Ryan: Finally reaching the Round of 8 will mean a chance at seven for Jimmie Johnson

1 Comment

CONCORD, N.C. – The silver-edged and black magnetic bulletin board with the handy brackets and snazzy magnets didn’t tell the full story while displayed in victory lane Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson’s name and No. 48 was listed on the first magnet slotted into one of eight slots below “Martinsville/Texas/Phoenix.”

Because of that trio, no one would have blanched if Johnson’s name would have been slid over to the next tidy collection of empty straight lines on the board.

Those represent the four championship contenders in the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The six-time series champion undoubtedly will be among them after a three-year absence.

With his win in the Bank of America 500, Johnson qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup’s Round of 8 for the first time Sunday.

In reality, the Hendrick Motorsports superstar effectively clinched much more than that — a shot at a record-tying seventh championship. Securing passage to the third round lays out like a layup for Johnson.

He has eight wins, tops among active full-time drivers, at Martinsville Speedway, the 0.526-mile that Johnson adores.

He also has six wins at Texas Motor Speedway, including four consecutive in the November race on the 1.5-mile oval where Johnson’s knack for tire management is supreme.

Phoenix International Raceway, the flat 1-mile track where Johnson has four wins and 19 top 10s, would be considered his “worst” of the lot.

After Auto Club Speedway, these are the three best tracks on Johnson’s resume when ordered by average finish (7.5 at Martinsville, 7.8 at Phoenix, 8.3 at Texas).

“I’m super excited from the simple fact if there is any driver you want to go into the third round with, I don’t know who else it would be other than Jimmie Johnson,” crew chief Chad Knaus told NBC Sports. “We’re very optimistic for the next segment.”

Leading his team (including the driver) with the single-minded discipline of a drill sergeant for 15 seasons, that’s as close as you’ll come with getting Knaus to size up the No. 48 Chevrolet’s path to the championship as a cakewalk.

But it’s an absolute firewall that will catapult Johnson into the championship round for the first time in the three-year history of the playoffs revamped with points resets, elimination rounds and expanded fields that make it more difficult to recover from a setback.

There have been whispers of whether the changes had “Jimmie-proofed” the Chase.

But Sunday reaffirmed it mostly was circumstantial that Johnson – who raced for a championship at Miami in every season but one from 2004-13 – hadn’t reached the championship round in the new era.

Remove an axle seal failure at Dover in 2015 and a flat tire at Kansas in 2014, and Johnson might be aiming for his ninth title this year.

“All we needed was an opportunity to make it to that final round, and we could have been competitive,” Knaus said. “When you have mechanical problem that’s unforeseen. Those things happen. It just does. It’s life. Racing is a tough sport. It knocks you back into reality in a heartbeat.”

There will be no rude awakenings anytime soon. Clutching a golden ticket to the Round of 8, a rare two-race respite awaits the No. 48 – along with the dread-filled 500-mile roulette wheel at Talladega Superspeedway, which was the first place Johnson went after his 78th career victory.

“I just took a deep breath and was like, ‘Yes, we did it,’” he said. “I don’t have to be worried about finishing at Talladega.”

It’s the rest of the Chase field that should be worried now – though Johnson typically wasn’t betraying any hint of overconfidence and presumption.

“We can’t sit back and celebrate too much,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to buckle down and get to work and keep advancing our race cars.”

A date with history at Homestead-Miami Speedway awaits – and is virtually assured.

Kyle Larson moving on from Bristol finish, looking to win again at Richmond

Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

After losing the lead with six laps to go and finishing second to Kyle Busch at Bristol, a frustrated Kyle Larson headed back to his motorhome.

He was greeted by son Owen, who had a question for him.

“Did you get me some Skittles?’ ‘’ Owen asked.

Even though the candy sponsors Busch, Larson admits he managed to smile at his son’s request.

‘That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it kind of lightened the mood, so it helps to get over it a little bit,’’ Larson said Friday at Richmond Raceway.

The runner-up finish for Larson marked the third time he’s finished second to Busch in a Cup race (2014 Auto Club Speedway, 2017 New Hampshire and 2018 Bristol).

Larson enters this weekend having won the most recent race at Richmond. He took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. with five laps to go on pit road and held on in overtime to win in September.

