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

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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.

NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto on Indy success with small team

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Matt DiBenedetto has just three top-10 finishes in his three years of competing in the NASCAR Cup Series. But two of them have come this year in two of the biggest races in the sport.

DiBenedetto, who drives the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, finished ninth in the Daytona 500 in February and eighth in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

DiBenedetto, who was also celebrating his 26th birthday, joined NASCAR America to discuss his run at Indy and what is considered a successful race for his team, which has 15 crew members.

“You’ve got to keep it in the perception of your versions of wins are a little bit different than everybody else’s version,” DiBenedetto said. “We look at it as who we’re racing around. I would say on a regular week where there’s not a ton of chaos like Indy was, a top 20 is a really good day. A top 25 is if we just do our job.”

Watch the video for the full segment.

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.