pleased with the result for both his stand-in and his team.
“I am so proud of my guys,” said Hagan. “They got it done today. 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 today. We weren’t able to race in Indy and it was a setback, but that just goes to show, you can dig right back.”
The points earned by Johnson’s efforts puts Hagan within one round win of the Funny Car points lead.
“I can’t say thank you enough to T.J. for stepping in and bringing his A-game,” added Hagan, who awaits clearance to return to competition for the balance of the playoffs.
DSR teammate Ron Capps, who came into this first playoff event of 2021 as the top seed in the hunt for the championship after a runner-up finish at last weekend’s Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, qualified his NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat No. 5 and drove it to a holeshot win over Blake Alexander in the opening round. For his quarterfinal match up, Capps found himself paired with Johnson and while he took the early lead, the eventual event winner edged him at the finish to dethrone him from the points lead. Capps will drive his HEMI-powered machine to the next event ranked third in points.
No. 1 qualifier Cruz Pedregon began his race day by taking his Snap-on Tools Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car for a solid 3.908 seconds/318.62 mph bye-run win to advance to the quarterfinals where he would battle No. 7 seed Todd. Pedregon put in another respectable pass at 3.981 seconds but it wasn’t enough to pass Todd and his 3.931-second pass to take the win. With this weekend’s performance, the Cruz Pedregon Racing team moved up a spot in the standings to seventh place.
In the hunt for a Top Fuel championship for a sixth consecutive season, Leah Pruett began this playoff series ranked fourth in the points standings and qualified her white and blue Mopar dragster next to DSR teammate and No. 7 seed Antron Brown. While both had traction issues, Pruett stayed with it for the round win. That set up a quarterfinal battle against No.1 qualifier Brittany Force, against whom Pruett lost traction halfway through the run to end her hopes of advancing further. The result puts her Mopar Dodge//SRT dragster fifth in the Top Fuel standings. The “Countdown to the Championship” continues next weekend with the second of the seven NHRA playoff series events, the Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept 17-19.