Already this has been an emotional season for Pro Stock points leader Allen Johnson.
He was keyed up even before the Winternationals, eager to get the season started. He had ended the 2011 season with final-round appearances at two of the final three races and a career-best fourth place in the standings. He had the car that had run a 6.466-second elapsed time, unofficially the quickest pass in Pro Stock history, during pre-season testing in Florida. That E.T. still trumps Jason Line's national record of 6.477 seconds from last October at Reading, Pa.
"I'm just dying to get going," Johnson said in February.
Since that race at Pomona, Calif., the Greeneville, Tenn., owner-driver has ridden a moody roller coaster. He's hoping to close the season at that same racetrack in November with his first NHRA series championship.
At various times this season, Johnson has been satisfied, spoofed, stunned, and simply superb. By his own description, he has "puffed out his chest" on more than one occasion, yet he also has sat in stunning surprise on the wrong end of a wafer-thin margin of victory. His rivals have poked fun at him and his Mopar association, referring to him as a "rubber-crank," and he has responded by steamrolling them in the standings.
Johnson repeatedly has credited his engine-genius dad Roy, longtime crew chief Mark Ingersoll, and recent addition Jim Yates for the fact they're "strutting our HEMI stuff." At Denver, where he qualified No. 1 and won for his sponsor in the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, he declared, "The Mopar Dodge Avenger is bad to the bone. The crew is bad to the bone."
Presenting Mopar with that trophy capped perhaps his most dominating day, and his heart seemed to swell with a palpable passion. Allen Johnson generally is a controlled individual (aside from lobbing bottled water across the shutdown area in utter frustration at his own mistake), but that weekend at Denver, he was especially gratified, saying, "It means the world to have Mopar with us. My Dad and I have raced Mopars all our lives, and the brand has such a deep loyalty and commitment to us."
And on the verge of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the 58th edition of the NHRA's storied marquee event, Johnson is ready to surpass all of his successes for one rewarding weekend. He's aiming to win this race for the first time, secure his No. 1 seeding in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, gain 20 extra points on the field, generate some momentum, and prove finally that his hot rod is the best in the brutally competitive class.
He has shown the class that's true in qualifying with nine No. 1 starts, including six in a row.
"Hopefully the good vibes we have had the last few races will carry on into the U.S. Nationals and we can go up there and show off a little in our Mopar Dodge Avenger," Johnson said.
"Indy is one of the most important events of the year, prestige-wise," Johnson said. "It's also the last event of the regular season, so you want to get some momentum going for when the Countdown starts. Heading to Indy leading the points is very prestigious for every member of our Mopar/J&J Racing team."
He never has been to a final at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis but was No. 1 qualifier in 2008. He has advanced to the U.S. Nationals semifinals in each of the past two years and five times overall.
"Winning at Indy would be right up there with winning the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals in Denver, our sponsor's race. It would be very big," he said. "The U.S. Nationals rank right up there, prestige-wise and money-wise, as one of the biggest events of the year. It would certainly mean a lot to win it."
Johnson can claim the top spot for the playoff merely by qualifying for the 16-driver field in this finale of the so-called "regular season."
It's a feat he could be proud of, for sure, especially after he was bogged down in eighth place early this year.
"There's a lot of firsts happening for us this year," Johnson said. "It's the first time I've won three races in a year. This is a tough dang sport. I don't care how good your car is running, it's tough."
The team hit its stride after a victory at Las Vegas, and it added triumphs at Topeka, Denver, and Sonoma. Suddenly spiking Erica Enders spoiled his Seattle performance that ended his magnificent Western Swing streak.
In that three-race stretch, he won at Denver and Sonoma, Calif. He had low E.T. of every qualifying session on the Swing, low E.T. of every round at Denver, and low E.T. in three of four rounds at Sonoma (Enders was quickest of the race in the opening round). At Seattle, he qualified No. 1 with low E.T. and top speed of the meet and best E.T. of the first two rounds -- before Enders shut down his bid to sweep the Western Swing.
Now he has a chance to shine, in this shiniest of years for him, on the track that class icon Bob Glidden used to dominate. Johnson indicated he's ready for the famous strip.
"The track at Indy can get kind of tricky when the heat gets on it," he said . "Hopefully we've worked through those issues that have caused us problems [here] in the past. We just have to keep doing what we've been doing. Our Mopar Dodge Avenger is very fast and consistent right now."
Johnson said he's "in test mode right now, knowing the good position that we are in with the points. We're trying some things at the races that we normally wouldn't. We're still going to be fast and still want to qualify on top and win the race, but we might be doing some things outside of the box on every qualifying run, just to get a little more under our belt for the Countdown."
Although Johnson ended last season on an upswing, he still has grown in leaps and bounds as a driver.
In the preseason, Johnson literally couldn't flex his muscles in a Superman-like pose. He underwent surgery in the off-season surgery to repair his right bicep, and Richie Stevens (Enders' fiance) was behind the wheel of Johnson's Avenger for that off-the-record test run as Johnson recuperated from his surgery at that time.
Now he wears that win-or-burst passion on his sleeve -- and he's more than ready to flex his muscles once again.
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