Jimmie Johnson: Two races away from title No. 8, or one race away from elimination

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After Jimmie Johnson won his seventh championship in the last 11 years last season – tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for one of the loftiest records in the sport – 2017 was expected by some to be the year Johnson moved into an echelon of his own.

An echelon that would be a record like Petty’s 200 career Cup wins: never to be broken.

When Johnson won two of the first eight races (and three of the first 13) this season, it appeared he was right on track to win a record-breaking eighth championship.

But something has gone horribly wrong between then and now. As the NASCAR Cup playoffs move into their penultimate race this Sunday at Phoenix, Johnson is one race away from advancing to the Championship 4 race at Miami in two weeks – or not.

And given how the No. 48 performed in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway – finishing 27th, three laps off the lead lap – it’s looking like “not” is more likely.

Sunday’s result was Johnson’s worst showing in the first eight races of this season’s NASCAR Cup playoffs (his previous had been 24th at Talladega, where he was parked after his team worked on the car during a red flag period).

Johnson finds himself in a very unlikely position after Texas: last of the five remaining Championship 4 contenders: Brad Keselowski, who is above the transfer line, and the four drivers below the transition line: Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Johnson.

Johnson cannot make the championship race at Miami on points. He’s in a must-win situation at Phoenix, plain and simple.

Johnson has an excellent record at Phoenix Raceway: four wins, 15 top five and 20 top-20 finishes (plus three poles) in 28 Cup starts.

But there’s a caveat: his last win at the one-mile oval was in fall 2009. And since the fall 2014 race in the Valley of the Sun, Johnson has just one top five and one other top-10 finish.

At the opposite end of the spectrum in those last six races, he also has two poor outings: 39th in fall 2014 and 38th in last year’s fall playoff race (although he would still go on to win the championship the following week).

After Sunday’s race at Texas, even Johnson seemed to slightly question his chances of reaching Miami via Phoenix.

“(Phoenix has) been a good track for us, but this last half of the year has been really weird,” Johnson said. “In places where we expect to run well and traditionally do, we haven’t.

“But I know we’re building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix and we’ll go there and fight as hard as we can. And that’s one thing this team will never do is give up.”

Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the 48 team have to literally pull a rabbit out of a hat at Phoenix to reach Miami.

Even though the No. 48 team finds its back against the wall, if anyone can rally and pull a win out of its back pocket and then win the championship, it’s definitely Johnson and his crew.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said.

ThorSport Racing parts ways with Toyota

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ThorSport Racing announced Tuesday it has agreed with Toyota to part ways after a six-year relationship ahead of the upcoming season.

The Camping World Truck Series team earned two championships (Matt Crafton), 19 wins, 117 top fives and 227 top-10 finishes and 10 poles during their tenure with Toyota.

In their announcement, ThorSport did mention which manufacturer they’ll be paired with in 2018.

The team, based in Sandusky, Ohio, fielded trucks for Crafton, Cody Coughlin and Ben Rhodes in 2017. Coughlin will compete for GMS Racing this season.

ThorSport will announce their full driver lineup in the coming weeks.

The Truck Series season opens Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway.

NBC Sports has reached out to ThorSport and Toyota for further comment.

Check back for more.

Wood Brothers secure charter for 2018 season

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The Wood Brothers have formed a partnership with Go Fas Racing that will allow the No. 21 team to have a charter, guaranteeing Paul Menard a starting spot in every Cup race this season.

Last year, the Wood Brothers leased a charter from Go Fas Racing.

“This charter is a game-changing step for Wood Brothers Racing. It’s the critical piece needed to thrive as a top owner in our sport,” said Len Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, in a statement from the team.

“We have been fortunate enough to have extremely fast cars and are blessed with the best sponsors in NASCAR. Pair that with our support from Ford and nearly every piece is in place. Last year we leased a charter from Archie [St. Hilaire]. We’ve really come to appreciate working with him and his son Mason, and I think everyone has benefited tremendously from this relationship. For 2018 and beyond, we’ve taken it a step further and entered into a partnership and we think it will be a rewarding endeavor for everyone involved.”

The Wood Brothers scored their 99th career Cup win with Ryan Blaney last year and earned their first playoff spot.

Go Fas Racing stated on Twitter it would have a charter for Matt DiBenedetto but didn’t reveal details.

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Danica Patrick confirms she is dating NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers

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Danica Patrick said Monday that she and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers are dating. Patrick confirmed the news to The Associated Press.

Patrick, who is from Illinois, is a Chicago Bears fan but will change allegiances.

She told the AP that she and Rodgers met at the 2012 ESPY Awards.

“I told him a long time ago I’d always root for him as a player,” Patrick told the AP. “Now I am probably going to cheer for the whole team. Take out the word ‘probably.’ Now I’m going to cheer for the whole team.”

