Long: Jimmie Johnson’s championship wasn’t about history but family

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — This wasn’t about history. It was about family.

Fathers and sons.

On a night when NASCAR celebrated Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship, the festive mood obscured tears, moments of reflection and pride for Johnson’s father, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Rick Hendrick.

Gary Johnson bubbled after watching his son tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in series championships. Only a night before, Gary Johnson was in tears.

Before Jimmie Johnson tied history, he sat down and texted his mom, dad, brothers and a close friend.

The notes were similar. The 41-year-old Johnson thanked his dad for all the years of taking him racing, beginning at age 5 when Johnson raced motocross.

The notes were striking not only in the message but that they were sent.

“It was so weird because he had never done that before,’’ Gary Johnson said while his son celebrated.

It was so special that it made him cry.

“I just wanted those five to know that I was thankful for the love and support that they’ve given me over the years,’’ Jimmie Johnson said.

After the tears, his father responded to the text.

“Yooow!’’

It was that howl Johnson heard throughout his racing career, starting in motocross.

“I could always tell where he was on the racetrack because I could hear him scream that,’’ Johnson said.

When Johnson was 7, his father didn’t have to yell very loud. He was beside his son as Johnson won his first racing championship.

A motocross wreck injured Johnson’s knee and he had reconstructive surgery on his birthday. He had to compete in one more race to win the title. So with a cast on, Johnson sought to run one lap to earn the point he needed to clinch the championship. His father ran beside him as Johnson slowly toured the course. When the field came by to lap him, Johnson pulled over. Then he resumed the lap. Once complete, he was a champion.

That experience laid the groundwork for a driver known for his mental toughness and ability to overcome challenging situations, including Sunday when his car often lagged behind title contenders Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano throughout the 268-lap race.

“Most people in the situation we were in would crumble and he didn’t waver,’’ crew chief Chad Knaus said.

Johnson knows what it is like to struggle. He had modest success in what is now the Xfinity Series, yet impressed Jeff Gordon with how he raced, leading Gordon to recommend Johnson for a ride with Hendrick Motorsports when it sought to expand its Sprint Cup operation.

A driver who won only one Xfinity race shocked the sport by winning five consecutive championships from 2006-10. Johnson added a sixth in 2013 and then came Sunday night.

Among those who celebrated Johnson’s feat was Dale Earnhardt Jr. He beamed, despite a sinus infection, at what his friend had done.

“It’s really emotional for me,’’ Earnhardt said. “I just wish dad was here to see it, shake Jimmie’s hand. I really wish dad could have met Jimmie. There’s things that happen in this sport that you wish dad was a witness to and this is definitely one of them.’’

For those who were there, it was an emotional end. Johnson’s path to a title seemed stymied until Carl Edwards’ block of Joey Logano sent Edwards into the wall and damaged Logano’s car. That put Johnson fourth on a restart with five laps go. Busch restarted third.

A caution for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s incident created the final restart. Busch pitted for tires. Johnson restarted second, on the bottom of the front row, with Logano behind him.

As they took the green flag for the last time in 2016, Johnson shot to the lead with what he called “the restart of my life.’’

He pulled away. Suddenly Johnson was about to reach his quest for seven titles. Since 2014, Johnson has used the hashtag #se7en to denote his quest for the record-tying title. The unique way of writing it came from car owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, who was killed in plane crash in 2004 on the way to a race at Martinsville Speedway.

Ricky Hendrick had a small 7 tattooed on his back and he often spelled se7en that way. To honor Ricky Hendrick, Johnson adopted that as his slogan on Twitter.

As he approached the checkered flag, Ricky Hendrick was not far from Johnson’s thoughts.

“Jimmie said to me when I walked up to the window,’’ Rick Hendrick said, “ ‘I was praying, talking to Ricky the last three laps.’

“I love Jimmie and all of our guys always willing to pay tribute to Ricky. I think family is so important to all of us. It means so much that he always thinks about him. Nothing makes us more proud than how he uses that se7en.’’

