MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 30:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Upon Further Review: Jimmie Johnson gains upper hand

Leave a comment

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.

Nature’s Bakery in discussions with Stewart-Haas Racing about Danica Patrick sponsorship

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 11:  Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Nature's Bakery Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 11, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
1 Comment

CHARLOTTE – Stewart-Haas Racing and Nature’s Bakery, primary sponsor since last year for Danica Patrick, are “in discussions” regarding their partnership, the team confirmed to NBC Sports in a statement.

The news that seems to cast doubt on the sponsor’s future was first reported by the Associated Press.

The baked goods company became Patrick’s primary sponsor last season and was on the No. 10 Chevrolet for 28 races in 2016. It was slated to be the primary sponsor for more than 20 races this year.

Nature’s Bakery replaced GoDaddy, which left Patrick after sponsoring her in IndyCar and NASCAR for several years.

During media appearances Tuesday at the Charlotte Convention Center, Patrick wore a firesuit emblazoned with Tax Act, a sponsor for the partial season the last few years,  instead of Nature’s Bakery.

Here is the statement from Stewart-Haas Racing:

Nature’s Bakery and Stewart-Haas Racing are in discussions about how the sponsorship might look in 2017. Both sides have options, and it’s a matter of determining what is best for both parties.

Stewart-Haas Racing remains focused on its preparation for the 2017 NASCAR season where it will again field four entries in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series while also introducing a full-time NASCAR XFNITY Series team.

Kurt Busch ready to reclaim NASCAR Cup championship for himself, Ford

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Portraits
Getty Images
1 Comment

Just barely falling short of winning the Race Of Champions championship this past weekend has Kurt Busch pumped up to win another kind of championship.

And it’s a Monster, indeed.

Busch, who was the first driver to win the then-new Chase for the Nextel Cup format in 2004, would like nothing more than to become the first driver to win the rebranded Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

What’s more, if Busch and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion – which will also continue to be sponsored by Monster Energy as well – has an added bit of incentive tacked on from his championship run 12 years ago.

Busch is the last Ford-powered driver to bring a NASCAR Cup championship to the blue oval company. Since Busch’s championship with Jack Roush Racing in 2004, there have been 12 Chevrolets, one Dodge and one Toyota that have NASCAR’s most coveted crown.

But not Ford. Busch has high hopes of changing that 0-for-14 streak.

“It is a special homecoming feeling to head back to work with Ford and to have them with our power and our bodies at Stewart-Haas Racing,” Busch said Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte. “It really feels neat to come back to a place where I’ve seen the faces before and the way that the structure has been polished up on and the way that there’s more depth with Ford Performance.

“The best thing that I’ve seen already come out of things is that the engineering staff at Stewart-Haas.  It’s like they just opened up a whole new book of things to look at and to advance our program further from where we were with GM.”

Admittedly, while the entire Stewart-Haas organization is excited about its first season with all-new Ford power and bodies, there could still be a learning curve of getting used to a different manufacturer after SHR’s previous long tenure with Chevrolet.

But even without any preseason testing, Busch remains optimistic that he and his teammates can come out strong right from the start of the season.

“The teams have more depth,” he said. “There’s more simulations. It used to be the driver and the crew chief came back with a notebook. Now the notebook has been used by the lead engineers.

“Limited track time saves money, but you spend more on personnel to make the cars faster, safer, stronger. I’ve seen some of the drawings. We had to change a few of our suspension settings. There might be a few bugs here or there, but I’m not too worried about it.”

Competing in this past weekend’s Race Of Champions in Miami added yet another excerpt to Busch’s vast racing resume, including NASCAR to drag racing, midget cars to Legends cars and bandolero’s, and even drove in the Indianapolis 500.

But the ROC was definitely an adventure.

“The Race of Champions is very unique and it’s a lot of fun,” Busch said. “It’s a chaotic, frat house feel and to race against the Europeans, the South Americans, it truly was a unique challenge and all the different vehicles that the Race of Champions puts you in and how it’s structured and how it all works, but it’s the fun, it’s the other side of it too.

“After my first race Sunday, I got beat by Hinchcliffe (IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe) by only a fraction of a second and I was feeling a little down.

“And I said, ‘I think I’ve got the wrong mentality. I just need to go like this is a green-white-checker every time I go out there. Just grab gears, hard on the brake, hard on the gas, just attack the track and go for it.’

“And then I started winning. I was able to get on the other side of the second bracket that I needed to get in and then Kyle was winning as well.  He was beating guys like Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, and the next thing you know we advanced as the NASCAR group as brothers and represented the USA in the finals against (Sebastian) Vettel. That was an incredible feeling. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Busch also regaled the media with the funniest part of this past weekend’s ROC.

“For some reason everybody was forgetting what gear to put their car in when they were leaving the staging area on Sunday,” he said. “Scott Speed literally drove through (Helio) Castroneves in the staging area and wrecked two cars.

