KENT, Wash. -- Shawn Langdon thought he was going to the NHRA version of the dream team last season. At this point one year ago, that dream looked more like a nightmare.
Langdon was winless, driving for the Al Anabi team that had won the previous two NHRA Top Fuel championships with veteran racers Del Worsham in 2011 and Larry Dixon in 2010.
Worsham and Dixon were gone; Langdon and his rookie teammate Khalid alBalooshi were struggling.
But Langdon never lost hope. Not for one moment. He knew better days were ahead and he would be where he is now -- the season points leader with four victories in 2013. After a win last weekend at Sonoma, Langdon hopes to make it two in a row by winning the Northwest Nationals this weekend at Pacific Raceways.
Obviously, things have changed for Langdon. But even in the darkest moments of 2012, Langdon took comfort in the fact that he was racing for a legend in Alan Johnson, the most successful tuner in Top Fuel history.
"There was never any doubt," Langdon said. "We knew at some point it would get back to where it was before I got here.
"Alan was very vocal about it. He said, 'Look, I know we're struggling. It's just going to take time. The things that I'm working on now will make us better. We're going to figure it out, and when we do, this team is going to win.' "
When Johnson tells drivers something, they tend to believe it. Why wouldn't they? The man has won championships with three different teams and four different drivers.
But coming off the 2011 championship season, Johnson made a decision to radically update the technology of his operation. What had worked so well wasn't going to work much longer.
"We try to keep our teams constantly evolving,'' Johnson said Friday. "But in truth, last year was more than an evolution. It was a reincarnation."
Johnson knew Al Anabi would take its lumps last season, but it was a situation of taking a step back in order to move forward.
"We had reached the point where we had to revamp our stuff," Johnson said. "We were bright enough over here to know that the end of that vein had arrived. We had to take a different tack.
"You are going to go through periods where you have to rebuild your strategy. We undertook a sizable change. It was big. We didn't just change the clutch of the engine. We changed everything."
The results are showing now. The two-dragster operation has five victories (including one for alBalooshi in Norwalk, Ohio) and three runner-up showings this season.
"We fought through last year and now it's starting to pay off," Johnson said.
Langdon isn't surprised. He had a message for Johnson when things were at the low point last season.
"I told Alan, 'Hey, you've got nothing to explain to me,' " Langdon said. "I said, 'I came here for a reason. I know what you're capable of and I know what this team is capable of. I can't ask for anything more as a driver. You do what you've gotta do. If we struggle, so be it.' "
But Langdon had to weather some people questioning his racing skills last season. He had three top-10 seasons before getting the opportunity of his career to move to Johnson's operation last year at age 29.
However, Langdon still was winless in Top Fuel. When he didn't win right off the bat in a winning dragster, some people started doubting if he could do what Dixon and Worsham had done at Al Anabi.
"I read the message boards and heard what people had to say," Langdon said. "but I led the class last year in average reaction time, so I felt deep down I was doing the right thing."
And Johnson made sure Langdon knew it wasn't his fault.
"I know when he came here, his expectations, along with a lot of other people, were high that he was going to win a lot,'' Johnson said. "But we didn't provide him with a winning car. He still did a great job."
But Langdon says Johnson has made him a much better driver than he was when he first arrived last season.
"Alan has taught me so much in the last year and half," Langdon said. "We had an incident earlier this year in Phoenix where I just completely over-pedaled the car and got it pretty squirrely.
"Alan came to me and said, 'Have you ever been properly taught how to pedal a car?' I said, 'Well yeah, I've been taught how to pedal.'
"He said, 'No, have you been taught how to properly pedal a car?' I said, 'Well, apparently not if you're asking me twice.' So we sat down and he explained a lot of things in depth to me that I just really didn't know. That's why he is who is he and why he's had so much success in the past."
Langdon enters this event with a big lead over his two closest competitors at Don Schumacher Racing -- 102 points over Spencer Massey and 104 points ahead of seven-time champion Tony Schumacher.
All three drivers already have qualified for the Countdown, the six-race playoff that starts at Charlotte in September.
"Obviously, Al Anabi is a championship caliber team," Massey said. "We may be chasing Shawn until the last race of the year, but we're hoping to catch him."
At this point for Langdon, it's catch him if you can. After all, he has the master tuner in his corner with Johnson.
"You trust him,'' Langdon said. "That's basically it. He's very confident that we have the car to beat for the championship. So am I."