After exiting his car Sunday, Johnson’s celebration began. Then he found his dad.

They hugged.

Then son said to father: “It’s so awesome!’’

Bristol Motor Speedway to give Food City 500 tickets to victims of November wildfires

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Thousands of people continue to rebuild their lives following last November’s devastating wildfires in east Tennessee.

Many lost everything, including their homes, cars, businesses and possessions, particularly in the Gatlinburg and Sevierville areas. Many victims were left with just the clothes they were wearing at the time they fled the fires, which charred over 17,000 acres, claimed 14 lives and injured nearly 200.

The folks at Bristol Motor Speedway are reaching out to give those impacted by the fires a few hours of enjoyment and try to bring some smiles back on their faces.

The track announced Monday that, in conjunction with the Dollywood Foundation’s “My People Fund,” it will give away four tickets per family for the April 23 Food City 500 NASCAR Cup race at BMS to area residents impacted by the fires.

“We wanted to do something nice for these folks that hopefully will help brighten their day,” said Jerry Caldwell, BMS executive vice president and general manager. “It’s incredible to see the outpouring of support from the region and we wanted to do our part to show our neighbors that we care.

“Gatlinburg and Sevier County hold a special place in the hearts of all NASCAR fans and especially all of us here at Bristol Motor Speedway.”

The “My People Fund” is a charitable outreach of singer/actress Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation. It provides those impacted by the fires up to $1,000 per month for up to six months to help victims get back on their feet.

The wildfires literally reached the doorstep of Parton’s Dollywood amusement park, but caused only minimal damage.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

Ryan: Enough with the hand-wringing on retaliation, here are your clearly drawn lines

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The most important line in NASCAR lately doesn’t involve when the checkered flag waves and definitively determines the winner of a race.

No, this line is much hazier: The apparently nebulous border between being regarded a well-heeled, responsible citizen of NASCAR Nation who still gets a point across and (gasp!) an irresponsible scofflaw who indiscriminately commits revenge in the least noble of ways.

In the wake of Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon escaping punishment for attempting to handle their own administering of justice, it seems everyone is searching for a line on where the line is in NASCAR …

Or if it exists at all.

These are desperate times, kids!

(Especially with the Cup Series headed to Martinsville Speedway this weekend.)

But fear not for those worried about the future of the republic in Charlotte and Daytona. I’ve got a handy chart that delineates the transgressions that will earn scorn.

Ready? Let’s draw some lines!

If you intentionally wreck a guy (out of the lead) while nine laps down, that’s bad.

Expect a two-race suspension or worse.

Also, feel free to avoid poking Brian France on Twitter about it.

If you intentionally wreck a guy while racing for position, that’s not as bad, particularly if it’s well-disguised.

It might not earn you a punishment, and if it does, it probably won’t be so drastic.

If you are traveling roughly 50 mph and lightly pin another car against the wall and cause so much “damage”, that car still finishes on the lead lap, that is mostly OK the first time (but probably not the second).

It helps if you also finish well behind that car (which ruined your shot at winning with a rookie mistake).

But there will be some slight punishment: Be prepared to spend some quality NASCAR couch time with Steve O’Donnell and your favorite series director discussing the merits of getting angry under caution.

If you swing at a guy but don’t hit him flush and then fall down and wind up the only guy who is bleedingyou only will have to live with your injured pride.

If you swing and hurt someone or break their bones, you will face some sort of penalty based on the severity of the injury.

You know, as you would for any sort of physical assault in the real world.

If you scream at another guy and get held back by your team in a shoving match without much violence that goes viral, your sponsor might give you a bonus for the millions of extra impressions. But don’t expect any residuals from the tracks that incessantly use those highlights to sell tickets.

Good news, though! You won’t be fined as you would have been 11 years ago.

If you walk onto a hot track and angrily gesture at a driver who wrecked you, be prepared to write a five-figure check and then justifiably wonder about how that money is being spent.

Now we know where the lines are. That wasn’t hard!

