NHRA Reading Post-Race Recap
Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals
Presented by Pennzoil
Event 14 of 20
Countdown Event 1 of 7
Maple Grove Raceway
Sept. 10 – 12, 2021
DSR Elimination Highlights:
- Tommy Johnson Jr. raced to victory at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil on behalf of Matt Hagan, who is currently sidelined due to COVID-19
- Johnson’s triumph propelled Hagan, the defending Funny Car world champion, from fifth to second in the point standings and within one round win of the points lead
- By capturing the win on Sunday, Johnson collected his 23rd Wally trophy, and victory No. 364 for Don Schumacher Racing, drag racing’s winningest team
- Leah Pruett (Top Fuel) and Ron Capps (Funny Car) advanced to the quarterfinals. Pruett now occupies the No. 5 spot in the standings, with Capps moving into third
Tommy Johnson Jr. Wins Reading Playoff Race
on Behalf of Sidelined Matt Hagan
Johnson Clinches Funny Car Victory No. 23
at Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals
Presented by Pennzoil
READING, Penn. (September 12, 2021) – ‘Unprecedented’ has been the name of the game for most things COVID-related, and NHRA Drag Racing is no exception. Under the most unusual circumstances, Tommy Johnson Jr. won the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, collecting Wally trophy No. 23 while competing on behalf of Matt Hagan who now sits in the No. 2 position on the Funny Car leaderboard thanks in part to Johnson and his efforts behind the wheel of Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.
After testing positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, Hagan withdrew from the Indianapolis event and former Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car pilot Tommy Johnson Jr. was called upon to substitute for Hagan in his absence. Hagan’s entry was ranked No. 1 heading into the Indy race, the final ‘regular season’ event before the points were reset for the Countdown to the Championship, and Johnson was focused on helping Hagan and the Mopar team, the defending Funny Car series champions, maintain their top-seeded ranking. In an unfortunate series of events, Johnson and the team failed to qualify for the U.S. Nationals when a mechanical malfunction forced Johnson to abort his first qualifying attempt following his burnout, and Mother Nature washed out Saturday’s two additional sessions, causing Hagan to fall all the way from first to fifth in the point standings heading into the start of the Countdown to the Championship.
When Johnson was tasked with the Mopar Dodge Funny Car driving responsibilities for the Reading, Penn. event, the first of seven Countdown playoff races, he and the team were eager to redeem themselves. They wasted no time returning to championship-form, unloading with a 3.895-second run at 333.82 mph on Friday night, which held up to be the second-quickest pass of the session and was also recorded as a career-best speed for Johnson, who started race day from the No. 4 position.
Johnson and the Dickie Venables-led Mopar Dodge Funny Car team dominated the field on Sunday, putting together a string of quick and consistent runs, which included two 3.8-second E.T.s to defeat Jim Campbell and Ron Capps, a 3.902 E.T. to take down J.R. Todd in the semifinals, and a stout 3.926-second at 330.23 mph pass to outrun John Force’s 3.946-second pass in the final round. Johnson’s triumph, which was victory No. 364 for drag racing’s winningest team, propelled Hagan from fifth to second in the point standings and within one round win of Force, the current point leader.
“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.’ 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. I thank them for the opportunity. I thank Don Schumacher, and Matt, I hope you get to feeling better. 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,” he added. “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, okay, there’s nothing to it now.’ I was astonished when I threw the parachutes (in the finals) and saw the win light come on. I just burst out laughing because I couldn’t believe it happened. I thought, ‘you’ve gotta be kidding.’ We’ve come a long way in a week.”
Victories are always sweet, but Sunday’s win at Maple Grove Raceway was extra special for Johnson. Not only was he able to find his way back to the winner’s circle after being away from the driver’s seat since October 2020, but Johnson dedicated the win to his father, the late Tommy Johnson Sr., who passed earlier this year. After his win, Johnson reflected on memories he shared with his father at the Reading, Penn. facility, which is also where Johnson captured his career-first Funny Car win in 1999.
“This has always been a special track for me,” said Johnson. “I won my first Funny Car race here. 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. I kept thinking of my dad all day. He and I had our own Top Fuel team for a few years and came out here and raced a few years 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, of course, was paying close attention throughout the weekend, tuning in on FS1 and NHRA.tv, watching to see how the event and points would play out, and had nothing but praise for Johnson and the team.
