MORRISON, Colo. – Racing at Bandimere Speedway may present challenges unlike any on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit. But with what Tommy Johnson Jr. and his team have already overcome this season, the Funny Car standout appears more than ready for their latest test.
Johnson is back driving full-time for the first time since 2008, and the driver of the 10,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger responded from a series of engine explosions with flying colors during the recent four-race stretch, winning one race, advancing to two finals and jumping to fourth in points.
That has Johnson and his team confident heading into the three-week NHRA Western Swing, which starts this weekend by racing at an elevation of more than 5,800 feet at the 35th annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway.
"I think there are many signs during a season that show the caliber of a team and the character of the guys,” Johnson said. “We came back from the first three (races) in a row, where we had three explosions and a tremendous amount of work for the guys, and with our backs against the wall we could easily have turned in another direction. But instead they fought, worked hard, and we were able to be very successful during these last four races. That shows the chemistry within the team, and I'm very impressed. I'm also thrilled and excited to continue the rest of the season."
Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Shawn Gann (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were winners of the 2013 event. The race will once again be televised on ESPN2 and marks the 14th of 24 events during the 2014 season.
With the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship nearing, Johnson and his Don Schumacher Racing team are hitting their stride at the perfect time. But the team has been solid for nearly the entire season and hasn’t lost a first-round matchup since the fourth race of the season in late March.
The string of engine explosions proved confounding for a short time, but Johnson’s driving abilities have been strong all season. With 14 races now under his belt, Johnson’s confidence continues to grow.
“I'm way more comfortable,” Johnson said. “It's different than it was the beginning of the season. I was gaining confidence with just driving a Funny Car earlier in the year and getting back in the groove, and now my focus has changed to driving well and being on top of the game instead of just being in it. Everybody is starting to really jell together and John (Collins, crew chief) has done a great job bringing everyone together.”
The growing relationship between Collins and Johnson has also been important, especially heading into this rigorous three-race stretch that starts in Denver. Johnson isn’t making bold predictions, but he also feels his car is capable of winning at all three locations with the momentum the team has built in recent weeks.
“I've never gone into the Western Swing with a level of confidence that would allow me to think my team could sweep the Swing, but the way the car is running and how well we're doing I'm excited,” Johnson said. “At the very least, we know we can continue the direction we're going and that's our focus. We're still continuing to build and get better, and if we keep working in that direction I think we're looking good."
Johnson’s victory came in Bristol with a tremendous performance against an ultra-competitive field and he followed that with a runner-up showing in Chicago. To nab his first victory in Denver, Johnson, who has eight career victories, will have to top a star-studded list of challengers that includes Pedregon, points leader Robert Hight, six-time Denver winner John Force, who won the most recent event in Norwalk, Courtney Force, two-time season winner Alexis DeJoria, Matt Hagan, Ron Capps, Del Worsham, Jack Beckman and Tim Wilkerson.
"We've basically been preparing for Denver ever since Norwalk because you have to do so many things different there just to make the car run,” Johnson said. “I've always had a lot of success in Denver, so for me, personally, it's a race I enjoy. I think because it is so different, a lot of teams don't necessarily look forward to it but that could work in our favor. If we go in there with a great attitude, it will just make things easier for our Make-A-Wish team.”
Massey is after a second straight win at Bandimere Speedway in Top Fuel and currently has two wins in 2014. He will be challenged by Antron Brown, who has two wins at the Denver event and won the most recent event in Norwalk, and seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher, as well as points leader Doug Kalitta, reigning world champ Shawn Langdon, rising star and past Denver winner J.R. Todd, sophomore-sensation Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, Khalid alBalooshi and rookie Richie Crampton.
Team Mopar/Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart driver Allen Johnson took the Pro Stock win in Denver last year, giving him five career victories at Bandimere Speedway. His primary challengers this season include teammate and reigning champion Jeg Coughlin, points leader Erica Enders-Stevens, who is after her first win in Denver, Vincent Nobile, who is the most recent event winner, Greg Anderson, Jason Line, V Gaines, Dave Connolly, Shane Gray and Chris McGaha.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team of Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec sit first and second, respectively, in the points standings and will face strong competition from the likes of reigning world champion Matt Smith, John Hall, Hector Arana Jr., who won the most recent event in Chicago, Michael Ray and Scotty Pollacheck.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans will also want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
The race also will feature the thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series.