Kidding aside, there is only one line that truly needs delineation, and it applies not just to NASCAR but to everything in life.

Every action has consequences. Choose your actions wisely.

A few other leftovers from the past week and weekend at Auto Club Speedway:

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Courtesy of some salient points made by NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, driver fraternization and prerace introductions were a hot topic on social media.

For some, it prompted the memory of a heated exchange between Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin after a dustup in a 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

“You don’t have to actually hit me,” Patrick said. “I like you, Denny. You’re my friend.”

“I know, you’re my friend,” Hamlin said. “I get it.”

There’s no removing the friendships formed in the motorhome lot from modern-day NASCAR, where most of the drivers in the Cup series are raising families on the road, and teams want to simplify and streamline their lives outside the car.

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But how much of a Chinese wall needs to be built between the personal interactions of the motorhome lot and the professional workings of the garage?

At the very least, Letarte’s idea is worthy of being considered by tracks. There’s enough time for socialization throughout the course of a race weekend, and it probably is best done outside the view of the public.

When drivers walk out of their motorhome lot and underneath signs such as this one on the left at Texas Motor Speedway (“The greatest drivers and mechanics in the world work here!”), everyone’s gloves should go on, and their guards should go up.

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–Monster Energy is based in Corona, California, about a 30-minute drive to Auto Club Speedway, and the new series title sponsor made its presence felt at the 2-mile oval.

Monster erected a major hospitality display in the infield, and Clint Bowyer was among the drivers who took a tour of company headquarters.

“We had a ton of fun over there,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “The brass there was eager to meet us and bench race, which is always fun with any organization you meet.

“When the brass (wants) your perspective on the job they’re doing and what they can do to further enhance the impact, it’s a breath of fresh air. We definitely had that. I do think you’ll continue to see a bigger splash as we go on.”

There were some misgivings that Monster might have made too big a splash, however, with a drivers meeting entrance at Fontana that resembled the sort of club found in nearby Hollywood (minus the midday sunshine).

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The University of South Carolina’s first Final Four run will have much resonance in NASCAR, which has strong connections to the Palmetto State. NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bud Moore and Cotton Owens hail from South Carolina.

Late Darlington Raceway president and NASCAR PR executive Jim Hunter played football and baseball at South Carolina, and NBCSN analyst Dale Jarrett was offered a golf scholarship there.

Among those active in NASCAR who hail from South Carolina: Kerry Tharp, Darlington Raceway president; Brett Griffin, spotter for Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler (and an active Gamecocks fan on Twitter); Jason Ratcliff (crew chief for Matt Kenseth);

Donnie Wingo (crew chief for Landon Cassill); Steve Addington (longtime crew chief);Michael Nelson (vice president of operations at Team Penske); Jeremy Clements (Xfinity driver for family’s Spartanburg-based team).

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–It might have been prompted by being the leadoff to his media availability Friday, but the answer had the sort of edge unaccustomed from Jimmie Johnson.

“People are questioning your performance this year. Are you guys at a point where you could get that seventh win here?” asked Kickin’ The Tires.net editor Jerry Jordan (in a blunt but fair question).

“Sixteen years, 80 wins, and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean, come on,” Johnson immediately responded with a slight laugh, before telling Jordan, “I know it’s not you. You can’t be on top forever.  I think that we do have some work to do, especially on the short run.

“We haven’t executed as cleanly as we need to.  Daytona, we are running second or third and get crashed, last week we were a good top five, maybe top three car on the long run, but finished with some short restarts that was our weak point.  Yeah, sure, absolutely we have work to do, but nobody should panic.”

Of course, those turned out to be famous last words on a lost weekend in which Johnson crashed in practice, didn’t make a qualifying lap in a backup car and finished a nondescript 21st.

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is right that it’s too early to ask too many questions about his lack of results. But his answer made it natural to wonder whether some questions have crossed his mind, too.

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Buried in the multimillion-dollar countersuit Kurt Busch filed last Friday against his former management agency was this nugget: When he entered into a 2010 contract extension with Sports Management Network, the firm received 4% of Busch’s base salary at Penske, or $250,000.

