Zanotti Racing’s Jake Johnson won his first AMA Pro Grand National Championship with a thrilling victory in the season-ending Yavapai Downs Mile in Prescott Valley, Arizona.
Johnson had won the singles title twice before, in 2006 and ’08, but his best season finish in the “unofficial” combined championship was fourth. The 26-year-old from New Jersey had arrived in Arizona with the strongest hand, holding a ten point lead on Joe Kopp, the Latus H-D Ducati rider who’d won the spring race here, and 19 on defending twins champion, Jared Mees (Rogers Lake Racing/Blue Springs H-D).
But early in the day Johnson wasn’t in championship form. His qualifying time was only ninth fastest and his third heat win was the slowest of the three. Then, in the Dash for Cash, he finished fifth and could only watch a scintillating finish. Sammy Halbert (Kings Kustoms/KK Motorcycle Supply) won the four-lap race by .019 sec. over Mees and P.J. Jacobsen (Moroney’s/1800fasthog/Weissracing.com), who finished in a dead heat for second.
“After the Dash didn’t go so well, I wasn’t too sure about the main and I was just hoping for the best,” said Johnson. “Then, when the race started and I was up front, I decided to go for it. It’s safer with everyone behind you.”
Dash winner Halbert opted to start on the second row behind pole sitter Mees, winner of the fastest heat. It paid off for Halbert, who finished the first lap in second, with Stevie Bonsey (Dodge Brothers/Johnny Goad) and Harley-Davidson/Screamin’ Eagle’s Kenny Coolbeth also bunched up behind the points leader.
Kopp had gotten bottled up at the start and had to run down the leaders from mid-pack, along with Kawasaki/Monster Energy/Werner-Springsteen Racing’s Bryan Smith (Kaw). Bonsey slipped off the groove one too many times and soon dropped from contention.
“We were rubbing and bumping and I thought about dropping back to around fifth and then try to work my way back at the end, but in the past I’ve never been able to make that work,” said Johnson. “I knew I could double draft them, but nobody seemed able to do that to me. I wasn’t sure where Joe (Kopp) was, so I just decided to go for it.”
The quartet came off the final corner tightly bunched and with Johnson in front and vulnerable. But the strategy paid off as he powered to victory by a scant .004 sec. over Mees, with Halbert taking the final podium spot .160 sec. behind Johnson. Coolbeth was fourth, and only .309 sec. behind Halbert.
“I thought I might as well lead it off turn four and see what they could do,” Johnson said. “Jared (Mees) just came up inches short.”
Kopp was two secs. behind Coolbeth and about a second up on Smith, the sixth place finisher. Bonsey was alone in seventh, with the veteran Chris Carr (Lancaster Harley-Davidson) just holding off Jacobsen for eighth.
Aided by three race wins, Johnson finished the season with 289 points, 20 more than Joe Kopp and Jared Mees, who tied for second. Kopp had three wins this year, Mees none. Johnson also won the Grand National Twins Championship over Kenny Coolbeth Jr., 191 to 170.
1. Jake Johnson (H-D)
2. Jared Mees (H-D)
3. Sammy Halbert (H-D)
4. Kenny Coolbeth Jr. (H-D)
5. Joe Kopp (Ducati)
6. Bryan Smith (Kawasaki)
7. Steven Bonsey (H-D)
8. Chris Carr (H-D)
9. P.J. Jacobsen (H-D)
10. Jeremy Higgins (KTM)
Final GNC Combined Points:
1. Jake Johnson (289/3 wins)
2. Joe Kopp (269/3 wins)
Jared Mees (269)
4. Sammy Halbert (249/1 win)
5. Kenny Coolbeth Jr. (248/1 win)
6. Henry Wiles (246/5 wins)
7. Chris Carr (201)
8. Bryan Smith (190/2 wins)
9. Matt Weidman (108)
10. Johnny Lewis (104)