That same night, NASCAR’s 11-time reigning most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second Daytona 500.
Even among the drag racing faithful, the NHRA heavily promoted the first win for Alexis DeJoria in the Funny Car ranks. DeJoria is the wife of television personality Jesse James and the daughter of businessman John Paul DeJoria, famous for the Paul Mitchell Hair Care commercials.
Still, Johnson’s second win at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix and his 21st career Pro Stock win overall was no small feat. It was the sixth year in a row the 54-year-old Greeneville driver has won an NHRA national event.
“It’s a pretty big deal to us to be consistent winners,” Johnson said. The last six to eight years, we’ve had a team worthy of being a champion. It took us a few years to learn how to win more than one (race). The last four years, we’ve won multiple races, and we have one of the most veteran teams out there.”
Johnson, the 2012 NHRA Pro Stock champion, captured his second Phoenix title by beating fellow Dodge driver V. Gaines in the final round. Johnson rocketed down the track with a 6.543 second elapsed time at 212.23 miles per hour as Gaines lost traction.
“V (Gaines) is a class act who is running really good in a Mopar as of late and he’s going to be tough all year long,” said Johnson who moved into a tie for third place in the Mello Yello points standings behind Gaines and Jason Line. “I’m only here because we have a great crew. They worked and got it right, and this is a great way to send this Mopar Dodge Avenger out on a winning note.”
The driver was referring to the final race for the Avenger, which is scheduled to be replaced at the next event, the NHRA Gatornationals in Florida.
It has been reported the Dart will be the body style to debut in Gainesville. Sunday’s win for the Avenger was big for Dodge. It came exactly 50 years after Richard Petty won the 1964 Daytona 500 with a Generation II 426 Race HEMI engine.
This year’s Daytona 500 featured another win for Hendrick Motorsports, which has been the dominant team in NASCAR the last several seasons. In the NHRA Pro Stock ranks, Johnson’s team has been the one to beat, at least over the past two seasons.
Johnson and his J&J Racing teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. have won the past two NHRA Pro Stock titles, while 12 of Johnson’s 21 career wins have since the start of the 2012 season.
“The last two years, our team has won 20 races,” Johnson said. “That’s nearly half the races we’ve won. If you throw in V. Gaines and all of them using our motors, it is half the races. The engine program we’ve got with J&J Racing, it’s really been something. We made some good progress, even this past week, in power.”
Still, it takes a good car to put all that power from the motor on the track.
Johnson was solid, not spectacular, in qualifying sixth for the race. He won the first round of eliminations over Jimmy Alund despite getting off the starting line with a .072 reaction time.
He was closer on the line in his quarterfinal win over Jason Line, whom he simply overpowered. The strong car was needed again in the semifinals to overcome a blistering start by Dave Connolly.
Johnson was quick to credit his team for the victory, particularly coming off a tough loss in the season-opening NHRA Winternationals. After qualifying second, Johnson lost to Larry Morgan in a first-round upset. He blamed himself, particularly his slow reaction time of .128 seconds for the loss.
“I have a great crew that kept digging and wouldn’t give up after we struggled a little early on and got behind in qualifying,” Johnson said.. “Pomona was probably my worst personal performance in 18 years. It ticked me off to be honest and I wanted to make it right. I still didn't do my best here as I was responsible for one round-win, and my crew was responsible for the other three.”
Johnson and the rest of the NHRA circuit has the next two weekends off before the Gatornationals, which are scheduled for March 13-16.