Despite struggles, Jimmie Johnson still believes he can ‘come out on top’

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JOLIET, Illinois — Jimmie Johnson is immortal.

And beatable.

Even if Johnson doesn’t win another Cup title, he will live in NASCAR history with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time champions. No active driver has more than one Cup crown, so Johnson will not be topped anytime soon, if ever.

“Thanks for blowing my mind,’’ he said.

(Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

Some day, a driver might wear a helmet that pays tribute to the future Hall of Famer, just as Johnson did last year in Homestead, honoring Petty and Earnhardt before winning the championship. Johnson saluted Cale Yarborough with a special helmet at Dover this season when he was one win short of tying his hero. Johnson won that race for career victory No. 83.

That was June 4.

The sport has moved forward as Johnson has fallen behind heading into today’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Since Johnson’s last win, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement was named, two drivers announced that their wives were pregnant and controversies erupted over merchandise sales, one team suspending pit crew members for another team and a wayward ambulance.

If ever there was a year to doubt Johnson’s title hopes, this would seem to be it.

Of course, it’s become cliché to note Johnson’s summer slump, people doubting him entering the playoffs and then Johnson raising the championship trophy after the season finale.

Should he lift the Monster Energy Cup over his head in November, it will be quite a triumph in more than one way. The 3-foot tall trophy weighs nearly 70 pounds — twice as much as the NHL’s Stanley Cup and 10 times as much as the NFL’s Vince Lombardi Trophy that goes to the Super Bowl winner.

But if Johnson raises the trophy, it also will mean he will have defeated 15 other drivers and truly stand alone in the sport.

June 4: Jimmie Johnson wins at Dover; Kyle Busch’s crew chief, front tire changer and tire carrier face a four-race suspension after a wheel comes off Busch’s car after a pit stop.

June 18: Joey and Brittany Logano announce that she is expecting the couple’s first child.

Johnson’s last Cup victory came 106 days ago.

To put it into perspective, Christmas is 100 days away.

Johnson’s average finish in the 10 races before the playoffs is 20.3 — his worst total since 2011 but not far off what he’s done in recent years.

His average finish in the 10 races before last year’s playoffs was 19.5 and he won the title. His average for those races was 18.3 before he won the 2013 title.

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

It’s not just been him. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also have not had speed this summer. Elliott, Kahne and Johnson — Hendrick’s drivers in the playoffs — have combined for four top-10 finishes in the six races since Indianapolis.

“It’s been frustrating,’’ said Johnson, who starts today’s race 14th.

His wins early helped offset any frustration. Johnson’s three wins came in the season’s first 13 races.

“We won early, had good speed early, and in the back of my mind I was thinking that I hoped we were not peaking too soon,’’ Johnson said. “Then the summer happens. As you are in the middle of summer, the silver lining is that we are going to get through this eventually and come out on top. Maybe it is good to peak early, have the summer kind of challenge you, and then peak again.’’

July 3: Kyle Larson tweets about his dissatisfaction with what drivers make on merchandise sales, triggering a Twitter debate on the subject.

July 7: Matt Kenseth says he won’t return to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season

Johnson has made NASCAR’s postseason each of the 14 years and has won at least one playoff race every year entering this year.

He looks forward to the playoffs because the tracks match his style.

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Johnson is the all-time victory leader at Dover with 11. He’s tied for third all-time in wins at Martinsville with nine after his victory there in last year’s playoffs that advanced him to the championship finale in Miami. He is the all-time wins leader at Texas with six, which includes four consecutive victories in the playoff race there before Carl Edwards broke Johnson’s streak last year.

The one oddity to his playoff success is that Chicagoland Speedway is one of three tracks he’s never won at in Cup. This track, though, was the site of his lone Xfinity win. He scored a fuel-mileage victory in the track’s inaugural Xfinity race in 2001.

Even though he has not scored a Cup win at Chicagoland, Johnson notes that “the stats do show that we have a great average finish at Chicago.’’

His average finish is 9.5 — better than Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., and Earnhardt, who all have won at least once at Chicagoland.

July 11: Kevin and DeLana Harvick announce they are expecting their second child.

July 20: Alex Bowman selected to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 in 2018.

Kevin Harvick has a theory to Johnson’s playoff success after forgettable summers.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Sometimes you get behind and you physically can’t prepare vehicles and make all the upgrades to the vehicles in time to put yourself in a position to run well from when you stopped running well, and it can happen instantly,’’ Harvick said. “Look at (Joey Logano). They had a scenario that they built the car around, whatever that scenario was, they built their car around and NASCAR didn’t like it, so they changed the rules and from that point on they were in a rebuilding phase to try to get themselves in position. 