“Typically this hasn’t been a good race track for me, but for whatever reason, the last time we were here we were about a top-three car all race long,’’ said Larson, who starts tonight’s race fifth. “Truex was really fast. But, I was a little bit lucky there at the end with a caution to beat him off pit road and get the win. I think that adds a little bit of confidence coming back here.

“Even though I’ve struggled in the past, I enjoy this track because it is different than what we typically go to.”

Larson enters the weekend with three top-three finishes this season, including the Bristol result.

“I feel like our short track program has become really competitive over the last few years,’’ he said. “Aside from Martinsville, I don’t even know if our package is good or bad there; I think I’m just not very good there. But, for us to get a couple top-two finishes here at Richmond now the last couple of years, at a track that I struggle a lot at, I think says a lot about our short track program. Even Bristol, I think Bristol is my best race track, but a few years ago I would just kind of run around eighth to 12th. But now lately, I’ve been able to lead the most laps and get close to wins.’’

Larson’s Bristol race also included a spin after contact with Ryan Newman but Larson doesn’t blame Newman for the incident.

“I get along with Newman,’’ Larson said. “The line that I run in (Turns) 3 and 4 throughout a run is really fast, but I can get myself in trouble if people poke their nose in on me. That’s the second time I’ve gotten spun by running that line, so I think I just need to be a little more cautious. I don’t think he did anything wrong there. It was getting somewhat toward the end of the race. You’re trying to race for lead-lap spots. So, I cut it a little too close, I think, and ran across his front end.”

 and on Facebook

Results, point standings after Xfinity race at Richmond

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Christopher Bell led a race-high 120 laps to win the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway. It’s his second career Xfinity win.

Bell beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Noah Gragson, Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

Elliott Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Click here for the race results.

Points

Elliott Sadler continues to lead the point standings through eight races. He has a 29-point lead over Bell.

Completing the top five is Tyler Reddick (-31 points), Daniel Hemric (-38) and Justin Allgaier (-48).

Click here for the point standings.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at Richmond

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Christopher Bell fended off teammate Noah Gragson to break through and win his first Xfinity race of the year Friday night at Richmond Raceway.

Bell led the final 79 laps around the .75-mile track to score his second career win. He had finished in the top five in four of the first seven races this season.

“That was pretty special there, buddy,” Bell told Fox Sports 1. “Had to work for it. My teammate was really good and I knew throughout both practices that both of our cars were going to be really strong. Joe Gibbs Racing has been producing really, really fast Camrys for last couple of weeks and it’s really shown.”

Gragson placed second in his first career Xfinity start. He bounced back from an uncontrolled tire penalty early in the race.

He hounded Bell for much of the last 15 laps, but could never pull even with him.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Gragson told FS1 of his first series start at the short track. “I found a little something in the track, a little speed there at the end of the second stage on old tires. I kept it in my memory bank until the end and I told me team, ‘I got something, when it’s time to go tell me when.’ About 18 to go, I told them, ‘Can’t wait any longer, I don’t have any more patience.”

Gragson, who drives full-time in the Camping World Truck Series, led 10 laps.

The top five was completed by Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

With his third-place finish, Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Bell, Sadler, Tifft and Cindric will be eligible for the third Dash 4 Cash bonus next week at Talladega.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: Elliott Sadler, first stage win of season

MORE: Race results, points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Austin Cindric earned his first career top five after starting from the rear for an unapproved adjustment … Matt Tifft earned his fourth career top five … Ryan Truex placed seventh to give Kaulig Racing its fourth top 10 of the year. It earned five last year … Jeremy Clements placed eighth, earning his first top 10 since he won at Road America in August.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: After winning Stage 1, Daniel Hemric lost his right front tire with three laps to go in Stage 2, but made it to the end. He finished 29th, four laps down … Justin Allgaier spun after ramming into the back of Spencer Gallagher with 86 laps to go. Chase Briscoe was also received damage in the incident. Allgaier finished 14th. Briscoe placed 26th.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “My wife’s already spent it.” – Elliott Sadler to FS1 after winning the Dash 4 Cash bonus.

WHAT’S NEXT: Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway at 3 p.m. ET on April 28 on Fox.

Starting lineup for Cup race at Richmond

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott will start on the front row for Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway.

Truex won his third pole of the season.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Kyle Busch, who is trying to win a third consecutive race, qualified 32nd.

Click here for the starting lineup.