By NICK SCHWIEN
Nearly two weeks ago, C.J. Johnson received a phone call.
The subject: Why has he struggling with his sprint car this season?
Johnson, a three-time NCRA 360 sprint car champ who won his second-straight title in 2012, had raced sparingly this season — only two NCRA shows and only one URSS 305 sprint car show.
He hadn't won any of the three races, and that just wasn't expected from the fan who gave him a call.
On Friday night at RPM Speedway's Sprint Car Mania, Johnson silenced any doubters this season by winning the NCRA feature event in the e85 car of Danny King — not his normal 45x car he's had so much success with in the past.
“This is perfect,” said Johnson, who decided to drive for King this year a few weeks before the season began. “It has appeared like we've struggled, and we have struggled. But like I said the other day, it has nothing to do with the car color or the number. Things just weren't working. Tonight, we showed up with both cars, and neither one of them would run. I thought it was going to be a bad night. Then we got through the heat race good. But it couldn't have worked out any better. And being in Hays, that's all we needed.”
Johnson's night started off on the wrong foot, and it seemed like his “struggles” would continue. His engine in his 305 sprint car wouldn't run properly, and he developed a smoking engine during his 360 heat race — which he finished second in after starting back in the pack.
But that second-place finish, along with passing points, was enough to put him on the pole for the 360 feature.
And the Quinter driver took advantage.
“Front row was definitely the key,” said Johnson, who attributed the smoke in the heat race to possibly too much oil in a new engine.
“Being on the pole, I just had to beat him to turn one. I felt like we got a pretty good start. We were almost dead even, but I got to turn one just a little sooner than he did.”
Johnson beat Danny Wood out of the first corner and went on to lead all 25 laps to secure his first win of the season and give him life in the NCRA national championship hunt.
It didn't come without drama, though. While Johnson pulled away to a comfortable lead, third-starting Jeremy Campbell was making up ground quickly. He got by Wood into second on the second lap and set his sights on the leader.
The Wichita driver continued to chip away at the lead, and as Johnson entered lap traffic, Campbell closed within a car length.
But Marc Robe would clip one of the infield tires coming out of turn two on lap 18 and flipped on the backstretch, bringing out the red flag.
Crew members were allowed to make changes on the cars during the stoppage, and it proved to be the advantage Johnson needed.
“I was right on him,” Campbell said. “I was just waiting for him to bobble one time, and I would have captured that one. And I would have ran away. In the beginning, we were about even. At the end, I was starting to gain on him just a little bit. … I just did not want that red (flag) at all.”
Johnson made an air-pressure adjustment and a weight change on the left rear, and it proved to be the winning move.
“I didn't really know,” Johnson said. “I felt like we were getting a little hung up in traffic, and I couldn't get out of (turn) two like I wanted to. I was too tight. I knew if somebody was catching me, that's where they were catching me. The red came out at a perfect time, and we made some adjustments on the car and got it to where I could stay on the bottom better. I think that helped quite a bit.”
Campbell restarted behind Johnson and held his ground. But on lap 20, Campbell hit the cushion in turn three and bicycled his car, losing momentum and allowing Wood to sneak under him.
“Maybe I drove it in too straight because I was running a lot lower before,” Campbell said. “I was kind of letting it go up then. I think I just drove in too straight and hit that cushion, and it just bicycled hard-core.”
It gave Johnson the cushion he needed during the final laps.
“Not until afterwards when I found out Danny ran second,” Johnson said about Campbell's bobble. “I knew after the red, we were rolling pretty good, and I didn't think anyone could pass us at that point.”
Wood finished second, with Campbell in third. Sean McClelland and Luke Cranston rounded out the top five.