MORRISON, Colo. --
Now that Johnson has his first world championship, and if it's somehow possible, the driver of the Team Mopar Dodge Avenger now views the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, the traditional kick-off to the grueling Western Swing, as more important than ever.
A four-time winner on Thunder Mountain, Johnson will try to advance to his seventh straight Pro Stock final round at the legendary facility, which hosts the 34th annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, July 19-21. Johnson is one of the defending winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event at Bandimere Speedway, a list that also includes Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle). The race will be televised on ESPN2 HD (qualifying Saturday, 10 p.m. ET; eliminations, Sunday, 6 p.m. ET).
Last year's race featured all eventual world champions in the winner's circle, marking the only event in 2012 where that happened. Johnson was certainly in that group, breaking the track record at Bandimere Speedway and winning for the third time in four years at the track.
"We certainly view this race in Denver as a big one and we carry that momentum onto the next two races of the Western Swing," Johnson said. "Traditionally we've done well at those next two races as well, so it's a crucial stretch. It's a big part of our year and it's a part of the season we always look forward to when it comes around."
That much is obvious, as Johnson spends a considerable amount of time testing in the high altitude at the track. He worked with teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr., a two-time event winner in 2013 in his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger, this year and has clearly found the winning combination for the unique challenges of the event when it comes to his own Avenger.
In addition to the wins, Johnson has been the No. 1 qualifier at the event the past three years and four times overall, obliterating the track E.T. and speed records a year ago by going 6.916 seconds at 198.70 mph.
"We test a bunch out there and the combinations we've developed out there, chassis-wise, gear-wise and engine-wise have proven successful," Johnson said. "It just takes a different combination and we were able to hit on one years ago. It's just expanded from there.
A good showing would continue to bolster Johnson and his teammate Coughlin in their pursuit of Pro Stock points leader Mike Edwards, who won his fourth race of the season last weekend in Norwalk.
But Johnson and Coughlin have built momentum in recent events, with Johnson winning in Epping, N.H., and Coughlin taking the victory the following week in Chicago. In all, Johnson has three wins and six final round appearances, which includes a runner-up finish to Edwards in Norwalk.
Johnson remains second in points to Edwards, who has 38 career wins and two wins in Denver, and he hopes a fifth victory at Bandimere, which would tie him with Warren Johnson for the second most in NHRA Pro Stock history, would give him the same boost it did a year ago.
Plus, performing well in front of the large Mopar contingent is always a good thing for the Greeneville, Tenn. native.
"It's very gratifying to do well in Denver, especially since that is your sponsor's race," Johnson said. "Hopefully we can go out there and do the same thing, but this is an event that the team really looks forward to each and every year.
The high altitude presents numerous challenges for all of the NHRA's stars, who will all be looking to have a memorable weekend in the mountains to kick off the NHRA's traditional three-race Western Swing.
In Top Fuel that includes points leader Shawn Langdon, who has three event wins in 2013 and has been battling neck-and-neck with seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher. The star-driven class also includes the likes of Spencer Massey, defending world champion Brown, and 2013 event winners Bob Vandergriff, Khalid alBalooshi and Steve Torrence. Other top contenders include Doug Kalitta, Morgan Lucas, Brandon Bernstein, and Clay Millican.
Mat Hagan, the 2011 Funny Car world champion, currently holds the Funny Car points lead, but the class remains as competitive as ever and Johnny Gray, Ron Capps and Cruz Pedregon have all spent time in the top spot in 2013. Gray has four wins and is the most recent event winner in the class, while John Force is riding a hot streak that includes a victory and has bumped him into championship contention. Daughter Courtney has already posted two wins this season, while other standouts in the tightly-competitive class include defending world champion Jack Beckman, Del Worsham, Alexis DeJoria, Tim Wilkerson and former world champion Robert Hight.
The Pro Stock Motorcycle category has featured outstanding racing all season with a field that is separated by thousandths of a second. Hector Arana Jr. has three wins and the points lead, but two-time event winner Michael Ray has moved into second. Other talented riders like recent Norwalk winner Matt Smith, John Hall, Scotty Pollacheck and Hector Arana Sr. are poised for success in Denver as well. Defending world champion Eddie Krawiec and teammate Andrew Hines have also combined for four wins at Bandimere.
There are also spectacular jet car runs on Friday night and a special "Go Red for Women Track Walk" on Saturday morning prior to racing at 8:30 a.m. to bring awareness to heart disease. The Track Walk gives fans the chance to walk the same track where NHRA drivers race at speeds of more than 300 mph and are joined by some of NHRA's favorite drivers. The experience is free for all Saturday ticket holders.
As always, every ticket purchased for the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals is a pit pass, which offers an extraordinary look behind the scenes in the world of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics "twirl the iron" between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins on Friday, July 19 with the first session at 5:15 p.m., followed by another session under the lights at 7:15 p.m. When 8,000-horsepower nitro machines blast off from the starting line with their header pipes full of flames during night qualifying, the scene provides one of the most sensory-filled experiences for any race motorsports fan.
The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, July 20 at 1:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 21.
To purchase tickets for the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, please call Bandimere Speedway at (800) 664-8946 or visit www.bandimere.com.