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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Justin Johnson was not expecting to race in 2016, much less celebrate winning a pair of championships.
Yet somehow that’s exactly what Johnson ended up doing.
The Las Vegas native and veteran 31-year-old racer got a call just a week before the start of the racing season at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that totally changed his plans for the year.
“It started with a phone call about a week before the season started,” Johnson explained. “I wasn’t even planning on racing. The owner of the car that I drove basically was trying to get drivers in the seat and there were no drivers that could come up with the money to do it. We’d been friends for a long time so he said you can have the seat if we work a deal out where he gets to keep the winnings. So I kind of still paid in a way, but I paid by him keeping all the winnings.”
Johnson ended up driving the car, owned by Chris Bray and powered by engines from J&S Automotive & Machine Shop, to six victories in 13 starts at The Bullring. He said early on in the year the group wasn’t even sure they’d chase the championship, but after getting off to a fast start the decision became much easier.
“We ended up getting to a point where it was time to go racing. At that point we were I’d say maybe 50 percent committed to the full season. We were talking about going for a championship but it wasn’t a for sure deal,” Johnson explained. “Finally it started coming together after we started winning right away and started finishing well. Next thing you know we were second in points. We were like well, we might as well keep going.”
A season-long battle ended with Johnson and company capturing the track championship at The Bullring by 22 points over former track champion Scott Gafforini. The group captured the Nevada state championship in the process, giving Johnson a pair of championships during a year where he never even expected to climb into a race car.
The championships in 2016 came in addition to a pair of championships Johnson won in 2010 when he captured the track championship at Irwindale Speedway as well as the California state championship.
The championship at The Bullring, however, meant a bit more to Johnson after he lost a track championship there in 2006 by a single point. And who did he lose the track championship to that season? Why Gafforini, of course.
“This was a long time coming. I lost a championship by a point in 2006. That was another reason because I got the call to race this year because it was my 10 year anniversary of losing that championship by one point, so it was kind of redemption to go out there and go get it,” Johnson said.
Johnson was impressively consistent all season. In addition to his six victories he finished inside the top-five in 12 out of 13 starts. How was he so consistent you might ask? He said once the team figured out the setup on the car, they simply never changed it again.
“We didn’t even touch the car. We just nut and bolted it. We didn’t change anything. We didn’t scale it. We didn’t even practice (test). We just went right to race day,” said Johnson. “We practiced, qualified and raced. In years past when I’ve gone to practice I’ve dialed myself out, just overthinking it. So we just kept the car the same. So we just unloaded it and went and did work. We just made sure that the nuts and bolts were tight. That’s it. That’s how we stayed consistent.”
This year Johnson said once again he wasn’t planning on racing at The Bullring, but his phone rang again with an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
“I wasn’t planning on it, then I got a call from a guy who owns a totally different team and they want me to run this year with them,” Johnson said. “I just had twin daughters two years ago and they have been taking a lot of my time up and I have a boy on the way. He’ll be here in May or June.
“I was going to dedicate this year to family, but the guy called me up offered to pay me. So I was like OK, I don’t have to come up with any money, I just can go out and race. He said I don’t even have to work on the car. He said I can just show up with my helmet and I said done. That’s like a dream come true in the world now a days. So I said alright, I’ll just show up and get paid and race. You can’t beat that.”
Johnson said he couldn’t say who he’d be driving for since the deal hadn’t been made public, but you can expect to see him each and every week at the Bullring this year as he attempts to win his second track championship at his hometown track.
Johnson picked up six victories at The Bullring Las Vegas en route to his track and state championship trophies. Courtesy of Jeff Speer