Johnson, Cobalt coming to grips

Updated: May 22, 2005, 9:53 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

HEBRON, Ohio -- We've all experienced the excitement that comes with taking delivery of a new car. It's one of those unforgettable experiences that, for most people, happens only a handful of times in their lives.

But not for drag racers.

A new racecar is a frequent necessity, especially in the Pro Stock class where bodywork modifications to reflect the contours of the new production models occur regularly, chassis are upgraded to help improve power transfer and overall performance, and like any other automobile, they simply wear out.

For Kurt Johnson, the process of dialing in a new racecar has begun anew as he brings his Jerry Haas-built 2005 Chevy Cobalt to Columbus, Ohio, this weekend for the 41st Pontiac Performance Nationals at National Trail Raceway.

Johnson debuted the car two races ago in Bristol, Tenn., and advanced to the semifinal round, losing to his father Warren, who went on to win the event. He scored another semifinal finish last week in Atlanta and now sits fifth in the POWERade top 10, with his sights set on the No. 4 spot in the standings, now held by Jason Line.

Kurt also comes to Columbus with amplified motivation, since he has never won this event in 13 previous visits. Except for his runner-up finish as a rookie in 1993, KJ's Columbus rap sheet has not been brimming with career highlights. But based on his first two races with his new Cobalt -- and despite being in the midst of back-to-back-to-back races which interfere with any testing plans -- Kurt feels optimistic about how he and the Cobalt have acclimated to each other.

"So far, the new car seems to like an ugly, slippery race track, and should we encounter those conditions in Columbus, we can certainly tune for it," said Kurt. "However, we still need to figure out exactly what it needs to run on a good racing surface. Right now, it wants to wheelstand, which means it has too much bite.

"Fortunately, as we go through the learning curve, we know we have the power to run up front once we get things straightened out, so we're not too concerned."

In Friday's first qualifying session in Columbus, Kurt went to the head of the field on his opening run, setting both ends of the National Trail track record with his 6.761/204.26 lap. Already, a major improvement over Kurt's 2004 performance.

"They repaved Columbus last year, and the surface didn't really come around until Sunday," recalled Kurt. "This year it's good right off the bat. Of course, a lot will have to do with how it is prepared. The date change also helps, because when we raced here in June we could run into either very hot weather or rain. "I think it's time for this crew to change our ways and park this ACDelco Cobalt in the winner's circle. It'll take a combination of everyone on the team doing their job and a little luck, but I'm confident we can get it done." Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.

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