Justin Johnson has won several championships on the race track and taught others how to drive race cars for over a dozen years, and for a while he and long-time sponsor and car owner Al Budd had been wanting to “try something new, something different.”
That’s why the two of them joined car builder and crew chief Chris Bray in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, March 10. They all were there to take part in the opening race of the year for the Lucas Oil Modified Series presented by MAVTV at Havasu 95 Speedway.
Johnson said he had raced on the challenging quarter-mile oval once before, in a Bandolero in 1998 or ’99, and some of the things the 32-year-old learned that day must have lingered in his memory.
He made his Modified series debut and opened his bid for the Downforce Racing Products Rookie of the Year award by finishing seventh in the Phil’s Phabrication Chevrolet built by Bray and sponsored by Budd’s Mojave Masonry, SpillVak, J & S Automotive Machine, Off the Wahl Designs and PAC Racing Springs.
“I love it,” Johnson said after his initial weekend in the West’s most competitive short-track touring series. “I love the way it’s run, I love the people and the competition. It takes you back to grass-roots racing and you get to travel around a little and go to different tracks.”
Some of those tracks Johnson has raced on before, like The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he’s won a half-dozen titles, and Irwindale (California) Speedway, where he won another championship. Some he hasn’t, like Madera Speedway in California and Rocky Mountain Raceway in Utah and Tucson Speedway, another Arizona oval that is next on the schedule (April 14).
Johnson doesn’t see his lack of familiarity with that abrasive 3/8 -mile oval as a major obstacle, however. He’s already learned that the 8-inch Hoosier 700 tires used in the series make tire management a critical factor in every race, and he doesn’t usually have a problem getting comfortable on the track.
“I’m good at picking up my lines and all the reference points for braking and getting on the throttle. At that point you’re just chasing the car (to find the best set-up),” he said.
Johnson, whose father Craig is a veteran race official with the NASCAR K&N West series, has been chasing cars since those days in the late ‘90s when he was driving Bandoleros and winning his first championship.
“Dad was an official for Craig Road Speedway and when they built the Bullring he was an official out there,” Johnson said. “In ’98 or ’99, when I was like 12 or 13, I went to the track with dad one day and saw the Bandos running and told my dad I wanted to race one. That was at a Friday night Test and Tune. We went over Saturday morning and dad bought a Bando. We made a few changes to it and I went out and won my first race ever and that’s kind of what hooked me.”
Johnson moved up to Legends Cars in 2001 and raced for Chuck Trickle, then joined Budd and graduated to Super Late Models in 2005. They won the prestigious Fall Classic at The Bullring in 2005, 2006 and 2009, won the Irwindale Speedway and California Whelen All-American Series titles in 2010 and The Bullring and Nevada state Super Late Model championships in 2016. Last season Johnson won The Bullring’s Super Late Model championship for car owner Dennis Rock, and his 52 wins put him fourth on the track’s all-time list. Three of those wins came while driving for Bray in the track’s Grand American Modified class in 2014.
During the off-season he got back together with Bray and Budd.
“Al believed in me a long time ago and put me in all his Super Late Models over the years,” said Johnson, who also has raced in the K&N West and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. “We always kind of wanted to run the (Lucas Oil) Modifieds and one day Al called me and said him and Chris got together.
“I ran with Chris in Legends Cars, we raced together in the dirt and I’ve raced for him a few times over the years. In 2016 he asked me to run his Super Late Model (with Budd as sponsor and part-owner). Dennis Rock called me in the off-season and I ran his car last year, and then Chris called back.”
JUSTIN JOHNSON AT A GLANCE
Age: 32 (9 August 1985)
Lives in: Pahrump, Nevada
Marital status: Married; wife Jenna-Marie; three children
Occupation: Instructor at Ron Fellows Performance Driving School
Car number: 17ph
Type of chassis: Phil’s Phabrication
Crew Chief: Chris Bray
Sponsors: Mojave Masonry; Phil’s Phabrication; J &S Automotive Machine; SpillVak; PAC Racing Springs; Off The Wahl Designs
Years in racing: 19 Divisions raced: Bandolero; Legends; Late Models; Super Late Models; Thunder Roadsters; NASCAR Camping World Trucks; Lucas Oil Modifieds
Series point standings: first season