It was a wild action-packed day of racing at the Mopar Express Lane Midwest Nationals Presented by Pennzoil at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis that concluded with an all-Mopar Funny Car final round showdown, a record 11th consecutive national event victory for the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) team, and a shuffling atop the leaderboard for the final stretch in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Funny Car world championship.
Tommy Johnson Jr. earned his second Wally trophy of the 2020 season by defeating DSR teammates Jack Beckman in the semifinals and then Matt Hagan in the final, both of whom he is battling in a tight Funny Car championship fight with just three national events remaining. Johnson did it decisively by posting the quickest run of the weekend in the final, a 3.884-second, 326 mph effort aboard his MD Anderson Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, to edge out Hagan’s 3.886-second pass at 330 mph.
“The last couple races have been “must do well” races and you look over there (at DSR teammates Beckman and Hagan) and they’re still going rounds, so when you do face-up against them, it’s a must-win,” said Johnson. “You can’t let them keep going rounds or you fall a round behind. It was huge to be able to take out both of them today and keep ourselves securely planted in it and make it a solid three three-man race right now”.
While Johnson remains third in the standings, the win keeps him in contention with just 34 points separating the three teammates atop the leaderboard. His win also extends the DSR’s unprecedented streak of victories to a record 11 national events since October 2019.
“It’s incredible that we won that many races in a row as a team and that I won the race today,” added Johnson. “It’s a tribute to all the hard work, even through the lockdowns and everything. These guys are at the shop working and trying to make everything better even not knowing when we would race again. They continually worked hard to keep that advantage. It’s extremely hard to make these cars run that good, that long, and that many runs in a row, so to be able to do it for this long is incredible.”
The runner-up finish by Hagan moves the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat driver into the championship lead ahead of Beckman and Johnson. He advanced to his 63rd career final elimination with round wins against Bob Bode, teammate Ron Capps, and Alexis DeJoria.
“As tough as it is to lose a close final like that, we gained ground and took the points lead, Said Hagan. ”We had a good weekend and it’s hard to complain when you make a final round. That was the bad side of a really good drag race for our Mopar team. It’s a Mopar-sponsored event and we wanted to win for Mopar and Express Lane, but at least another DSR Dodge Hellcat won again with Tommy (Johnson). I just can’t say enough about my guy working so hard with no mistakes. (Crew Chief) Dickie Venables is really tuning a mean race car. We’ve had such a fast car all season long. We’re making ground and that’s what matters. We’re used to this thing being tight and most of these championships are won on the final day of the season by one or two points. I’m extremely proud of my guys. It was a good day and weekend at St. Louis.”
Capps saw his race day end prematurely along with any hopes of remaining close to the fight atop the standings as a result of a second fiery run in two events; this one resulting in “oil-down” that cost him 10 valuable points and a quarterfinals loss to Hagan.
Race day at the Mopar Express Lane Midwest Nationals was also marked by a frightening Round 2 incident for Leah Pruett and her Mopar Top Fuel dragster. After qualifying ninth, she started her day with a solid first-round pass at 3.676 sec./ 328.38 mph over eighth-seeded opponent Pat Dakin (0.057/11.817/70.73), but hopes of adding a few more round wins were cut short on her next run. Halfway through her drag race against DSR teammate Tony Schumacher, Pruett went for a wild ride as her dragster broke in two and went airborne before landing back on track and coming to a stop. The Mopar driver exited her vehicle unaided and walked away unhurt but disappointed.
“That was the most intense round of competition I’ve ever had and the wildest ride I’ve ever had, that’s for sure,” said Pruett who, despite the setback, remains third in the standings behind points leader Steve Torrence and Doug Kalitta. “We’re still taking time to process and look at the parts and put a plan together for how to move forward. For me, my body is fine. My mind is fine. The DSR chassis and Impact safety equipment did everything it was supposed to. As a drag racer, this is what we do. There’s a risk. I think the quicker you can get back on the track, the better. Let’s not ever do that again. I thank the Lord, my team, the chassis shop, Don (Schumacher), and everybody that helped. Not a great start to October and that was an early Halloween surprise. That’s for sure.”
The brisk temperatures and windy conditions made it more difficult for low downforce vehicles to compete safely on the dragstrip and as such, the NHRA made the difficult decision to postpone racing for all other classes and categories including Factory Stock Showdown. No. 1 qualifier Mark Pawuk and fellow Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak driver Pruett, who qualified seventh, will have to wait until Monday to head to the staging lanes for FSS eliminations at World Wide Technology Raceway.
The Mopar Dodge SRT contingent will head west in two weeks for the 35th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals on Oct. 14th to the 18th at Texas Motorplex near Dallas. NHRA qualifying highlights will be broadcast on FS1 on Saturday, Oct. 17th, at 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. ET, and Sunday, Oct. 18th from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. ET. Television coverage of the elimination rounds, including Live finals from the FallNationals, will air on Sunday, Oct. 18, on FS1 from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. ET.
NHRA CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS STANDINGS:
(Following the Mopar Express Lane Midwest Nationals)
FUNNY CAR (season wins in parentheses)
1. Matt Hagan (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 659 (2)
2. Jack Beckman (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 643 (2)
3. Tommy Johnson Jr. (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 625 (2)
4. Ron Capps (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 527 (2)
5. Tim Wilkerson – 480
6. J.R. Todd – 473
7. Bob Tasca III – 465
8. Alexis DeJoria – 375
9. Paul Lee – 319
10. Cruz Pedregon – 303
TOP FUEL (season wins in parentheses)
1. Steve Torrance – 642 (3)
2. Doug Kalitta – 640 (2)
3. Leah Pruett (Mopar Dodge//SRT) – 562
4. Billy Torrance – 506 (1)
5. Terry McMillen – 436
6. Justin Ashley – 433 (1)
7. Antron Brown – 425
8. Shawn Langdon – 415 (1)
9. Clay Millican – 347
10. Tony Schumacher – 234