“My little brother (Kyle Busch) thought he was in first gear, but he was in fast reverse and he backed into another car. I was like, ‘Guys, why are we all so nervous as the American team?’”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Xfinity drivers respond to NASCAR’s new point system

JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 16:  Brennan Poole, driver of the #48 DC Solar Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Drive for Safety 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 16, 2016 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

CHARLOTTE – While what was known as the Chase format was slow to arrive to the Xfinity Series, its replacement is being introduced to all three of NASCAR’s national series this season.

The three full-time Xfinity drivers present at the NASCAR Media Tour on Tuesday shared their thoughts on a format that awards points over the course of three segments, with the first two giving points to top-10 finishers. Those points will accumulate all the way through the second round of the playoff.

Here’s what Xfinity drivers had to say about the new points format.

Brennan Poole – No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing

“I think it’s cool. I think it gives an opportunity to a lot of drivers like myself to gain some bonus points. You win one of those stages, (those) points stay with you through the (playoff) so you can kind of give yourself a little more of a cushion when the playoff starts. I’m pretty excited about that. I think it’s great the way they’re doing it, where they’re just throwing the caution. I think for me, one of things I was concerned about was that it would be a break and we would stop, kind of how we did the Dash 4 Cash races … I think it’s going to change strategy, I think crew chiefs are going to have some headaches in the beginning. What’s going to happen when the caution comes out in the middle of one of  these stages?

Cole Custer – No. 00 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing

“We’ll see. I think we’re still trying to figure out if it’s going to affect our strategy or not. You’re definitely going to be trying to race harder for those bonus points and everything. I think that’s going to be interesting. And there’s going to be a lot more to talk about it in the race and I think it’s going to be a good thing for the sport.”

William Byron – No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports

“I think it’s going to be similar to (the Camping World Truck Series) but at least there’s something of a reward when that caution comes out (to end a segment). I think that’s going to be good if we qualify well … start on the pole and lead a segment to get a few bonus points … If you have a crash late in the race or something like that you still get to benefit from the race say if you dominated a race and you lose a race with five to go or on a green-white-checkered. You still get something.

Cole Custer eager for jump to Xfinity Series with Stewart-Haas Racing

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Texas Roadhouse 200 presented by Alpha Energy Solutions - Practice
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Cole Custer is in a position that likely makes him the envy of many of his fellow young drivers – not to mention a lot of fans who dream about being race car drivers.

Custer, who turned 19 on Monday, is essentially having a brand new team being built around him. He’s moved up from the Camping World Truck Series (finished 10th last season) to a full-time Xfinity Series ride in 2017.

What’s more, it’s the first time Stewart-Haas Racing has built an Xfinity team since its formation. While Custer’s father, Joe, is former general manager at SHR (he’s now in a similar position with the organization’s Formula One team), this isn’t a case of nepotism.

No, the younger Custer has earned his way into an Xfinity ride with his talent, and it just so happens that it’s with the same team his father is an executive in.

Custer earned two wins, nine top-fives, 24 top-10s and five poles in 42 Truck races over the last three seasons.

He also made five scattered Xfinity starts in 2016, earning one top-five and a pair of top-10 showings.

But now in 2017, Custer moves up to NASCAR’s junior league – comparable to Minor League Baseball’s highest level, Triple-A.

While such a move may intimidate or be heady for another 19-year-old, it’s not for Custer. He’s been around racing his whole life and is ready to step up to the next level.

Even though he admits there will be some things to get used to, he’s up for the challenge. And with a new team that has a lot of experience among its members, Custer is cool, collected and, most importantly, confident.

“Coming from the Truck Series, it’s a new competition level,” he said Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte. “I’m going to have to step up a little bit and it’s going to be a different challenge, but I think we can do it and we have a great team.

Custer is so confident in his own skill and his team’s ability that he’s already upgraded his expectations for the season, not fearful to boldly predict that if everything goes right, the new first-year team could wind up winning the Xfinity Series championship.

“I think so,” Custer said. “We have some great people that are smart and capable enough to do it. “At the start of the year, my expectations are a little bit lower, like just being in the top-10. But from what I’ve seen in the off-season, we have some awesome people that will make some fast cars and I think we’ll have a shot at it.”

Admittedly, there have been growing pains within the new team. While some members are SHR mainstays, there are also several new members to the organization. Trying to get them all to gel and mold together has been a challenge at times.

“It’s definitely been tough,” Custer said. “Our guys are working extremely hard right now, getting cars together. I can’t stress enough how hard they’re working.

“You’re creating a fab shop that never hung Xfinity bodies before. You learn how to do that and everything else that goes with it. It’s not easy but we have some awesome people that are really smart and that are going to get it together, so I think we’re going to have a strong team.”

While Custer has a literal luxury of having the minds of several drivers to draw from – including team co-owner Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick – it’s Kevin Harvick that Custer is leaning upon and trying to learn the most from.

“I’ve tried to get most of my advice from Kevin Harvick,” Custer said. “I’ve related to him more since he runs a lot of Truck and Xfinity races, so he can help with that. He’s kind of my go-to guy right now, but there’s a lot of great drivers at Stewart-Haas, so if I get a little information from any of them, I think that would be a great thing.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski