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Upon Further Review: Jimmie Johnson gains upper hand

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson’s victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway puts him in a strong spot to dictate who he’ll race for the championship in Miami.

If he could win this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway — where he’s won the last four Chase races — it would take away an automatic spot to the title race for a championship contender and mean at least two drivers would advance through points.

If Kevin Harvick went on to win at Phoenix — where he has won six of the last times — it would leave two spots among reigning series champ Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.

The top two Chase drivers in points not yet qualified for the championship race are Hamlin and Kenseth after Martinsville.

“That chance might be there, but when you have guys like Chase Elliott, Martin Truex and Brad Keselowski that aren’t in the Chase, I’d put those three right up there as favorites going into Texas,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports about being able to control, in a way, who could advance to Miami. “It’s not a guarantee that I’d keep a Chaser from winning.

“We want more trophies, I want our team to deal with as much pressure as possible before Homestead, so the more laps we can lead, the more races we can contend for, the better it’s going to make our team. That’s really our motivation to go down there.”

Johnson is right, should a driver not eligible for the title win, that also would prevent a driver from advancing automatically to the final round — just as Johnson has done each of the past two years since he was out of title contention by the Texas race.

UP AND DOWN

One of the fascinating elements of this Chase has been Joe Gibbs Racing’s inability to win, and Jimmie Johnson’s success after struggling much of the regular season.

Their differences are magnified when looking at when they’ve led laps during the Chase races.

Joe Gibbs Racing cars have led 753 laps in the Chase but only 36.5 percent of those laps have come in the second half of a race. In essence, they’re not controlling races past the halfway mark as they often do in the first half.

Johnson, who has two wins in this Chase, has led 455 laps in the Chase. The key with him is that 78.7 percent of the laps he’s led have come in the second half of the race, showing that he gets stronger as the race progresses and puts himself in position to win races.

Martinsville proved the exception for Joe Gibbs Racing. Its cars led 74 laps in the race’s first half and 153 laps in the race’s second. Yet, JGR still couldn’t beat Johnson, who led the final 92 laps.

Kyle Busch expressed frustration with how teammate Denny Hamlin raced late in Sunday’s race, saying that didn’t help.

“We worked so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson),” a frustrated Busch said afterward. “So, JGR all the way.”

BIG ADVANTAGE?

Although Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville last fall (the opening race in the Round of 8) and had the extra two weeks to focus on the championship finale, it wasn’t enough for him to win the title.

Still, Gordon doesn’t discount the advantage Jimmie Johnson has after Johnson’s victory Sunday.

“I think Homestead is probably the biggest question mark for them,’’ Gordon said, “but the way they’ve been running on the mile-and-a-halves this year and the work they’ll be able to do … man, that’s going to be tough to beat them.’’

Gordon said it was helpful to win at Martinsville last year to give the team more time to prepare for Miami.

“We were just solely focused on Homestead from that point on,’’ Gordon said. “It gives them time just to massage (the Homestead car) and know that car is going to Homestead to race for a championship.’’

PIT STOPS

AJ Allmendinger’s 10th-place finish marked his third consecutive top-10 result. That’s the first time in his career he’s done that.

— Joe Gibbs Racing is winless in the Chase (seven races). This is the organization’s longest winless drought of the season.

Michael McDowell’s 18th-place finish at Martinsville was the best finish of his career at that track. Also, the finish marked his ninth top-20 result of the season. He had three top-20 finishes in the past two seasons (35 starts).

— Jimmie Johnson’s win ended a six-race winless drought at Martinsville Speedway. Since scoring his first Martinsville win in 2004, he’s never gone more than six races between victories there. He has nine career victories at the circuit’s shortest track.

— Denny Hamlin finished third despite a penalty for speeding on pit road. This marked the sixth time this season Hamlin has scored a top-five finish after a penalty in a race.

— Jimmie Johnson’s win continued Ford’s drought at Martinsville Speedway. Ford has not won there in the last 28 races. Ford’s last Martinsville win was with Kurt Busch in 2002.

Crew chief explains order to Kyle Busch to do ‘doughnuts to the right’

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Crew chief Adam Stevens explained what he meant when he told Kyle Busch on the radio to do “doughnuts to the right” after Busch’s victory in Saturday night’s All-Star Race.

Stevens provided an explanation Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.’’

“That had nothing to do with any damage being received,’’ Stevens said. “That was just an effort to make sure that we could meet the (Laser Inspection Station) tolerances after the races. Doughnuts and burnouts are very hard on the car. It puts a lot of stress into all the suspension components. If we go out there and do the doughnuts to the left the same way that we’ve been turning all day, it’s going to eat into more of that tolerance.

“The only car out there doing doughnuts is the winner. We’re going to use up all of our tolerance doing doughnuts potentially. If we have that opportunity to do doughnuts, it just makes sense to do them the other direction so we’re not stressing the components in that manner.’’

Busch’s car passed inspection after the race.

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Slugger Labbe exits Richard Childress Racing as Austin Dillon gets crew chief Justin Alexander

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Richard Childress Racing made multiple crew chief changes Monday that included the departure of longtime employee Richard “Slugger” Labbe.

Justin Alexander was named crew chief for Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet in replacing Labbe, who is leaving RCR to pursue “other opportunities,” according to the team.

Alexander, who previously worked as the crew chief for Paul Menard, was promoted from RCR’s No. 2 in the Xfinity Series. Randall Burnett, who recently left AJ Allmendinger’s team, will take over Alexander’s job in the Xfinity Series.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

Here’s the release from the team:

Richard Childress Racing Announces Competition Changes to its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series Programs

Justin Alexander to take over No. 3 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief Role;

Randall Burnett to take over No. 2 XFINITY Series Crew Chief Position

WELCOME, N.C. (May 22, 2017) – Richard Childress Racing has made a change in crew chiefs for its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series programs, effective immediately.

Justin Alexander, who has served as the crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet for RCR and earned two wins last season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, will assume crew chief responsibilities for the No. 3 Dow/American Ethanol/AAA Chevrolet SS team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with driver Austin Dillon. Alexander holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. Prior to RCR, Alexander served in various engineering roles with Hendrick Motorsports. Alexander’s first race in his new role will be for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, replacing Richard “Slugger” Labbe. Labbe is leaving the company to pursue other opportunities.

Randall Burnett, who previously served as a crew chief for RCR’s technical partner JTG Daugherty Racing, will assume a new role as crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet in the NASCAR XFINITY Series beginning at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 27. Burnett holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UNC Charlotte. Prior to JTG Daugherty Racing, he spent 10 years as an engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Red Horse Racing suspends operations

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Red Horse Racing, which has competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since 2005, has suspended operations.

The organization, which reached the championship race last year with Timothy Peters, had 16 career victories. The team laid off 30 employees along with Peters and driver Brett Moffitt, a team official told NBC Sports. The team has kept a core group of employees as it seeks funding to resume operations.

Peters finished fifth in Friday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Moffitt placed 18th. Peters is sixth in the points and Moffitt is 10th. Neither truck has had a primary sponsor listed in all five races this season. 

Peters won at least one race for the organization from 2009-15. In 2012, the organization finished second in the owner points with four drivers scoring wins: Peters (two wins), Todd Bodine (one), John King (one) and Parker Kligerman (one).

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NASCAR executive defends rules package after lackluster All-Star Race

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After an All-Star race that featured three lead changes in 70 laps, a senior NASCAR executive defended the rules package but conceded that the option tire “didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that one race isn’t going to lead to significant rule changes.

“I think we’ve got to keep it in context,’’ O’Donnell said Monday. “I find it ironic that you can go from one week of everyone saying this is the greatest rules package and then you walk into one race with a bit of a different format (and opinions not as high). We feel still really bullish on the rules package we have, the work we’ve done with the industry to get where we’re at. Certainly you want every race to be the best it possibly can be.

“We’ve got to look at the facts and the facts are a lot of different organizations winning this year, the (manufacturers) having an ability to win, Kyle (Busch) his first win ever (in Cup) at Charlotte, which is surprising to me, and a lot of young drivers really putting their names out there competing out front. Really like where we’re at right now.

“Our job is to look at the whole year. If I reacted to every comment you had on Twitter, it would be very different. It’s one of those things we’ve got to look at the overall picture, we’ve got to take the input from everybody in the industry and we do that. I think from a rules package standpoint we continue to see the sport moving in the right direction in terms of what we’re seeing in competitiveness from different organizations. That’s really how we judge it from an overall standpoint and not just one race.’’

Heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, there have been eight different winners in the first 11 races. There have been at least eight different winners in the first 11 races in three of the last four years.

Among organizations, seven different teams have scored victories this season: Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Four organizations had won a race in the first 11 events last year and in 2015.

In the five races run on 1.5-mile tracks this season — Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and the All-Star Race — lead changes are down compared to the same events last year. There have been 63 lead changes in those five events this year compared to 94 in those same events a year ago and 99 two years ago.

The three lead changes in the All-Star race were the fewest since 2007, although Saturday’s race had the fewest laps (70) since that 2007 race, which was 80 laps.

Still, the hope was that there could be plenty of cars moving forward and backward with the use of a second tire compound, a softer compound. The goal was for the tire to be a few tenths quicker at the onset but wear more quickly than the regular tire.

“Goodyear delivered on exactly what we had asked,’’ O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We wanted three to four-tenths on a tire and by the practice times and the early part of the race we saw that. Kudos to Goodyear. I think what you saw Saturday night was really the difference probably in the car versus the tire and maybe a need to go even further if you were going to pursue that avenue in terms of difference in speed. That’s something we could look at for the future. Obviously you guys saw what I saw, it didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Asked if the option tire is something still on the table for future events, O’Donnell said: “I think so. I think you look at what may be the impact versus the car. I think the bigger thing is, when you look at tires in general, continuing to focus on rain tire, what should be our priority. There’s talk, I don’t want to tip the hand, but way down the future could you ever run Martinsville if the track was damp because Goodyear is able to, in terms of the speed, put something together.

“It’s a balance for us of where do we put their focus. Obviously they’re capable of doing all things. I think something we’d look at All-Star for sure, not sure in terms of a points race.’’

Another question was about the splitter after Erik Jones’ bid for the lead in the final laps of the Monster Energy Open was foiled when he ran below the apron and through grass on the frontstretch. He damaged his splitter in the incident.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was critical of the splitter on Twitter.

O’Donnell defended the splitter’s purpose on the car.

“Why we have it, I think everybody, including the drivers and the industry wanted to look at going toward the lower downforce package,’’ O’Donnell said. “That’s part of the package. It’s part of what we worked on with the (manufacturers). We’re actually very happy with the product we’ve had.

“If you look back to Kansas, one of the better mile-and-a-half races we’ve had. It’s always interesting with one incident and everybody jumps on, ‘Hey, why do we have this on the car?’ Certainly something down the road you can always look at, but it’s part of the overall aerodynamics of the car. It all fits in.

“For now, we continue to like the direction of lower downforce and going to continue down that and see if there are certain tweaks we can make. We absolutely would do that but that’s where we’re at today.’’

O’Donnell also said that the 2018 schedule is expected to be released this week.

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