Mac Tools U.S. Nationals
Busy weekend for Skoal Racing as Capps, Johnson vie in Shootout, U.S. Nationals
Indianapolis, pre-race: While the season has been short on substance for Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's Skoal Racing Funny Car team, drivers Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. could erase all that during the 49th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Labor Day Weekend at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Not only is the U.S. Nationals drag racing's pinnacle of performance NHRA's oldest, richest and most prestigious race, the Budweiser Shootout adds considerable spice for its eight contestants. And both Capps and Johnson will be competing for the $100,000 top prize for the first time.
Capps is the defending Shootout champion and three-time winner while Johnson just missed capturing the coveted U.S. Nationals crown a year ago.
Of the two, Johnson's Blue Skoal Racing Camaro has been out-performing Capps' Green Camaro in the past four races. Blue crew chief Mike Green tested a new Murf McKinney racecar last week during the annual pre-race tune-up at IRP and liked what he saw. So did Johnson.
"We're very happy with the performance of the new car," Johnson said. "It showed a lot of promise, making one really nice run of 4.90 seconds at 310 mph during the heat of the day. That's very good considering the Bud Shootout is usually on a warm Sunday afternoon. I'm also looking forward to getting more runs with the new car. It gets better and better with each run."
Johnson accumulated 2,735 Shootout points and was able to pass Capps for sixth place when Capps failed to qualify at Brainerd, Minn., two weeks ago.
"I'm happy to finally get into the Shootout," Johnson said. "That's neat. I've always managed to miss it, either because I didn't start driving until mid-season or I drove for awhile and moved to another team. Or, like last year when we missed it because we didn't qualify for three races. You can't be in the Shootout, which has the eight best qualifying Funny Cars all year, and not qualify three times."
Johnson credits Green with steadily improving the Blue racecar's consistency. He's 17 races into the 2003 NHRA POWERade Series season and he's been in the 16-car field for all of them. He's been in the top half of the field on 10 occasions and his lowest starting berth has been 11th.
"Our crew is getting better every week," said Johnson, who is seventh in series points with 812, 28 behind Capps. "We have a consistent racecar. In Funny Car, consistency means everything."
Johnson has one runner-up finish this year, but his most frustrating final-round loss came almost a year ago at IRP when John Force beat him for the win. "We came oh-so-close against Force," he said. "We want to take it one step further this year."
Johnson's first-round Shootout foe is Whit Bazemore, who qualified third. "That doesn't bother me," said Johnson. "This is the top eight Funny Cars in the country, so it doesn't make any difference who's in the other lane."
Capps, meanwhile, opens Shootout competition against Force, the No. 2 qualifier.
"In the past we haven't had a good starting spot and won it because it doesn't matter who you run in the first round" he said. "The important thing is to be one of the eight drivers.
"We'll have to wait until everyone shows up at Indy and gets in a few runs to see how everything shapes up. The Shootout is a big pressure situation. You just never know what's going to happen when you get the top eight Funny Car drivers racing each other for $100,000."
While some may think Capps has an uphill battle because new crew chief Todd Okuhara, who took over for Ed McCulloch a month ago, is slowly working in a new combination, Capps believes Okuhara is going to turn around the car's performance.
"Todd is slowly learning how the car reacts to what he wants," said Capps, also a Shootout winner in 1998-99. "He's starting all over again. I felt good about testing and what Todd's trying to accomplish. And he has Mike Green and Dick LaHaie (crew chief on Prudhomme's Miller Lite dragster, driven by defending series champion and current point leader Larry Dixon) to confer with.
"Not qualifying at Brainerd was no fault of Todd's. We lost one run when the bracket holding the fire extinguisher broke and a magneto broke on our last qualifying attempt."
Capps led the series after his win at Phoenix race in February and was runner-up to Bazemore at Englishtown, N.J., in May.
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