Jimmie Johnson earns record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship

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Joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with the most championships by a driver, Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship while also winning Sunday’s 2016 season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As for the other Championship 4 drivers, Joey Logano finished fourth, 2015 champion Kyle Busch was sixth and Carl Edwards, victimized in a late wreck, wound up 34th.

Johnson, whose prior championships were in 2006 through 2010 and also 2013, led only the final three laps to become part of NASCAR history. It was also his fifth win of the 2016 season and third triumph in the last seven Chase races.

Johnson’s 80th career Sprint Cup win was also his first win in 16 starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The only active tracks that he has not won at drops to three: Chicago, Kentucky and Watkins Glen.

Johnson was forced to start the race from the rear of the field when his car failed to pass pre-race inspection. It was the third time in Johnson’s career that he started from the back and went on to victory. The other two times were both at Charlotte in June 2003 and October 2005.

“For some reason, I just felt good and calm today and things just kind of unfolded at the end for us, along with help from above,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “In my heart, I wanted to believe it would happen and it has.”

Runner-up Kyle Larson led the most laps (132), while 2014 champ and third-place finisher Kevin Harvick led 79 laps. The race was scheduled for 267 laps, but due to a late caution involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., was extended into overtime for a total of 268 laps.

The rest of the top-10 of the final race of the 2016 season were Jamie McMurray (fifth), Matt Kenseth (seventh), AJ Allmendinger (eighth), Denny Hamlin (ninth) and Michael McDowell (10th).

Larson led at the midpoint (134 laps) of the scheduled 267-lap event.

MORE: Click for full results and stats.

MORE: CLick here for the final 2016 point standings.

Five years to the date, it was the second time that Edwards once again fell short of winning the championship. Edwards lost the 2011 title to Tony Stewart on a tie-breaker (Stewart had more wins than Edwards that season).

Sunday, on a restart with 10 laps to go and Edwards at the front of the field, he tried to block Logano, who did not lift off the gas pedal. The pair made contact, sending Edwards spinning and into the wall. The race was red-flagged at that point, lasting 31 minutes, 9 seconds.

“I pushed the issue as far as I could because I figured that was the race there,” Edwards told NBC Sports. “I could feel him a little, which was probably a little optimistic, but I thought I’d clear him or force him to lift. He drove down as far as a guy could be expected to drive down and that’s how it ended.”

Edwards lamented losing his second chance at a championship, adding, “Everybody did a good job and it didn’t work out. This is life. We performed well. We did our best. I just risked too much. … I had to push it. I couldn’t go to bed tonight thinking that I gave him that length.”

Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, Regan Smith and Martin Truex Jr. were all collected in the Edwards-Logano wreck. Truex’s car erupted in heavy fire but he was able to get out of the car as safety crews arrived on the scene.

Two drivers made the final start of their Sprint Cup careers.

Three-time champion Tony Stewart finished 22nd in his 618th career Cup start, which also came on the fifth anniversary to the date of his final Sprint Cup championship in 2011. It was also the final race under the Chevrolet banner for the Stewart-Haas Racing organization; it switches to Ford for 2017.

Meanwhile, Brian Scott, who announced last week that he would retire after his first and full-time Cup season after six full seasons in the Nationwide Series, finished 15th.

It was also the final race after nine years with Sprint as the series entitlement sponsor. A new series sponsor, still unannounced, will assume the entitlement role for the 2017 season.

HOW JOHNSON WON: Johnson bided his time, letting the race come to him. He was in the right place at the right time when he needed to be, leading the final three laps to capture the win and championship.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Kyle Larson led the most laps and looked like he might win his second career Sprint Cup race until Johnson passed him on the final restart. … Having some of their best finishes of the season were Jamie McMurray (fifth), AJ Allmendinger (eighth) and Michael McDowell (10th).

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Carl Edwards’ second bid for a championship once again came up short, this time due to a wreck with Joey Logano with 10 laps left. … Also involved in that wreck and suffering poor finishes were Brad Keselowski (35th), Martin Truex Jr. (36th), Kasey Kahne (37th) and Regan Smith (38th).

NOTABLE: This was the first time Johnson had reached the final round of the Chase since the new format instituted in 2014. It was also 10 years and one day after Johnson earned his first Sprint Cup championship on Nov. 19, 2006, also at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “There is no way on Earth (that he ever thought he’d win seven Sprint Cup championships). I’m just beyond words and didn’t think the race was unfolding for us to be the champs, but we kept our heads in the game. Some luck came our way and we were able to win the race.” – 2016 Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

WHAT’S NEXT: The 2017 NASCAR Sprint Cup season begins on Feb. 26 with the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

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NASCAR America: How to navigate Martinsville to win grandfather clock

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The grandfather clock awarded to winners at Martinsville has become one of the most sought after prizes in NASCAR.

