Competing for a world championship at the final race of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season is a new experience for Steve Johnson, but the Pro Stock Motorcycle veteran is embracing the opportunity heading into this weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. It is the final race of the Countdown in the Championship and the 2021 campaign, and Johnson has the chance to win his first world championship on his Suzuki.
Johnson enters the final race 20 points behind defending world champ Matt Smith and is ready to be part of what’s shaping up to be a wild and must-see weekend in the two-wheeled category. Three-time world champ Angelle Sampey is just 30 points back and with each round win worth 30 points in Pomona due to the points-and-a-half scenario at the finale, the world title could be decided on the final run of the season. It could potentially be a nerve-wracking situation, but Johnson is savoring the moment as he tries for his first career win at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona and his first NHRA world championship.
“I’ve been chasing this championship for a long time and to be in this position, I’m over the moon,” said Johnson, who has picked three wins and three No. 1 qualifiers in 2021. “I’ve dreamed of it and we’ve applied some action and now the dream is getting pretty close. We’ve got a lot of heart and it’s really, really going to be fun.”
Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Jianna Salinas (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won the most recent Auto Club NHRA Finals, which took place in 2019. This year’s event will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including live final eliminations coverage starting at 4:00 p.m. ET on Sunday. It is the sixth and final race in the Countdown to the Championship in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, and Johnson knows he will need a big weekend in Pomona to get past the likes of Smith and Sampey, who have a combined seven world titles and 76 wins.
But it’s been a spectacular season for Johnson, who has found new life on his four-valve Suzuki. It’s been his best season by far in a career that’s stretched 30-plus seasons, and his victory at the most recent race in Las Vegas set up a viable championship scenario in Pomona. Johnson has performed at a high level all year, advancing to five final rounds, and he’s also been quick to praise a team that has him in title contention going against star riders like Smith and Sampey.
“You can have a fast motorcycle, but if you can’t ride it, it’s not going to be fast,” Johnson said. “We’ve got great parts, great education on how to put the parts together and we learned a little more about riding the motorcycle. We’re doing a good job that making sure there are no leaks in our boat.”
The Pro Stock world title appears headed to come down to a thrilling duel between a pair of rivals and four-time world champs: points leader Greg Anderson and two-time defending world champ Erica Enders. Anderson has been the points leader the entire season, but a first-round loss in Las Vegas opened the door for Enders, who advanced to the final round and pulled to within 32 points heading into Pomona. With the points-and-a-half scenario, that is just more than one round, which means the intensity will be off the charts at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Of course, both Anderson and Enders will have to deal with a loaded field, too, including star rookie Dallas Glenn, who won in Las Vegas and is still in contention at 109 points back, Kyle Koretsky, Troy Coughlin Jr., who beat Anderson in the opening round in Vegas, and Aaron Stanfield. But Anderson and Enders have both been in numerous pressure-packed moments through the years, and Enders is ready to embrace it heading into what will be a nailbiter to close out the Pro Stock season.
“We’ve definitely been in a bunch of high-pressure situations and I expect nothing less going into Pomona,” Enders said. “We were excited to close the gap in Las Vegas and we were able to give ourselves a chance, and we just have to and go do our job this weekend. I have to be up on the wheel, we’ll have to have our car tuned up as best we can, and we’ll just go out there and battle and see what happens. It will definitely be exciting for everyone in Pomona.”
In Top Fuel, Steve Torrence is on the cusp of continuing his incredible run of dominance. He currently leads 2017 world champ Brittany Force by 105 points heading into Pomona, putting him in a prime position to clinch a fourth straight world title. Others to watch include Mike Salinas, who has advanced to back-to-back final rounds, Dallas winner Justin Ashley, Antron Brown, Leah Pruett and Josh Hart.
It will be a wild final race to the title in Funny Car, as Ron Capps currently has a 58-point lead over Don Schumacher Racing teammate and defending world champ Matt Hagan heading to Pomona. Cruz Pedregon is 83 points back after winning in Las Vegas and remains in title contention in what should be a thrilling finale. Other top stars racing for the win include John Force, Bob Tasca III, Alexis DeJoria, Robert Hight, Tim Wilkerson and J.R. Todd.