Kudos to colleague Dustin Long (who has more than two decades of experience combing through legal documents with these sorts of details) for noting that means Busch’s base salary was $6.25 million at Penske. Such driver compensation rarely comes to light.

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The best racing of the weekend was in the Xfinity race, which featured a stirring duel for the lead between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, and then another fierce battle at the front in heavy traffic between winner Kyle Larson and Logano (who rallied three times from deep in the pack).

Yes, all those drivers are full-time Cup regulars. There are some who will make the case that should disqualify the Xfinity race from being evaluated as stellar, but it’s impossible to deny it delivered the highest entertainment value (regardless of who was racing the cars).

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–NASCAR’s Snapchat account Sunday was filled with Hollywood types pledging their allegiance to stock cars, and roughly four dozen celebrities were in the pits for the Auto Club 400.

This isn’t new for Fontana, which has a long history of trying to attract the beautiful people from the west side of Los Angeles (with mixed results). But it’s good to see NASCAR actively leveraging their attendance into something tangible (even if in the most ephemeral of social media mediums).

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Martinsville Speedway

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With NASCAR’s “West Coast Swing” over, the sport returns east this weekend with a visit to Martinsville Speedway.

While the Xfinity Series takes a week off, the Camping World Truck Series returns for its first race since March 4 at Atlanta.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Truck Series.

Cup Series – STP 500

There are 38 cars on the entry lists for the first Cup race of the year at Martinsville Speedway. A full field would be 40 cars. The last four races have had 39 entries.

Jimmie Johnson won in the Cup Series’ last visit to the half-mile track last October. Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the STP 500. Busch led 352 of 500 laps to earn his first Cup win at the short track.

Click here for the full entry list.

Truck Series – Alpha Energy Solutions 250

There are 32 entries on the Truck Series’ preliminary entry list. Four entries, the No. 12, the No. 63, the No. 83 and No. 99 do not have drivers attached yet.

Chase Elliott is the only Cup Series driver in the field. He will drive the No. 23 for GMS Racing. It’s his second Truck race of the year.

Justin Haley will make his first Truck start of the year driving the No. 24 for GMS Racing. Joe Nemechek makes his third start of the year in the No. 87.

Johnny Sauter won the Truck Series’ last Martinsville visit in October. Busch is the defending winner of this race. Busch started second and led 123 of 255 laps on the way to the victory.

Click here for the full entry list.

NASCAR will examine angle of inside wall Matt Kenseth hit

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A NASCAR executive said series officials will work with Auto Club Speedway officials to see if there is a way to alter the angle of the inside wall Matt Kenseth hit in Sunday’s Cup race.

After contact from behind, Kenseth slid down the track in Turn 2 and through the skid path, hitting the SAFER barrier on the inside wall.

Kenseth hit a portion of the wall that was angled toward the track. Safety equipment was stationed behind that wall.

“I am OK, but I wouldn’t say I was as OK as I was last week,’’ Kenseth radioed his team after the incident, referring to his hard hit at Phoenix when a tire went down and he slammed into the SAFER barrier.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, was asked Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” about Kenseth’s incident and the angle that Kenseth’s car hit.

“We’ll download all the data, in this case from the incident data recorder, we’ll talk to Matt, we will inspect the car for sure with all of our safety engineers and kind of combine all that data and look at the angle and the speed and scrub and look at all that data to make sure that we have the best possible outcome,’’ O’Donnell said.

“One of the things you pointed out was the angle of the wall. It’s positioned that way for the safety equipment, but are there tweaks we can make? We’ve done that numerous times in terms of you see a crash that you never thought would happen and it kind of opens some eyes and (you) say, ‘OK is there a better way to potentially angle this wall?’

“So that is something we’ll work with the speedway and our safety engineers and the race team to look at, thankful that everything worked out. There was a SAFER barrier, Matt got out and walked away, and as you guys said, you never want to see that angle, and if we can prevent that, we certainly will.’’

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