How a two-week head start on the title race affords a better choice for Jimmie Johnson

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FORT WORTH, Texas – While the competition renews its battle for the three remaining championship berths this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson’s team is two weeks ahead of the game.

The six-time Sprint Cup champion, who advanced to the title round for the first time with Sunday’s victory at Martinsville Speedway to open the Round of 8, said the head-start is affording Hendrick Motorsports more wisdom in choosing its No. 48 Chevrolet for the Nov. 20 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“(The Martinsville win) has given us some flexibility,” Johnson said Wednesday during a media availability in Charlotte. “The car we raced in Darlington and a new car we built are both going back to the wind tunnel, and we’ll let the wind tunnel determine which one goes. It’s given us a little time to complete a second car and make a decision between those two.”

Johnson also triumphed at Charlotte Motor Speedway to open the Round of 12. Locking up a berth through the races at Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway allowed more tuning on his car at Martinsville, where he won at the 0.526-mile oval track for the first time in three years.

“I think it helps,” he said. “The freedom we had to not worry about Talladega opened up some extra time to prep for Martinsville. That’s what I’ve seen so far this week. We did our Tuesday debrief, and we couldn’t get through the Texas prep quick enough because we’re all here to talk about Homestead.

“We stayed long and talked about Homestead, and that led to more conversations (Tuesday) night. So instead of obsessing over (the next two races at) Texas and Phoenix — we’re definitely giving it time and attention — but the obsession is about Homestead. If we can just get a day or two ahead or a few steps ahead and be that much more prepared, the better.”

Johnson, who still could be considered the favorite Sunday at Texas having won the AAA 500 in four consecutive seasons, has no preference on his three opponents in the championship round but jokes he will enter as the underdog at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His average finish of 14.1 at the 1.5-mile track ranks fourth among remaining Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers.

But perhaps the reason Johnson hasn’t won at Miami is because he rarely has entered the race needing a victory. In his first four championships, he was protecting a points lead and finished ninth, seventh 15th and fifth.

“The thing that’s hard is you’re so damn nervous, especially when you’re protecting,” he said. “The fact you run so close to the wall at Homestead when you’re protecting something, you’re so nervous that you’re going to (damage the) right side (of) the car.

“I think the cars were better than (the results). I’m not sure they were dominant cars, but they were better. I was driving around a little concerned, a little scared.”

This is the first time Johnson will contend for the title since the playoff structure was altered in 2014, awarding the championship to the best finish of four contenders at Miami.

The last two instances in which Johnson entered the finale trailing in the standings, Johnson he finished second in 2010 (winning his fifth championship) and led 25 laps in 2012 before a gear failure.

“That was our most competitive race there,” he said. “I’m certainly believing we can race for it. You have to. I think you have to win to win (the championship).”

In need of a wedding singer? Call Steven Tyler

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 05:  Singer Steven Tyler performs during his "Out on a Limb" tour at the Dolby Theatre on July 5, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA)
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA
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Steven Tyler has performed with Aerosmith in a video for ESPN back when it broadcast NASCAR races. Tyler also has performed before the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Now, he’s played Kurt Busch‘s wedding.

What more is left for the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer?

Tyler performed at a celebration for the marriage of Kurt and Ashley Busch earlier this month. Kurt Busch posted a photo of the evening.

That NASCAR-themed video Tyler did with Aerosmith for the 2007 season? Here it is:

Before he performed at Bristol in Aug. 2015, Tyler met Richard Petty:

Chip Ganassi Racing adds competition director

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Team owner Chip Ganassi looks on as drivers perpare on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Chip Ganassi Racing has hired Mark McArdle to be its competition director, a new position for the organization.

McArlde will oversee the team’s two Cup teams — Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray — and its Xfinity operation, which features Brennan Poole, Tyler Reddick, Justin Marks and Larson.

McArdle had been with Roush Fenway Racing. He joined the team in Nov. 2014 to oversee engineering for its Cup and Xfinity programs. He previously had been director of racing operations at Richard Childress Racing, joining that organization in April 2013. He spent four years before that at Furniture Row Racing, overseeing the team’s competition department.

At Ganassi, McArdle will report to Max Jones, team manager.

Last year marked the first time in the team’s history that it had two cars make the Cup playoffs. Both Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, though, failed to advance from the first round. Larson, who had one win, finished ninth in the points. McMurray, who was winless, placed 13th.

“I think everybody in the building feels like we took a good step forward last year,’’ said Steve Lauletta, president of Chip Ganassi Racing. “We’re not happy with the step we took. We have more to do. So, being able to bring more of the leadership into the building that can focus on how we get there, the process that we need, we continue to bring on more people.

“I think Max feels like another person can help us make sure that everybody is focused on the right thing and we’re not wasting time and resources. Mark brings a tremendous amount of expertise to continue that growth that we’ve seen.’’

JR Motorsports to keep championship-contending tandem together

SPARTA, KY - JULY 07:  Elliott Sadler, driver of the #1 OneMain Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Alsco 300 at Kentucky Speedway on July 7, 2016 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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JR Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that crew chief Kevin Meendering will remain with Elliott Sadler this season.

Meendering and Sadler recorded three Xfinity wins last year in their first season together. Meendering also helped Sadler score a career-best 29 top-10 results and finish runner-up for the series title to Daniel Suarez.

The announcement was included in a team release about Hunt Brothers Pizza serving as the primary sponsor for Sadler’s car in two races in each of the next two seasons.

Wood Brothers give a tour of new race shop

LOUDON, NH - JULY 15:  Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 16, 2016 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)
Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images
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The Wood Brothers begin this season not only with a charter but with a new home.

The team had shared a building with JTG Daugherty in Harrisburg, North Carolina, but moved after last season to a shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. The move puts the Wood Brothers closer to Team Penske. The two organizations are aligned.

The Wood Brothers will again have Ryan Blaney as driver. The team also has a charter, leasing it from Go Fas Racing. That means the Wood Brothers team is guaranteed a starting spot in every Cup race this year, unlike last year when they did not have a charter.