Jimmie Johnson

Ryan: What was overlooked about Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick after Sonoma win

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There was as much focus on what was said after Kevin Harvick’s victory Sunday at Sonoma Raceway as on how he won for the first time this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers’ spicy shot at Martin Truex Jr. naturally drew the headlines (and as seen on Monday’s NASCAR America in the video below, it was grounded in some degree of reality, though Truex’s target is debatable), but it detracted from another takeaway.

It’s not only what Childers and Harvick were saying after Sunday’s victory at Sonoma Raceway. It’s how they were saying it.

Just like the three-time series champion they drive for, you typically don’t have to guess where this championship pair stands on something.

Whether it was Childers playfully throwing shade at a rival, or an unusually light-hearted Harvick tossing off jokes between every other answer of his postrace news conference, there was a decided sense of relief about a win that helped ameliorate months of anxiety stemming from the move to Ford this season.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “And I think as we started the year, we had good performance, and we went through a little bit of a spell where it wasn’t as good as the first three or four weeks, and then the last month and a half has been really good.

“So it’s just a big undertaking, and one day I think when we get done with this year, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point, but it’s a huge undertaking.”

There actually were many hints since nearly a year ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Childers said Harvick’s postrace anger was because of lackluster preparation stemming from an in-season overhaul as Stewart-Haas Racing began building its chassis. The Ford move “panics all of us out a little bit,” Childers said with the characteristic honesty that he shares with his driver.

When Childers is distressed with a rival, NASCAR or even his own team, he lets the world know in his blunt but understated style. When Harvick is angry, the message is more demonstrative but no less candid.

But they also like to deflect the attention away from their team through their outspokenness, lest the scrutiny finds them the way it did during the 2015 season when the defending series champion’s No. 4 had a weekly reserved parking space in the NASCAR R&D Center’s inspection bay.

During an episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Childers said he intentionally backed off on Harvick’s speed during practices last season and diverted from the team’s ambitiously simple goal.

For a duo whose partnership is built on a relentless quest for perfection, it was a mistake, and they vowed to return to the basics this season. Despite the transition to a new manufacturer, the renewed dedication to winning every lap on the track seemed to be working at the outset of 2017. Harvick led the most laps in each of the season’s first two races and would have won at Atlanta Motor Speedway without an ill-timed speeding penalty.

It was followed by a four-race slump that resoundingly ended with a pole position at Texas Motor Speedway. Harvick since has posted top fives in six of 10 races as he and Childers methodically recaptured their mojo with a meticulous dedication toward improving.

It’s another facet of their working relationship that gets overlooked when controversy (which Harvick admittedly relishes) sometimes gets in the way as it did at Sonoma, but Harvick’s win was a testament to their preparation. Eschewing stage points after agonizing over strategy for days, Childers gave his driver a chance to win by pitting out of sequence, and Harvick took care of the rest once primary threat Martin Truex Jr. was eliminated by an engine failure.

“We were able to manage the car really after (Truex) fell out,” Harvick said. “I felt like he was the guy that we were going to have to race all the way to the end.  He had a great car, and once he fell out, I felt like we were 100 percent in control of the race.”

And now, it feels as if he and Childers have re-asserted control of their fortunes after a bumpy year

“There’s still a lot of room for growth,” Harvick said. “There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about our cars that we learn on a weekly basis, and that’s the fun part is to know the upside potential to this whole deal.

“Once we get it all ironed out and how great everybody has been from not only Stewart‑Haas Racing but Ford in putting all this together, I feel like we have way more room to grow than most any team in the garage because there’s so many new things for us and new people and still trying to work all the details out.”

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Five months before his 20th birthday, William Byron has eight wins and 15 top-five finishes in 38 starts in NASCAR’s top three national series.

Are those numbers worthy of promotion to a Cup ride with Hendrick Motorsports, which has the JR Motorsports driver under contract and at least one vacancy currently available for 2018?

Until a 2018 replacement is named for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet, Byron’s future is sure to generate debate. The conservative option would be keeping the Charlotte, N.C., native in the Xfinity Series for another season. An online racing prodigy who has competed in real-world conditions for roughly five years, Byron has far less experience with full-bodied cars than the competition.

Which is all the more reason to move him to Cup now.

Byron’s prodigious talent is allowing him to acclimate as quickly as other drivers who have been fast-tracked to Cup with roughly the same training (he should have just under 60 starts in Xfinity and Truck combined by the end of the season).

Kyle Larson, who had limited time in stock cars before coming to NASCAR, had three victories and 10 top fives in 43 starts across Cup, Xfinity and truck before moving full time to the premier series in 2014. Jimmie Johnson had one win and four top fives in 75 starts before his 2002 rookie season. Chase Elliott had five wins and 32 top fives in 80 starts before entering Cup last year.