“I am so proud of my guys,” said Hagan, who is eagerly awaiting clearance to return to competition. “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. These guys did great. 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. They won today and I’m so proud of each and every one of them. Dickie Venables is just an amazing guy, an amazing leader, and a great crew chief, and does what it takes to get it done. That’s why we’ve won so many championships together and done so well. I can’t say thank you enough to T.J. for stepping in and bringing his A-game.”Qualified: No. 4 (3.895 E.T. at 333.82 MPH)
E1: 3.892 E.T. at 335.58 MPH defeated Jim Campbell 4.278 E.T. at 242.02 MPH
E2: 3.892 E.T. at 332.02 MPH defeated Ron Capps 3.924 E.T. at 331.12 MPH
E3: 3.902 E.T. at 331.53 MPH defeated J.R. Todd 3.905 E.T. at 332.75 MPH
E4: 3.926 E.T. at 330.23 MPH defeated John Force 3.946 E.T. at 328.54 MPH
Driver of the Matco Tools Toyota Top Fuel Dragster
Qualified: No. 7 (3.731 E.T. at 329.34 MPH)
E1: 5.755 E.T. at 121.47 MPH defeated by Leah Pruett 3.930 E.T. at 279.44 MPH
Three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion Antron Brown began his campaign for a fourth series title by qualifying the Matco Tools Toyota seventh at the first of seven Countdown to the Championship playoff races to set up a Sunday morning battle with DSR stablemate, Leah Pruett. Against Pruett, Brown clinched the starting line advantage but his machine lost traction by the 330-foot mark. Pruett also encountered problems but was further down the track when her dragster started to haze the tires and she was able to hang on for the round win.
Brown leaves Reading, Penn. ranked sixth in the Top Fuel standings, but won’t have to wait long to avenge his E1 loss as the NHRA returns to competition next weekend for the Carolina Nationals in Concord, N.C., beginning on Friday, September 17th.
“This was not the race we wanted to start the Countdown. We came here to win this race. We’re looking at the positives and we made some good gains with this Matco Tools car this weekend. We’re looking forward to getting to Charlotte, and continuing down this road we’re on. Our main goal is to qualify in the top three, that’s what we’re shooting for and then get after it on race day. The good thing is that we only have to wait a few days to get back on the track and we’re hungry.”
Driver of the Mopar Dodge//SRT Top Fuel Dragster
Qualified: No. 8 (3.733 E.T. at 323.89 MPH)
E1: 3.930 E.T. at 279.44 MPH defeated Antron Brown 5.755 E.T. at 121.47 MPH
E2: 4.025 E.T. at 227.23 MPH defeated by Brittany Force 3.704 E.T. at 334.48 MPH
Leah Pruett began her fifth NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoff run ranked fourth in the standings, and qualified her Mopar Dodge//SRT Top Fuel dragster in the eighth position to start race day at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil. Round one of eliminations featured an intramural battle between Pruett and teammate Antron Brown. While Brown had the jump on the starting line, he started smoking the tires near the 330-foot mark and Pruett was able to take advantage of her teammate’s troubles to pull ahead into the lead. Her 11,000-horsepower rail started to haze the tires shortly after, but Pruett kept her foot on the throttle and maneuvered her Mopar machine across the finish line first. In the quarterfinals against Brittany Force, Pruett again encountered issues and started hazing the tires just before halftrack. She slowed to a 4.025 E.T. while her opponent made a clean run for the win.
Pruett departs Maple Grove Raceway ranked fifth in the Top Fuel standings.
“The thing about momentum is, you want it to last as long as possible and we felt like we had it coming into race day. Matching up against our teammate, we expected a great race from starting line to finish line, and we smoked the tires way far out and did a great job pedaling to get the win light. We made some adjustments on the tire spin going into E2 against the No. 1 qualifier and we thought we had it tuned up the right way, but we ended up smoking the tires down track. At this very moment, we feel like we have a gremlin in this system but we have a few days to figure it out. We’ll work hard to fine-tune things for Charlotte. The points will stay tight as we’re early in this Countdown and we’re ready to make up for this weekend in Charlotte.”
Driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
Qualified: No. 5 (3.896 E.T. at 328.86 MPH)
E1: 3.929 E.T. at 327.82 MPH defeated Blake Alexander 5.500 E.T. at 131.65 MPH
E2: 3.924 E.T. at 331.12 MPH defeated by Tommy Johnson Jr. 3.892 E.T. at 332.02 MPH
2016 Funny Car world champion Ron Capps entered Maple Grove Raceway as the No. 1 Funny Car seed following a runner-up finish at the Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals the weekend prior. Capps and the NAPA AUTO PARTS Funny Car team wasted no time picking up right where they left off in Indianapolis, clocking the lowest E.T. of Q2 to collect three bonus points and secure a qualifying position in the top half of the field to start race day. Capps began eliminations with a round one victory over Blake Alexander where he used a holeshot start coupled with a solid 3.929 E.T. to lead his opponent from start to finish.
In the quarterfinals, Capps drew Tommy Johnson Jr. who was filling in for DSR teammate Matt Hagan who remains sidelined as he recovers from COVID-19. Once again, Capps clinched the starting line advantage and recorded another consistent 3.92-second pass behind the wheel of the NAPA Dodge, but Johnson’s quicker 3.892 E.T. allowed him to cross the finish line stripe first, ending Capps’ day after round two.
Capps will head to the NHRA Carolina Nationals in Charlotte ranked third in the standings. While he fell two spots in Reading, Penn., Capps is less than one round behind the current point leader.
“We hope that Matt Hagan returns to competition soon. What else can you say about Tommy Johnson Jr. He was my teammate for several years at Don Prudhomme’s and then over here at DSR. You’re talking about one of the best drivers ever in Funny Car, and to be sitting out this long and jump in and seamlessly keep that car running the way it is, is amazing. We didn’t have lane choice in round two, but that’s no excuse. These two lanes are great. Like I told (crew chiefs) ‘Guido’ (Dean Antonelli) and John Medlen, you pat them on the butt and say ‘great weekend.’ We went down the track each run under power. We did have a little hiccup during Q3, but we showed that NAPA Know How I always talk about today on race day with two great 3.92 laps. We feel like we can win every weekend, and it’s getting tough. Everybody has that Countdown fever. I can’t wait to get to Charlotte no matter what the points are. I’ve got a great feeling.”NHRA Camping World Countdown to the Championship Standings (unofficial):
1 Steve Torrence 2179
2 Brittany Force 2167
3 Billy Torrence 2137
4 Justin Ashley 2124
5 Leah Pruett 2113
6 Antron Brown 2103
7 Shawn Langdon 2102
8 Mike Salinas 2078
9 Clay Millican 2067
10 Doug Kalitta 2032
1 John Force 2172
2 Matt Hagan 2167
3 Ron Capps 2157
4 J.R. Todd 2133
5 Robert Hight 2121
6 Bob Tasca III 2106
7 Cruz Pedregon 2083
7 Alexis DeJoria 2063
9 Tim Wilkerson 2048
10 Blake Alexander 2032
ABOUT DON SCHUMACHER RACING
Established in 1998 as a single-car Top Fuel team, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) has grown to become the winningest organization in NHRA Drag Racing history, and further cemented its position as one of motorsports’ elite teams when it surpassed the ‘350 wins’ milestone during the 2020 season. DSR owns 18 world championships in three different NHRA categories, and including hall-of-fame team owner Don Schumacher’s five NHRA Funny Car triumphs from the 1970s, DSR has been successful in capturing 364 national event victories overall.
Headquartered in Brownsburg, Indiana, DSR fields four professional teams competing in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. Three-time world champion Antron Brown, and double-duty driver Leah Pruett headline DSR’s Top Fuel dragster team. DSR’s two Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Cars are driven by 2016 Funny Car world champion Ron Capps, and Matt Hagan, who earned his third NHRA series title in 2020.
DSR also campaigns three entries in the NHRA Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown Series. The trio of DSR Dodge Drag Paks is piloted by Pruett, the 2018 series champion, former Pro Stock racer Mark Pawuk, and David Davies who made his FSS debut in 2021.
Photo Credit: Auto Imagery via Don Schumacher Racing, Driver photos: NHRA