- Bill Stephens
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In the end, winning won out over quitting.
Warren Johnson has won more national events in the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock category than any other driver in history. He has qualified No. 1 more times than any driver regardless of class and has won six Pro Stock world championships, second only to the 10 won by Hall of Famer Bob Glidden.
This season was to be his last as a driver after announcing last November that his 2005 "School's Out" tour would signal his abdication from the cockpit. He said he would pursue the roles of owner and chief engineer on his GM Performance Parts Pontiac in 2006. He revealed then that a driver to be announced would be taking over in his place following a stellar 34-year reign as a genuine drag racing heavyweight.
On Saturday, at the 51st Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park -- a race he has won six times -- Johnson made an announcement that surprised some, but was also anticipated by many friends, fans and observers of the sport who knew that WJ's November '04 announcement may have been a bit premature. "The Professor" and GM issued a joint announcement that a new three-year agreement had been signed that would put WJ back behind the wheel for at least the next two years, and perhaps three.
After a dreary season in 2004, in which he went winless for the first time in two decades and finished out of the top 10 for the first time since 1981, Johnson has rebounded dramatically this year with three wins, a top-three slot in the points, and a legitimate shot at taking back the points lead with six national events remaining. He has rinsed away the bitter aftertaste of last year's dismal results and it's only logical that with a program that has moved back into championship contention, Johnson isn't quite ready to turn the driving duties over to someone else.
"Although it is quite evident that last season was tough on us all, it really played no part of my original decision to get out the car," says Johnson. "At that time, I felt it might be better if I spent more time concentrating on the overall picture of the program, other than just driving and worrying about the other aspects.
"When you wear that many hats, and maintain the intensity we have for over 30 years, it will start to wear on you. I've seen countless people come and go, simply because they were burned out. That is why we made the original announcement last November. However, we have made some changes to our program, and with GM Performance Parts' support, I'm looking forward to remaining behind the wheel.
"Although I realize the end of my driving career is in sight, I believe we have adequately shown throughout 2005 that we can and will continue to contend for the championship. Both my son Kurt's and my programs have shown tremendous potential, and I look forward to returning behind the wheel of the GM Performance Parts GTO in 2006. I guess I'm just having too much fun to give it up."
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
4dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz