Jimmie Johnson ‘doing everything I can’ to improve in chase for seventh title

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Not satisfied with a career where he’s won more championships than all but two drivers in NASCAR history and more races than six drivers, Jimmie Johnson is the first competitor to advance to the Round of 8 in part because of an insatiable desire to improve.

Sunday’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway ended a career-high 24-race winless drought and moved Johnson one step closer to a seventh series title that would tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

That Johnson returned to this level after the summer doldrums Hendrick Motorsports experienced isn’t surprising because Johnson keeps searching for ways to improve.

“I’ve been trying to change what I do and try to learn more about the vehicles and how I can be more useful for the engineers and crew chief,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports after his Charlotte victory. “I’d say the last two to three months, it’s all come together, and I find that things I’m looking at and I feel we can do to improve the car, (are) areas we’re working in, too. I’m learning a lot more about the vehicle. I know some. I know the basics, but really getting deeply involved. We’re along the same lines and thinking about the same stuff now, which is cool.’’

With Jeff Gordon retiring last year, Johnson ascended to the role of senior driver at Hendrick Motorsports. He’s taken that leadership role for an organization with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott.

“I’d say that I feel like the leadership role I’ve been working on, and some months are better than others, it’s really been to unify all four teams and drivers and get all four crew chiefs to really rely on one another and count on one another, and then we’ll go settle it on Sunday,’’ Johnson said.

“The notes have always been there. But if you can describe something with a little more sincerity or detail to help someone really grasp why you’re thinking this way, and why you’re making these decisions about your car.

“The same thing is just sharing the emotional side with my teammates and driver standpoint and try to manage the race, manage emotions, what I’m thinking, how I’m thinking. There’s a lot that goes into that. That’s where we’ve gone next level and needed to. I think we were probably getting beat by it. I think the Gibbs folks have been doing a real nice job on that front. I feel like we’re catching them there now.’’

Johnson has led a series-high 363 laps in the first four Chase races. Hendrick Motorsports has led 555 laps in the Chase — nearly 200 more laps than the next team. Sunday, Johnson won and Kahne was third, marking the first time in 16 races that Hendrick Motorsports placed two cars in the top five.

Part of being a team leader is showing by example. Johnson’s spat of pit road speeding penalties — he has had four since Indianapolis in July — led him to a parking lot across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway to practice driving down pit road.

“I didn’t want to leave a stone unturned,’’ Johnson said. “Practice session is so precious at a racetrack that you can mess with it there, but I just wanted to start over at ground zero and work on pit road speed, look on the screen I look at, understanding how the little light bulbs that light up, what the increments are, how to use them. Made some small changes, lot of it was repetitive. I just couldn’t sit home another week and say I’ve got it. I’ll fix it. I had to do something to convince myself to fix it and show these guys that I’m doing everything I can.’’

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.