Johnson rockets to FC pole with 4.67; Schumacher, Stevens, Ellis also lead

Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr. covered Route 66 Raceway in 4.672 seconds Friday night to highlight a very quick opening day of racing at the ninth annual CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals. The $1.9 million race is the 10th of 23 on the $50 million POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Johnson's pass was his best ever and the third quickest in class history. Richie Stevens also earned high praise for posting a 6.635 at 207.40 mph, the second quickest Pro Stock pass ever. Top Fuel's reigning champion Tony Schumacher continues to qualify well, carding a 4.484 at 329 mph to lead Top Fuel, while Chip Ellis teased the Pro Stock Motorcycle world with a track record 7.015.

Tommy Johnson Jr.

Johnson could break a five and a half-year drought if his 4.672 at 328.70 mph in Funny Car keeps him in the No. 1 position through Saturday's final two qualifying sessions. Johnson last recorded a low qualifier at the first Pomona race in 2001, his initial event with Skoal and Don Prudhomme Racing. T.J.'s elapsed time was the third quickest ever and a personal best. The last time Chevy led Funny Car was at the fall Chicago race in 2005.

"I knew that was a good pass but I didn't know it was that good," Johnson said. "I had to drive it around quite a bit down there. My radio wasn't working and when I came around the corner they held up a No. 1 so I knew then it was quick. But when they said 4.67, I was like, 'What did you say?' I couldn't believe it.

"We've been a good solid team waiting for something like this to happen. I'm really happy for the guys. This is all due to their hard work. I just steer the thing."

Eric Medlen, Robert Hight, and Cruz and Tony Pedregon also recorded 4.6-second runs Friday. Ford teammates Medlen and Hight were second and third with Medlen posting a 4.681 in his Castrol Syntec car and Hight a 4.685 in the Auto Club Mustang. The Pedregon brothers were fourth and fifth in their Monte Carlos, Cruz carding a 4.689 and Tony a 4.694.

Dale Creasy Jr. of Beecher, Ill., represents the bump with a 4.836 at 293.28 mph in the Torco Chevrolet. POWERade points leader Ron Capps is not qualified at the midway point of qualifying. His best pass in the Brut Dodge was a 5.326 in Round 1.

Tony Schumacher

Schumacher's 4.484 at 329.50 mph in a brand-new U.S. Army dragster set him up for his sixth low qualifier award of the year if that number holds. While the 4.48 was impressive, Schumacher seemed more pleased with the 4.62 he posted in Round 2.

"We made two runs in a row, yeah," Schumacher said. "You need a car that goes down the track more than once a weekend. I think we've finally got it. It's no secret that Alan [Johnson, crew chief] made a bunch of changes in the car since Topeka and we're just starting to see what it's all about now. So far, so good.

"The No. 1 spot hasn't been working for anyone this year but I'm not buying the curse thing. It's up to the team to get it done. We qualified No. 1 a bunch of times last year and won most of those races. It's just a matter of executing. There is no curse."

Doug Herbert, whose last win came here in the fall of 2004, is No. 2 after a 4.507 in the Snap-on Tools rail. Herbert's other run was a 4.52. Doug Kalitta, the winner of three of the last four races, is third with a 4.510 in the Mac Tools dragster.

Joe Hartley is the final qualifier with a best of 4.705. Season-long Top Fuel leader Melanie Troxel is not part of the top 16. She'll have a restless night as she waits for two more chances to improve Saturday.

Richie Stevens

It appears crew chief David Nickens has gained some control of Don Schumacher Racing's Mopar Dodge Pro Stock program as he tuned Stevens to the second quickest pass in class history, a 6.635 at 207.40 mph, in just his fifth race at the helm. The run set a Route 66 E.T. record and was the quickest and fastest run of Stevens' seven-year career.

"David did a lot with the motors over the past two weeks," Stevens said. "He really didn't have time to do much more than dyno them since he's been here but having a weekend off between Topeka and here gave him a chance to get them back to his shop and totally break them down and work some of his magic. I'm happier for him right now than anything else.

"We needed this to boost our morale. We've been in the dumps lately but this has us excited, especially with the King Demon Crown tomorrow. It's been a few years since I've been in that deal so to go in it with a car that just made the quickest Mopar pass of all time has me feeling pretty good. I think we have something for Kurt [Johnson, his first round opponent in the special race.]"

Mike Edwards, who has lost in the first round in four of the last five races since winning the Houston event, is second in the Young Life Pontiac with a 6.650. The only two-time winner in the class this year, Dave Connolly, stayed hot with a third-best 6.653 in the Skull Gear Cobalt. Class champion Greg Anderson is fifth overall with a 6.663.

Larry Morgan is on the bump with a 6.706 at 205.63 mph in his zMax Micro Lubricants Dodge Stratus R/T. The provisional bump is just five thousandths of a second -- and two cars -- off the quickest Pro Stock field ever.

Chip Ellis

It seemed appropriate that Ellis used a career-best elapsed time of 7.015 to lead the quickest Pro Stock Motorcycle field ever assembled. The rider of the Drag Specialties S&S Buell V-Twin blasted the track record of 7.093 seconds with his Round 1 run. By the end of the day, the top seven riders were all quicker than the year-old mark.

Perhaps the most perplexing thing was Ellis' inability to improve on the run in the much cooler evening session. After his opening pass, anticipation was high that he would become just the second rider ever to record a six-second run.

"All this hype about the sixes is just that, hype," Ellis said. "I just want to go out there and make the best pass we can make. We went 7.05 [in Round 2] and that's pretty good. If we work on making good passes then we'll have the success we want. If [a six-second run] happens, it happens.

"I thought the air was going to be a little better than it was [in Round 2.] The adjusted altitude dropped 300 feet in an hour and I figured it would keep dropping. George [Bryce, crew chief] had the tune-up but I begged him to let me put more fuel in it. That was my mistake."

The rest of the heavyweights are crowded near the top of the ladder. Reigning back-to-back champ Andrew Hines is second with a 7.038 on his Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod. Current point leader Angelle Sampey is third with a 7.058 on the U.S. Army Suzuki, while her teammate and third-place points earner Antron Brown follows in fourth with a 7.073.

Snap-on Tools rider Steve Johnson anchors the quick 16 with 7.138 at 187.52 mph. The previous quickest Pro Stock Motorcycle field was set last year in Gainesville when the bump spot was 7.149.

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