So what does a driver need to do to ensure a trip to victory lane?

Our NASCAR America experts discussed that in Wednesday’s show.

  

 

Burton: ‘Fans were cheated’ when Jimmie Johnson chose not to qualify at Fontana

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No rules were broken. No penalties handed out.

That’s what happened when Jimmie Johnson didn’t attempt a qualifying lap last Friday at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400 two days later.

Johnson wrecked his car in the first Cup practice earlier Friday while making a mock qualifying run. Crew chief Chad Knaus brought the backup No. 48 out of the team’s trailer, choosing to forego Friday qualifying to work out the kinks for Saturday’s two final NASCAR Cup practices.

“I just felt it was wiser to get the car prepared correctly rather than qualify poorly,” Knaus said Friday. “I wasn’t comfortable putting Jimmie in a position where he would have to hustle a car that hasn’t turned a lap in yet.”

It’s worth noting that because it was a West Coast race, if Johnson had wrecked another car, he likely would have been forced to use a teammate’s backup car (for some East Coast races, Hendrick likely would have shipped another No. 48 from its shop).

By electing to bypass qualifying, Johnson started 37th in the 39-car field Sunday and finished 21st.

On Wednesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analyst and former driver Jeff Burton disagreed with Knaus’ call and said that, in effect, Johnson fans were shortchanged.

“First and foremost, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus did nothing wrong,” Burton said. “They didn’t break any rules. They followed all the rules. NASCAR considered that they were attempting to qualify because they tried to practice, (and) they wrecked their car. No rules were broken.

“I just think in the greater interest of the sport, if I’m a race fan, particularly a Jimmie Johnson fan, and I turn the TV on, I want my guy out there trying to qualify.

“I think in the better good of the sport, it’s best that people deliver, put their car on the grid and put their driver out to qualify. I understand what Chad Knaus is saying. We’ve seen it a lot of times where a backup car comes out, and they go win the race.

“The backup cars today are different than they were 30 years ago. These backup cars today are put in that trailer that can go win the race.

“I just think that for the well-being of the sport, the fans deserve to see their guy that they tuned in on TV, at person at the track or turn the radio on, to listen to their guy, watch their guy go qualify the best he can. The fans were cheated, in my opinion, in not having that car on the racetrack.”

Two other analysts chimed in on Burton’s contention.

Said NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett: “If the drivers, the teams, the crew chiefs knew that if they did not make a qualifying attempt, did not get out and make a lap, that they were sitting on pit road when the green flag fell, then I think that would make things a lot different in that inspection process and in the process of the thinking the way Chad and Jimmie went about it.”

Added former driver Greg Biffle, “Listen, they already crashed making a qualifying run (in practice). So, Chad has his last car in the trailer, and to put it together and put Jimmie on the racetrack with no laps and take a chance at having something go wrong with that car. These cars are real good now, that probably wouldn’t happen.”

Said Jarrett: “The chance is always there, so that makes it difficult.”

Burton reiterated that Johnson and Knaus did nothing wrong but added a caveat:

“I just think in the big picture and best interest of the sport, it’s something that has to be looked at,” he said. “As we’ve all seen, when one person does something, it tends to start a trend – and this is not a trend we want to see continue on into the future.

“I agree with D.J., making some rules. Because if you penalize teams and drivers for not getting through inspection in time and those kinds of things in a greater way, all of a sudden teams and drivers get through inspection on time to present their cars to qualify.”

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Team Penske to appeal Phoenix penalty against Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe

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Team Penske announced Wednesday evening that it will appeal the penalty to the No. 2 team of Brad Keselowski from the NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix on March 19.

NASCAR docked the team 35 driver and team owner points, while crew chief Paul Wolfe was suspended for three races and was fined $65,000 for failing post-race inspection. Keselowski had finished fifth in the race.

NASCAR cited Keselowski’s car for failing weights and measurements on the laser platform. NASCAR stated in last Wednesday’s penalty report that the team failed the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

Wolfe sat out this past Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. The team’s appeal request will reinstate Wolfe until the appeal plays out, meaning he’ll be back on Keselowski’s pit box for this Sunday’s race at Martinsville.

Here is the statement from the team:

“After having the opportunity to review the facts, Team Penske has decided to appeal the penalties following the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in Phoenix. We have requested an appeal hearing and we plan to follow the process as outlined in the NASCAR rulebook. The appeals administration has granted our request to defer the two races remaining on Paul Wolfe’s suspension until the results of our appeal are known.”