“What you hope is you’re in a position like (Johnson) was, where they won a couple races and I think they were in a similar position where they had some rules change and they had some things happen and couldn’t run the stuff that they were running anymore. From that point, you have to start the rebuilding process and it’s a massive ship to turn around.’’

So, don’t read too much into those summer struggles by Johnson is what Harvick suggests.

It’s a good theory and Johnson’s success in past years, including last year when the team struggled in the summer before winning the title, shows what can happen.

July 27: Joe Gibbs Racing suspends two of its pit crew members who work for Furniture Row Racing for an incident on pit road with Kyle Busch’s crew chief at Indianapolis. JGR later cedes control of such employees to Furniture Row Racing.

Aug. 8: Kevin Harvick says on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of success stunted NASCAR’s growth.

A dominating regular season has put Martin Truex Jr. far enough ahead with playoff points that he should advance deep into the postseason and is a favorite to race for the title in Miami.

Despite his domination — four wins, 18 stage victories and a series-high 1,646 laps led — Truex is not discounting Johnson’s title hopes even with the reigning champ’s summer slumber.

“I don’t think our guard is down when it comes to any team, let alone them,’’ Truex said. “You have to look at them, what they’ve done, know they’re going to be around and they’re going to be tough.”

He’s not alone.

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Kyle Busch, also a favorite to be racing for the title in Miami, won’t overlook Johnson and his team.

“I’ve had friends over the years that have worked for Hendrick and have worked with the 48 team,’’ Busch said. “They always say, ‘Man, when Chicago comes … Jimmie’s got a switch that he flips on, and it’s on.’ So we’ll see if he can do it again. He has before, right? So don’t count him out.”

Aug. 19: Kyle Busch wins the Cup race at Bristol to compete a sweep of the Camping World Truck, Xfinity and Cup races there that weekend. It’s the second time he’s accomplished that feat.

Sept. 9: A wayward ambulance at Richmond briefly puts Matt Kenseth’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, one of a series of incidents that raised questions about NASCAR’s officiating.

Jimmie Johnson turns 42 today and while he’s not ready for retirement, he knows he’s moving closer to the end of his career and the end of his pursuit of eight titles. Or nine. Or 10.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

“I am here for reasons of being successful,’’ Johnson said. “ Winning races and winning championships. So, every year that I extend and have agreed to, I am all in and here for one reason.  So that is more of it than thinking I might only have four chances left the way the contract lays out. It’s more about knowing what I can give and how demanding the sport is. And knowing what I can sign up for and really giving it 100 percent.”

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Long: After 27 years away, lucky charm returned for Martin Truex Jr.’s championship

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — Its origins remain mysterious, just as if the good luck charm really has any power.

But a series of fortunate events followed after it was given by a Los Angeles firefighter to hall of fame drag racer Darrell Gwynn in 1989. After sitting in his trophy case 27 years, Gwynn gave it to Martin Truex Jr. on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Two days later, Truex pulled the lucky rabbit’s foot from his uniform pocket after winning his first Cup championship.

“That son of a bitch worked!’’ he said.

Was it luck? That would discredit the effort Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of the Denver, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team did to win Sunday’s season finale.

Even in a year when things seemed to come easy for this team — Truex’s eight victories were the most since Denny Hamlin accomplished that feat in 2010 — this race was a struggle. Truex did not have the strongest car much of the race. He only asserted his strength late in the race when the sun set over South Florida.

He also had help. When title contender Brad Keselowski pitted on Lap 198 of the 267-lap race, Pearn called Truex to pit immediately. Title contender Kevin Harvick followed. They all would have to pit again but with fresh tires so much faster than old tires, it was a move they felt they had to make.

“We hadn’t talked about it a lot, and kind of realized in a split‑second way that that was what we were going to have to do to be something different because one split stop in the run wasn’t going to beat (Kyle Busch) being better than us on the long run.’’

Crew chief Adam Stevens kept Busch on track and in the lead until Lap 215. It was Busch’s last scheduled stop.

But a caution on Lap 229 ruined the strategy for Stevens and Busch. Truex led and Busch was fourth as they entered pit road. Truex exited first and Busch gained a spot to third but it meant he would restart on the inside of the second row. The outside line — where Truex chose to start as the leader — was the preferred line. Busch lost two spots on the restart and fell to fifth with 34 laps to go.

While Busch charged, he couldn’t get close enough to Truex make a move for the win and finished second.

