TOPEKA, Kan. --
Johnson ran the table at that event, claiming the No. 1 qualifying position, earning nearly every bonus point available and then powering through eliminations to take the victory, dusting four-time world champ Greg Anderson in the final round.
After that victory, Johnson continued to gain momentum and move forward in the points standings until finally claiming the series lead for the first time following his win at Denver. During that amazing season, the Greeneville, Tenn. native won seven races in 11 final rounds, claimed 10 No. 1 qualifying positions and finally earned that elusive first world championship ring.
When Johnson won at Topeka last season he talked about how his team was learning how to win and be consistent every week. As he returns to the spacious multipurpose motorsports complex in Kansas' capital city, Johnson and his team have a full year of winning and being incredibly consistent under their belts.
Johnson heads to Topeka this season third in the standings and will be trying to earn his third victory there as well as his third win of the season when racing beings at the NHRA Kansas Nationals, May 17-19. David Grubnic (Top Fuel) and Jack Beckman (Funny Car) join Johnson as defending winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
Johnson has been to the final round at HPT in three of the last four seasons, posting a runner-up in 2010 to go along with his two victories (2012, 2009). As a well-known high-altitude specialist in the Pro Stock ranks, Johnson says Heartland Park's near 1,000-foot elevation certainly plays into his team's favor.
"Topeka is a great facility and is an altitude track at which the HEMI-powered Mopar Dodge Avenger normally does really well at, just like Vegas and Denver," Johnson said. "The trick or key to doing well at Topeka is having the tune-up correct at altitude."
The other key, he says, is to be mentally ready to face a talented crop of rivals who can post perfect reaction times and just basically drive the wheels off their race cars.
"The level of competition in Pro Stock, especially this year, is unequaled, and I think the best in the history," Johnson said. "Every single point is going to be important because of how incredibly close each competitor is."
"Having the No. 1 on the side of your car brings responsibility and yes, everyone wants to beat the champ," Johnson said. "I Love it."
Other pre-race favorites in the 200-mph factory hot rod category include Johnson's new teammate, Jeg Coughlin, also a past winner at Topeka, and series points leader Mike Edwards, who has claimed two victories this season and is a two-time Topeka winner. Last season's runner-up here, Anderson, is also a past Topeka winner and is still looking for his first win of the season. Erica Enders-Stevens, Vincent Nobile, Jason Line and Shane Gray, a past Topeka winner who has been to the last three final rounds, will also be racing hard to grab a victory.
In Top Fuel, defending winner Grubnic will have to hold off a tough contingent of challengers, including seven-time world champ and current points leader Tony Schumacher, Atlanta winner and defending world champ Antron Brown, national speed record holder and last season's runner-up Spencer Massey, Al-Anabi Racing's Shawn Langdon, Mac Tools driver Doug Kalitta, GEICO driver Morgan Lucas and Atlanta runner-up Brandon Bernstein, a two-time Topeka winner.
Defending NHRA Funny Car world champion Beckman in his Valvoline/MTS Dodge Charger will once again be one of the drivers to beat in the loaded Funny Car division. Some of his toughest competition will come from teammates Ron Capps, a three-time winner at Topeka, and Charlotte winner Matt Hagan, who was the No. 1 qualifier in Atlanta. Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry veteran driver Cruz Pedregon, the current series points leader with two victories this season, has won four times at Topeka. Last season's rookie of the year, Courtney Force, who won the season-opener at Pomona in her Traxxas Ford Mustang, also will be one to watch.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series also will thrill the crowds during the weekend with intense side-by-side competition.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers because every ticket is an exclusive pit pass, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds. Spectators also won't want to miss the popular interactive NHRA Nitro Alley and the NHRA Manufacturers Midway.
• SCHEDULE: NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 5 and 7 p.m. Friday, May 17, and will continue Saturday, May 18, at 12:15 and 2:30 p.m. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 19.
• TICKETS: For tickets, log on to www.NHRATix.com or call the NHRA Ticket Sales Center at (800) 884-NHRA (6472).
• TELEVISION: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 5:30 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, May 18, and three hours of eliminations coverage at 8 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 19.