Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan have a whole new dimension to their professional relationship. Last year, the two Don Schumacher Racing drivers battled each other to the final day of the season at Las Vegas, and Hagan claimed his third series crown while denying Johnson his first. Now, as Hagan continues to recover from a nasty bout with COVID, Johnson is his ally. He is substituting for Hagan behind the wheel of the Mopar Dodge SRT Hellcat for the second straight race. 

“Last year, Matt and I battled it out for the championship, and now here I am trying to help him win it,” Johnson said. “And it would be cool to be a part of another championship for him.” 

Hagan told The Capital Sports Report’s Anthony Caruso that he possibly could remain sidelined for next week’s Countdown Race No. 2, at zMAX Dragway at Charlotte. Hagan said he expects to be back in the cockpit at St. Louis, at the Sept. 24-26 Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway at Madison, Ill. 

Johnson, who has won here at Reading in both 1999 and 2016, said he also hopes to remind folks that his driving skills still are sharp. 

“We’re going to go out there, do the best we can, and try to win some rounds and hopefully win the race. I’m not coming back just to take the car down the track. I want to come back and win the race and maybe raise some eyebrows on my talents.” 

His Indianapolis appearance came about in the 11th hour, and it resulted in a DNQ because of a broken wheelie bar that prevented him from making a Friday night run and a rainstorm Saturday that took away the final two qualifying sessions. “The past several days have been such a whirlwind and a roller coaster of emotions: from the excitement that I’d get to drive a nitro Funny Car again and then a letdown when we didn’t get to make a run.” 

But this time Johnson is a lot more prepared. 

“I got the call earlier this week that I may be needed again,” he said, “and fortunately, we were able to test. It allowed me to knock some rust off and get familiarized with the car and the team. That just shows you how professional this team is and how seriously they’re focused on making sure this car runs for a championship. It’s an unfortunate circumstance for sure, but I’m glad I’m able to help them out. Now that I’ve gotten a few laps under my belt, I feel very prepared going into this weekend’s race in Reading. I actually ran a career-best speed in testing [333.00 mph]. It was a really good test session overall, and I’m looking forward to going back to a track where I’ve had a lot of success in the past, and a lot of history. My first Funny Car win was at Reading in 1999, and I was fortunate to win it again a few years back with DSR. So there’s a lot of excitement and positivity going into the weekend. 

“This Mopar team has done a great job in this circumstance. I hate it for Matt that he is not able to get back behind the wheel this weekend,” Johnson said, “but I’m happy to hop in and help these guys out in their championship chase.” 

The Johnson/Hagan combo is starting the Countdown in fifth place, and Hagan will be credited any points Johnson earns.