“I just found a line that worked for my car with 20 laps to go that I couldn’t find all day long,’’ Truex said. “Not only did it help my car but it hurt Kyle’s car. He got to second, and when he did, he was three, four tenths (of a second) faster than I was before I found the line, and that was the difference.

“Just found it when I needed it. The timing was right, and we made it happen.’’

When the white flag flew for the final lap and Truex knew the race was “over.’’

The next time he came by, he scored the win and the championship by leading his 78th lap of the race in the No. 78 car.

“Are you serious, 78 laps?’’ Truex said when informed of that.

“You know, some things are just meant to be, I guess. That’s all you can say. Last year wasn’t meant to be. We worked just as hard as we did this year, and this year just it all came together. It felt right. It was our time, and that’s proof right there, there is a higher power.’’

And maybe the power of a rabbit’s foot.

Gwynn’s lucky charm came from a friend who often volunteered to work for Gwynn’s drag racing team at the California races. The first time he showed up at Pomona to work with the team, they won. One year, the friend took the rabbit’s foot to Pomona and rubbed the starting line with it. Gwynn won.

He doesn’t know where the rabbit’s foot came from but knows sometimes a little luck doesn’t hurt. His friend later convinced Gwynn to put it in his dragster at the 1989 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Gwynn qualified first, set the national record and won the title. The next week, Gwynn dominated the Keystone Nationals in Pennsylvania. He won the Gatornationals in early 1990 with the rabbit’s foot in the car.

Gwynn didn’t have it when he suffered life-threatening injures in an April 1990 crash in England that has left him in a wheelchair since.

“After I got hurt, the rabbit’s foot meant so much to me,’’ Gwynn told NBC Sports. “I took it out of my car and put it in my trophy case. This week, I had it hanging in my garage. I got a text from Martin and I asked him, ‘Hey can I count on you to fish in the tournament (at Homestead on Friday). Martin’s answer is always ‘Of course you can count on me.’

“It just made me think a little of Martin as a person. As I was going out of my garage, I saw the rabbit’s foot there and I said I know somebody who can use that this weekend. He’s been running good all year long but he needs some luck here because the way the format is, it’s all down to one (race). I took it out of the trophy case after 27 years.

“The deal was if it worked, he got to keep it. If it didn’t work, I got it back for sentimental reasons. I’m glad it worked. I wanted to him to win. I love his story. I love him.’’

Truex, though, is blunt about his belief in such items.

“I don’t believe in lucky charms,’’ he said. “I don’t have superstitions.’’

So why did he take the rabbit’s foot?

“I carried it because I respect Darrell a lot,’’ Truex said. “He’s a good friend of mine, and the fact that it meant enough to him ‑ this weekend meant enough to him for him to take something out of his trophy case after 27 years that he really believed would help me, I was going to put it in my damned pocket. Period. End of story.’’

And there it was as Truex celebrated his title.

“Whether this rabbit’s foot contributed to this win or not,’’ Gwynn said, “the fact is he won and to me that’s what I wanted to see happen this weekend.’’

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Emotional year helped inspire Martin Truex Jr. to championship

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Martin Truex Jr. felt he could only do so much in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. But if he was to win his first career NASCAR Cup championship, he was going to need some help.

Following all of Sunday’s post-victory celebrations, Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex joined Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett on the NBC stage.

And that’s when Truex revealed he did what he could, but he left the outcome in the hands of a higher power.

“I’ve learned along the way that God has a plan, you never know what it’s going to be and sometimes, it’s your time,” Truex said. “This year felt like our year. Everything went the way we needed it to go. We worked hard, we worked our butts to get here.

“But at the end of the day, there is a higher power. And we worked hard, had faith in each other and had each other’s backs through thick and thin, no matter what it was.

“I’m just so thankful for (owner Barney Visser), his team, what he’s built and believing in me, four years ago when we were just awful. … The whole team is just a big family and it was just meant to be, I guess.

“There was a long time in this race where I thought, ‘This is tough, I don’t know how we’re going to get better,’ but I kept digging and telling them what I needed. Cole made the decision to change his pit strategy, caution comes out and we get the lead, and it’s ‘alright, it’s in my hands. I’ve gotta find it.’

“They were better than me all night long and I found something. I didn’t know if it was there, but I went and looked for it and I found it. Unbelievable.”

Even with the eight wins and now the championship, it’s still been a trying year for Furniture Row Racing. Crew chief Cole Pearn lost his best friend, Jacob Damen, to a bacterial infection in early August at the age of 35.

