- Bill Stephens
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POMONA, Calif. -- When Tommy Johnson Jr. beat Phil Burkart in the final round of Funny Car action Sunday at the 45th Carquest Auto Parts Winternationals, much was made of TJ's first win ever at the season-opening race. The point was clearly made that his team owner, Don "The Snake " Prudhomme, had been a Winternationals champion in Top Fuel 40 years earlier, the same year that he went to the U.S. Nationals for the first time and won that race as well.
But if you are perceptive, and pulled together the incredible elements which all connected on the path to TJ's victory on Sunday, you were treated to the texture and drama that defines NHRA POWERade drag racing.
For instance, 2004 was a major disappointment for Johnson and his teammate at the time, Ron Capps. Neither driver finished in the top 10 in points; neither qualified for the $100,000 Skoal Showdown at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals -- a disheartening letdown to their team and their sponsor, Skoal; and Capps' lack of performance throughout last year contributed to his resigning from Snake Racing at season's end and signing on with the powerhouse team of Don Schumacher to drive a Dodge Stratus sponsored by Brut, alongside Whit Bazemore and Gary Scelzi.
With Capps gone and Prudhomme faced with running a single-car team in 2005, Johnson was given little chance by many NHRA observers to be able to go toe-to-toe with the intimidating multi-car operations of John Force and Schumacher, especially after last year's dreadful campaign.
But on Sunday, with Johnson's father, Tommy Johnson Sr. in attendance after a recent battle with cancer, the series of events which unfolded involving TJ and his former teammate Capps played out as if written by a Hollywood script writer.
Capps rolled into the lanes in the first round to face his new stablemate, Whit Bazemore. But Capps never got to the starting line. His car suffered a serious oil leak which ended Ron's debut in the Brut Dodge, not unlike similar incidents that plagued his Skoal team in 2004.
But Johnson's luck in eliminations couldn't have been better. In the first round, he smoked the tires and was about to be trailered by Frank Pedregon. But Pedregon's racecar moved out of the groove at half-track and crossed the centerline, giving him a disqualification and the round win to Johnson. In the second round, TJ was blessed with an easy win against Bob Gilbertson, who had trouble and had to shut off.
In the semi's, the driver who was given a solo in the first round when Capps suffered his oil leak, Whit Bazemore, hunkered to the line to face Johnson. Tommy dispatched Capps' new teammate in a classic side-by-side matchup, beating Bazemore by two-hundredths of a second. In the final, TJ would face his third multi-car team opponent of the day, Phil Burkart, and again, luck would be riding with Johnson.
Burkart got away first on the green, but smoked his tires and had to lift, sending Johnson to the Winternationals winner's circle and his first-ever No.1 spot in the POWERade points.
It was an astonishing day of dramatic turns of fortune and wickedly unexpected strokes of irony. Prudhomme was moved to tears when interviewed after the race. He knew, first-hand, how those turns and strokes had somehow worked in his favor. They were all there for us to see, too. If you took a moment to look for them.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.