Johnny Gray Looks To Defend Sonoma Victory

Johnny Gray, shown winning at Norwalk, Ohio, July 7, is hanging up his driving gloves after the final run down the historic race track in Pomona. (NHRA Photo)
Johnny Gray, shown winning at Norwalk, Ohio, July 7, hopes to repeat his 2012 victory at Sonoma Raceway this weekend. (NHRA Photo)

SONOMA, Calif. — With four wins in four final round appearances, it may seem as though Johnny Gray has figured out precisely what buttons to push in what has already been a marvelous 2013 season for the Funny Car standout.

But Gray knows how difficult it can be in a rigorous class and he’s been sure not to take any of the success for granted, no matter how many spectacular runs his 8,000-horsepower Pitch Energy Dodge Charger continues to produce.

Gray, who is third in the Funny Car points standings, is ready for more eye-catching performances as he heads to Sonoma Raceway, July 26-28 for the NHRA Sonoma Nationals. Gray had it all figured out a year ago at the track and enters the second event of the three-race Western Swing as the defending champion.

But despite all of the accolades that have gone Gray’s way in 2013, he fully realizes how fickle the sport can be.

“We’re still just taking it one race at a time, one day at a time, one hour at a time,” Gray said. “These cars are so finicky, everybody knows you can be a hero one day and a zero the next. With so many great drivers in this class, it’s always tough.”

At times, Gray has made it look easy during his magical season, which he has termed his final one as a full-time NHRA driver. If that truly is the case, this “retirement” tour has featured plenty of perks, including his most recent win in Norwalk in early July.

Gray and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps posted identical 4.103-second runs in the final round, but Gray was quicker off the starting line in a thrilling side-by-side duel to capture his fourth victory. Returning to Sonoma, the site of one of his two 2012 victories, Gray continues to feel good about the direction of his team.

“We ran well last year, and I knew this team was definitely capable of doing this,” Gray said. “Now the team just continues to grow, and as you can tell we’re just getting better and better. It’s a good sign and it’s a good feeling and we feel good about where we’re headed.”

The end goal is a championship for Gray, which would obviously be the perfect capper to the season. But nothing will come easy in Funny Car, where things continue to get tighter each weekend. Even with a class-best four wins Gray sits in third, an indicator of how competitive the class has been.

Everyone is chasing 2011 world champion Matt Hagan, who is back in championship form as the series point leader. But he has plenty of tough completion bearing down on him, including includes two-time Sonoma winner Cruz Pedregon, who won last weekend in Denver and has three victories in 2013, seven-time Sonoma winner John Force, Courtney Force, a two-time winner in 2013, and defending world champion Jack Beckman.

Still, Gray feels confident in his chances as the Countdown to the Championship approaches.

“I really believe if we have any luck at all we’re going to be sitting first, second or third when we starting the Countdown (to the Championship),” Gray said. “If we have as good of a car then as we do now, we have as good of a shot as anybody to win the whole thing. That’s the way we have to go after it the rest of the year.”

Gray also knows he has work to do this weekend in Sonoma after a disappointing first-round exit in Denver. Returning to sea level for the race at Sonoma Raceway can be a challenging adjustment, but Gray has always felt at home at a track that annually produces some of the quickest runs in the NHRA.

“I consider it really pretty hard on the guys,” Gray said. “You take all the pistons and stuff you’ve changed, you take it all back out and put all your regular stuff back on. It’s a lot of work for the guys, but racing in places like Denver and Sonoma, it makes it worthwhile.”



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