There also was the loss of team fabricator Jim Watson on Oct. 21, who died of a heart attack while the team was in Kansas City for that weekend’s playoff race.

And then Visser suffered a heart attack Nov. 4 and then underwent bypass surgery two days later. He’s still recovering, so much so that his doctors forbade him from traveling to Homestead and didn’t even allow him to watch the race on TV (he got updates via text throughout the event).

But the most emotional and difficult time of the season for Truex was what Pollex underwent. Pollex had been in remission from ovarian cancer, only to have it recur in early July.

Through Truex’s path to the championship, Pollex has continued to undergo chemotherapy treatment. It was the inner strength from her medical battle that proved to be an inspiration for Truex.

“I thought about this moment so many times but I couldn’t let myself get there because the emotions were just so strong after everything we’ve been through,” Pollex said. “To hear (Truex) say that, he understands now that there’s a bigger picture and God has a bigger plan for us, and that this is where we’re supposed to be, to help and inspire other people at home that are going through any struggle in their life, not just cancer, but everybody’s going through something.

“I feel like God put us in this place for a reason. I don’t want to have cancer, but I do, and I’m going to use my platform to help other people through our foundation and ‘#SherryStrong’ and I think we’ve done that this year.

“I tell him all the time that if you inspire and do things for other people, good things are going to happen to you one day and I truly believe that. I knew that in the end, they were going to come out a winner and it was amazing to be part of it tonight.”

Catch the entire interview with Truex and Pollex in the video above.

Matt Kenseth after potential final Cup start: ‘I did the best I could every week’

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While Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave one of his last TV interviews as a Cup driver in the middle of a loud throng of crew members and fans, Matt Kenseth‘s was typical of the 2003 Cup champion.

After finishing eighth, the 45-year-old driver spoke to NBC’s Kelli Stavast in a much quieter part of pit road by himself.

A week after his emotional win at Phoenix, Kenseth said he “didn’t think about much in the last 20 laps” of the Ford EcoBoost 400, likely the last race of his NASCAR career.

The only thing on his mind was “getting by the 2 car” of Brad Keselowski for one more position.

“Obviously, last week was a magical week or race – to win that race and then this week has been really fun,” said Kenseth, who won his 39th Cup race last Sunday. “The pre-race stuff was really fun. I was glad Katie (wife) was able to get down here and all and having the kids here, my dad, my sister and everybody.

“It was really fun, obviously, what DeWalt did with this paint job and Habitat for Humanity, but doing my rookie paint job was cool as well. So it was a really cool day.”

Kenseth and Earnhardt each drove the paint schemes from their 2000 rookie years. Before the race, Kenseth and Earnhardt’s cars were placed together on the starting grid so the long-time friends could take in the moment together.

Two hundred and sixty-seven laps later, Earnhardt finished 25th, three laps down. Kenseth took his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota to his 327th top-10 finish.

His Phoenix win gave him 181 top fives.

Kenseth was asked what he hoped his legacy, which spans more than 20 years on the NASCAR circuit, would turn out to be.

“Some people are going to like you, some people aren’t,” Kenseth said “Some people are going to respect you, some people won’t. So I mean, whatever people think, they think. I did the best I could every week. Didn’t always do the right thing, that’s for sure, but raced as hard as I could and at the time I always felt like I was trying to do the right thing and gave it my all every time I went to the race track, so that’s all I could do.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

Cup Championship drivers sound off after Miami finale

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Martin Truex Jr. triumphed over his three championship contenders Sunday night in the Ford EcoBoost 400, claiming the title against Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

The 37-year-old driver earned the title in his 12th full-time Cup season.

NBC talked with all four championship drivers following the race. Watch the above video for Truex’s first interview as a Cup champion. Below are interviews with the three other drivers.

Kyle Busch

Busch may have had the fastest car at the end of the race, but in the closing laps he was held up for an extended period of time by Joey Logano. He eventually got by the No. 22 Ford, but ran out of time to get around Truex and finished second in the race and the championship standings.

Busch shared his frustration with how Logano raced him when he talked to NBC.

Kevin Harvick

Harvick finished fourth in the race and third in the title standings. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was in the Championship 4 for the third time and put SHR within reach of a title in its first year with Ford. Harvick was the only one of the four title contenders who didn’t lead a lap Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski led one lap in the race and finished seventh in his first time in the Championship 4. Keselowski said the No. 2 team “threw everything we could at it” but couldn’t find enough speed to challenge the Toyotas of Truex and Busch. The Team Penske driver later lamented that non-Toyota teams didn’t have much of a chance to win the title.