CONCORD, N.C. — official release — NHRA photo — Entering the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship in the 10th position, Pro Stock Motorcycle Steve Johnson rider will have the biggest mountain to climb when compared to the other nine competitors in the two-wheel category who qualified for the six-race playoffs.
But simply having an opportunity to compete for a world championship is all Johnson needs to be motivated. The chance for his first NHRA world title on his Steve Johnson Racing Suzuki is the veteran rider’s driving force and he will have a chance to make a resounding opening statement as the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship kicks off at this weekend’s seventh annual Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
“Everybody wants to race for a championship,” Johnson said. “The fans love the Countdown and I love it. I’ve been racing for more than 25 years and there has to be something keeping you wanting to go. To feel like I have a chance to win a championship is a huge bonus. I know the odds are stacked against it, but I love that I have a shot.”
Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals, a race that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2.
That Johnson has a chance to win a world championship is enough to get him excited, even if he knows it will take a number of standout performances throughout the six events during the Countdown to the Championship.
But it all starts at the first event at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte where Johnson won in 2008. Getting off to a good start will keep Johnson’s championship dream alive even if he knows that plenty of racing remains after Charlotte.
“If you’re 110 points behind you’re likely not going to be leading after the first race, but it can be a gamechanger,” Johnson said. “Charlotte is one of my favorite tracks and we just have to qualify well and go some rounds. It’s really, really important that we make four good qualifying runs. I feel like we’re ready.”
Johnson thought he had a winning – or at least a highly-competitive – combination heading to the recent Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. But things went awry during eliminations and Johnson suffered a first-round loss leaving his fate undecided as Jerry Savoie made a late push for the final spot in the Countdown.
Savoie advanced to the final round but fell to Eddie Krawiec in a race that would have ended Johnson’s dream had Savoie won. It finished off a weekend that featured a gamut of emotions for Johnson but ultimately left him glowing by grabbing the final spot in the Countdown.
“We had a great plan on how to win the race but it just didn’t work out,” Johnson said. “It was stressful to watch. But we have confidence that we have a great bike. We learned a lot from Indy and our recent test sessions. What we’re trying to do is get the bike back to how it ran in Gainesville.”
That performance in Gainesville led to Johnson’s lone victory this season and it started his PSM season in fine fashion. He has put in extended hours to get his bike back to that level and despite the early exit in Indy Johnson feels he is close to returning to the winner’s circle.
But he will have to wade through a talented Pro Stock Motorcycle field that is headed by points leader Hines. His Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Krawiec is second in points and won the event in 2011, and other standouts in the bike category include Hector Arana, Hector Arana Jr., reigning world champ Matt Smith, Angie Smith, John Hall, Michael Ray and Scotty Pollacheck.
“What I am excited about is the opportunity to win a championship,” Johnson said. “I’m over the top excited, to be honest.”