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Blaney, Wood Brothers head to Martinsville for homecoming, hope to leave with win

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It’ll be a big homecoming this weekend at Martinsville Speedway for Wood Brothers Racing.

The Wood Brothers began their legendary NASCAR racing career in Stuart, Virginia, about 30 miles from the Speedway.

Driver Ryan Blaney grew up in High Point, North Carolina, which is about 45 miles from Martinsville. And crew chief Jeremy Bullins grew up in Walnut Cove, N.C., about 40 miles from Martinsville.

That’s why Blaney, Bullins and the Wood Brothers are primed for what they hope will be a strong showing for the No. 21 Ford team in Sunday’s STP 500.

“This is kind of a home track for me,” Blaney said of the .528-mile paperclip-shaped oval. “I have a lot of friends and family that come back and watch this race.

“I’ve been coming here ever since I can remember. This is probably the race I came to most as a kid just because it was so close to our house where I grew up and my dad was racing, so I do consider it a home race as well just because I grew up down the road, so that’s pretty neat.”

Since it was formed in the early 1950s, Wood Brothers Racing has competed in 111 Cup races at Martinsville, earning two wins, 28 top-fives and 42 top-10s.

Not coincidentally, Martinsville Speedway will celebrate its 70th anniversary this weekend, having opened in 1947 and has been the oldest operating track in NASCAR.

And the Wood Brothers have been there for virtually every race since, either racing on-track or watching as spectators.

Glen and I were standing on the backstretch over here at the very first race ever run here 70 years ago, so I think it would be really cool for us — 70 years later — for us to be sitting right here Sunday evening after the race and put that Ford Fusion and Motorcraft Ford in front,” team co-owner Leonard Wood said.

That’s why this weekend has such great significance and importance to the No. 21 team. Blaney sits seventh in the Cup point standings, will make his 60th career start in NASCAR’s premier series and would love to earn his first career Cup win at a track that means so much both to him and the Wood Brothers.

“It would be really big,” Blaney said. “Historically, this hasn’t been my best race track, but it means a lot. For the Wood Brothers, it’s a home race for them and it’s my crew chief’s favorite race track, so that’s given a lot of extra incentive.

“I thought we’ve gotten a lot better here over the last couple of years. I know what we need and we’ll try to run up further toward the front, so it’s just all about putting 500 laps together, saving the car and just trying to stay out of trouble the whole race. It would mean a lot (to win), for sure, and it would be a really good feeling to try to make that happen.”

Blaney has two career Cup starts at Martinsville. Both came last season and both ended in 19th place finishes.

Meanwhile, the Wood Brothers – Eddie and Leonard – would love to earn their first win at Martinsville since NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson visited victory lane there 44 years ago in spring 1973.

“It’s a big race for us,” Eddie Wood said. “We live 25 miles from here. We’ve known Clay Campbell’s (Martinsville president) family all my life.

“We used to hang out with his grandfather (track founder H. Clay Earles). He was always out promoting the race and he would come to our shop in Stuart and we’d have lunch and play cards and do all kinds of things. It’s just great to be racing back here.

“Probably the most special thing for us is to be back racing here. This is home. It’s a hard race to do well in. Like Ryan said, you have to put together 500 laps and stay out of all the calamity that happens and not try to create any of your own, so I’m looking forward to it.

“Like he said, our crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, loves this place and so do we. Ryan’s got two races under his belt, plus Truck races, so I think he’s underestimating his track time here. I think he’ll be just fine.”

The 23-year-old Blaney has matured and improved as a driver since making his first Cup start in 2014. He’d love to add a win at Martinsville to his best Cup finish to date: runner-up in this year’s Daytona 500.

But to do that, Blaney knows he’ll have to maintain his composure at a place where it’s very difficult when you constantly bang fenders with nearly 40 other drivers for 500 laps.

“That’s one of the biggest things you fight here is staying calm and patient,” Blaney said. “All drivers at some point in the race will get frustrated and whether they act upon it or not is up to them.

“We try to stay as emotionless as possible. I think that’s the best thing to do and try and keep a cool head. Granted, that really hasn’t been the case before. I haven’t really gotten emotional here before. It takes you a while to calm back down, but you can never really calm back down when you get like that, hot in the head.”

As Eddie Wood says, what better way to come to Martinsville for a homecoming, and to leave with a victory celebration.

“It’s been a great experience coming over here, close to home and we always want to win here more than anywhere because it was your hometown,” Wood said. “We’re looking forward to coming over here and watching Ryan win this next race. I just think 70 years later would be a really good time to win.”

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