MORRISON, Colo. — Allen Johnson has been treating the famed Western Swing as a dress rehearsal for the upcoming Countdown to 1, NHRA’s championship playoffs.
The way he figures, if his Team Mopar crew can put a lot of points on the board during the grueling three-week stretch of races near the end of NHRA’s 17-race regular season, it’ll give his team a small glimpse of what chasing the Pro Stock championship crown will be like come September.
As the team gears up for the 31st annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals near Denver this weekend, the third and final race of NHRA’s annual Western Swing — and the final event in an exhausting nine-race stretch in 11 weeks — the defending event winner is hoping for a better outcome at scenic Bandimere Speedway. So far on the Western Swing, Johnson has two quarterfinal exits and earned a No. 1 qualifying position at Sonoma.
“We’ve pretended that we’re already in the Countdown and we’re trying to win races and do away with mistakes,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’ve challenged the guys to do. This Western Swing has been like a mini-Countdown.”
While Pro Stock point-leader Mike Edwards has dominated for much of the season, no one has had the success of Johnson on the mountain in the last three years. Johnson has powered his Team Mopar Dodge Avenger to three-straight finals, including a runner-up finish in 2008 and another victory in 2007. He was also runner-up at the high-altitude drag strip in 2002.
Meanwhile, Edwards’s commanding lead includes eight victories and 10 No. 1 qualifying efforts in his Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP. But Johnson says the rest of the pack has reeled in the 2009 world champ in recent events. In the back half of the regular season Edwards showed a little vulnerability when he suffered first-round losses at Atlanta and Norwalk and a second-round exit last weekend at Sonoma. At Norwalk Edwards qualified a season-low 12th.
“I think in the last three or four races he’s been caught a bit,” Johnson said of Edwards. “There’s three or four cars that have caught up with him. The only thing is that he’s learned how to win and we haven’t yet. I think in the next three or four races you’ll see three or four different winners.”
Other pre-race favorites in the 200-mph category include Norwalk and Seattle winner Greg Anderson, Sonoma winner Jeg Coughlin and Sonoma runner-up Jason Line.
In Top Fuel, eight-time season winner Larry Dixon holds the series lead over a strong quartet of challengers, including Cory McClenathan, seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher, defending event winner Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta and Brandon Bernstein.
John Force is back to his winning ways in Funny Car after a lackluster 2009 season that was one of the worst in his legendary career. Defending world champ Robert Hight has been strong in his Auto Club Ford Mustang, as have team Schumacher drivers Capps, who has been to the last two finals and won at Sonoma, two-time winner Matt Hagan and Infineon No. 1 qualifier Jack Beckman. A hot summer surge that included three-consecutive final rounds and two victories pushed noted independent racer Tim Wilkerson into the championship mix as well.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, defending world champ Hector Arana has held the series lead all season despite not winning a race on his Lucas Oil Buell. Matt Smith, Andrew Hines, Steve Johnson and red-hot Michael Phillips, who won at Sonoma on his Racers Edge Suzuki, have all been consistent final round performers this season and will be in the hunt in Denver on their two-wheel machines.
Last Year: In the first race of the Western Swing, Antron Brown picked up his third Wally of the season over final-round opponent Doug Kalitta, setting the stage for the former motorcycle rider to sweep NHRA’s three-week stand out West. In Funny Car, Ron Capps defeated Ashley Force Hood for his fifth triumph of the season. Pro Stock’s Allen Johnson took the win over Jason Line on a holeshot for his second victory in three-straight final-round appearances at the Denver-area strip. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec bested Vance & Hines teammate Andrew Hines when the three-time champ red lit in the finals.
Track Records: Top Fuel: 3.862 seconds, Antron Brown, July 2009; 318.39 mph, Antron Brown, July 2009…Funny Car: 4.121 seconds, Ron Capps, July 2009; 303.37 mph, Jack Beckman, July 2009…Pro Stock: 6.957 seconds, Mike Edwards, July 2009; 197.71 mph, Mike Edwards, July 2009…Pro Stock Motorcycle: 7.319 seconds, Hector Arana, July 2009; 186.54 mph, Ryan Schnitz, July 2005.