TULSA, Okla. — After his driving deal with Tom Malloy and Jerome Rodela dried up during the offseason, Chase Johnson knew he still wanted to race a midget during the 35th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.
Thanks to an unexpected opportunity, Johnson will have that chance next week.
The 25-year-old native of Penngrove, Calif., will pilot the No. 72 Esslinger-powered Spike Chassis for veteran Pennsylvania sprint car owner Mike Heffner, who regularly fields an entry at the Super Bowl of Midget Racing.
It’s somewhat of an “odd couple” pairing, considering Johnson hails from the West Coast and Heffner’s team made its name racing primarily on the East Coast, but both driver and owner are eager for the chance to work together and chase a Golden Driller trophy.
“It’s funny; I feel like in years past, the younger me would have said yes or jumped out of my seat in excitement as soon as the first person called and asked me to drive. But I wanted to be a little bit more particular on what I said yes to, because I feel like I’m at that point in my career where I can do that and where I kind of have more of an option or choice rather than just saying ‘yes’ to anything that comes my way,” Johnson explained. “I just wanted to find the best thing that I felt like gave us the best chance for going there and being there when it matters. I know it’s a very important race for the car to be set up correctly to be able to compete at a high level. It may seem odd, but I’m very excited to drive for Mike.”
“He’s a great, great shoe,” added Heffner of Johnson. “He actually contacted us and it just came together in a way that worked for us to be able to run him after he left his last ride. Larry Wight, who’s run for me before out there, couldn’t run this year and I know Chase is a gasser. Even though we do this race to have fun, we do it to put the car in the show as well and, hopefully, Chase can get that done. He’s done it before and I believe there’s no reason he can’t do it again.”
Johnson made the Chili Bowl feature in 2018 and drove to an eighth-place finish for California car owner Del Morris. The last two years, he’s raced regularly in midget action for veteran owner Tom Malloy.
This time, however, he’ll have the expertise of driver-turned-mechanic Sean Michael, who will serve as the head wrench on the Heffner Chili Bowl effort as Johnson seeks his second Chili Bowl start.
Next week will mark Johnson’s seventh Chili Bowl appearance in the last eight years, and while he doesn’t necessarily think his experience will be a game changer for the team, he added that “experience never hurts.”
“I think their midget stuff is pretty right on, so I don’t think there’ll be a whole lot that we have to bring to the table or completely change around, anything like that,” Johnson said. “I’m not the type of driver to come in and do that, but I think I’ll be able to give them good feedback and get us going in the right direction. But I’m really comfortable going there with them because I know that they’re going to be capable of giving me a car that can be up front all week.
“We cut it a little close on timing but there were a lot of great teams and a lot of good people that reached out to me and I feel like this is definitely going to be a good situation for me.”
The 35th Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals runs Jan. 11-16 inside the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Okla.
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