Patrick ended a five-year relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in November. Rodgers split from actress Olivia Munn in 2017 after three years of dating.

Patrick plans to retire from racing this season after competing in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. She has not announced a deal for either ride. An executive with Chip Ganassi Racing recently told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that they were no longer talking to Patrick about a ride in either race.

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Darrell Wallace Jr. feels a connection to Wendell Scott without the pressure of his legacy

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WELCOME, N.C. – There will be many reminders of the history that Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. could make this season in NASCAR’s premier series, but this one was especially personal.

The first full-time African-American driver on the circuit in 47 years since Wendell Scott received a 2-minute voice mail recently from Scott’s son, Wendell Jr.

“(It said) don’t feel like I need to carry the pressure of his dad and the Scott legacy, just go out there and do me,” Wallace said, relaying the message last Friday during a break from a preseason production shoot. “That’s the way it’s always been. All the history falls in place after. That’s how I like to go about it. A small part carries him with me, but I don’t put that in the forefront.

“For me, it’s just to go out and get through practice, qualifying and the race. If we end up with a top five, then, hey, it’s the first African-American to do this or the first African-American to do that. I don’t really look at that stuff. That’s when the media kind of brings that in. You can sit back after the race and say, ‘Damn, that was pretty cool.’ ”

Wallace is accustomed to being in the headlines for unique accomplishments. His Oct. 26, 2013 win in the Camping World Truck Series at Martinsville Speedway was the first by a black driver in one of NASCAR’s national series since Scott’s Dec. 1, 1963 win at Jacksonville, Florida.

Wallace, 24, has notched five more truck victories since then (including his lone start on the circuit last August at Michigan International Speedway) and made the Xfinity Series playoffs in 2016.

But as he steps into the famous No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports (which has moved this year to Chevrolet and a new shop location adjacent to Richard Childress Racing, which will supply its cars and engines), Wallace acknowledges that “for sure, I’m carrying that banner” again for Scott. He got to know the racing pioneer’s family eight years ago after entering NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.

He understands the attention brought by his race, though he also sees evidence on social media that his fan base tires of hearing about it.

“It’s something I’ve embraced,” Wallace said. “I’ve accepted that it’s always going to be talked about no matter what I do. I’ll be the first African-American to take a piss in the Cup garage. Everything I do is a first. It’s going to be there. I’ve accepted it.

“The fans are (who) get so fired up over it. It’s like, ‘Why do we have to mention it?’ Because no one is there. It’s going to be mentioned. It has to be mentioned. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”

Wallace made his Cup debut with RPM last season at Pocono Raceway, the first of four starts in place of injured Aric Almirola. He posted a respectable average finish of 17.8 while handling the increased exposure with aplomb.

Team owner Richard Petty said “there’s going to be a lot of pressure on (Wallace)” in 2018, but he thinks his crew won’t feel the effects.

“I don’t think it’s going to put that much pressure on RPM because they’re going to do the best they can for whoever it is,” Petty said. “It’s going to put a lot of pressure on him, so he’s going to have to learn to live with it.”

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said Wallace already proved last year he is highly adaptable despite the heavy scrutiny.

“When we showed up at Pocono, we realized what it was all about,” Blickensderfer said. “It kind of gave you goosebumps to think about how special it was. We saw all the hoopla and everything that was going on around it, we thought, ‘This is something that’s a little different than just the kid who’s going to drive a race car.’ ”

It doesn’t feel so different away from the track, though, when Wallace brings his freewheeling presence through the shop.

“When he walks in be-bopping and giving people knuckles, it’s nothing,” Blickensderfer said. “It’s just a kid driving a race car. But I think when we get to Daytona and unload the car that has ‘Wallace’ on it and it’s his car, I think it’s going to be a little different. But it’s different in a great way.

“Everybody on this team looks at it like it’s cool. The way Bubba reacts to it, he just handles it. He does it remarkably well for a kid his age. He just kind of takes it in and is OK with it and goes about his business, much better than most people would. It makes it easier for us just to not even think about that weekly. When we get ready to fire engines for the Daytona 500, we’re going to be like, ‘He’s doing something really cool here.’ Until then it’s kind of business, and it’s just some kid driving a race car.

But as he prepares for his first full season in Cup, even Wallace finds himself occasionally caught in the moment – such as when he walked past one of his new Camaros – which was coated only in primer but had his last name across the windshield.

“I was thinking, ‘Damn that’s my Cup car,’” he said. “That’s cool. Nothing on it but ‘Wallace.’ I thought, ‘Damn, that’s really cool to see.’ It’s exciting stuff that’s happening right now. I’ll be anxious to see when we get to Daytona how giddy I’ll be.”