The comparison trotted out most often as a cautionary tale is Joey Logano, who had one win and five top fives in 23 starts in NASCAR national series before entering Cup full time in 2009 with Joe Gibbs Racing. As exhibited in five seasons at Team Penske, Logano has all-world talent, but there were mitigating factors that spoiled his initial jump to Cup with Gibbs.

Asking an 18-year-old to supplant Tony Stewart, a Hall of Famer who wears his blue-collar roots on his sleeve, as the spokesman for a national home improvement chain was fraught with downsides from the outset. It didn’t help that Stewart remained in NASCAR as the driver-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, adding an unfair measuring stick.

The expectations wouldn’t be as crushing on Byron, who will have the full support from the retiring Earnhardt and automatically will be a better fit with whatever big-ticket sponsor is chosen.

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Also overshadowed in Harvick’s victory was that the addition of a third road-course race next season (at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the playoffs) already is having an impact.

Childers and Harvick decided to add the K&N race at Sonoma to the driver’s schedule just to shore up his skill set for turning left and right. Harvick’s twin victories last weekend might prompt an influx of Cup entrants in the K&N race next year.

“It all started when they talked about putting a road race in the (playoffs),” Harvick said. “You’ve got to have it right.”

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Adding stages (that were shorter than a fuel run) to a road-course race added another twist – namely, that it allowed some slower teams to gamble on amassing more stage points (or a stage win in the case of 13th-place finisher Jimmie Johnson) while stronger cars such as Harvick’s sacrificed stage results to be well-position for an overall victory.

Of the 110 available stage points, 63 were awarded to drivers who finished the race outside the top 10. Harvick and fourth-place finisher Kyle Busch compiled no stage points.

“I think some stage points here and there are great, but we felt like today we had a car that was capable of winning the race and we needed to put ourselves in position to try to win,” Harvick said.

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What was happening on Martin Truex Jr.’s pit stops that caused such trouble in removing the front wheel? It didn’t seem to be the result of a damaged fender, prompting speculation that it might have been the result of the way the shocks and springs were set up on a road course.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman also posited some interesting theories about indexing on this week’s Monday Morning Donuts podcast (around the 21:30 mark), as well as something interesting he recently noticed with how Team Penske is aligning wheels on pit stops.

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It wasn’t the first time AJ Allmendinger has been hampered by a mechanical problem on a road course, but Sunday’s 35th at Sonoma Raceway marked the No. 47 Chevrolet’s 10th consecutive finish outside the top 15 – continuing a plunge in its first season with a second car.

Allmendinger is ranked nine spots behind his ranking (18th) in the 2016 points standings through 16 races, and teammate Chris Buescher’s best finish is 11th. While the drivers are getting along well, the team hasn’t realized the short-term benefits of expansion yet. The struggles might be coincidental (as Allmendinger has said), but it’s been a reminder that going faster isn’t correlated with merely adding staff.

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After another star-crossed race marred by multiple crashes (which, again, weren’t entirely her fault), Danica Patrick appeared in AdWeek, penning a column about how her personal passions will drive her post-racing career.

The timing was incidental – magazine pieces such as these are planned months in advance – but given the many hits Patrick has taken this year and the uncertainty of her NASCAR future, it was a firm reminder of what could lie ahead as early as next year.

NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 85: Max Papis on his bond with a Jimmie Johnson he knew then and now

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The first time Max Papis saw Jimmie Johnson 20 years ago, he saw a stock-car driver – even though the future seven-time Cup champion then was unrecognizable in many ways.

Long before he became a health-conscious triathlete and cyclist in his spare time, Johnson was a pudgy off-road driver who was helping set up an awning for Papis’ CART IndyCar team at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

“Jimmie was pretty chubby back then,” Papis said with a laugh during an episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “I was joking with him and said ‘So, are you training to become a stock-car driver?’ Back then, a stock car driver was thought of having a bigger build.”

Eight years later, Papis watched his first Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, where Johnson started on the front row. By then, Papis had begun testing cars for Hendrick Motorsports, developing a bond with Johnson. After once teasing him about his fitness, Papis often has trained with the fitness-conscious Johnson, giving him his first heart-rate monitor as a gift.

“The relationship with Jimmie is something dear to my heart, one of those things that extended way beyond racing,” Papis said. “From setting up an awning to becoming a seven-time champion, it’s just an honor to see that good things can happen to good people.”

With Johnson’s support, good things have happened to Papis. The veteran of NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars and Formula One developed a safer high-performance steering wheel that Johnson was among the first to use. Max Papis Innovations steering wheels quickly became a popular choice for NASCAR drivers. All 40 starters in the 2017 Daytona 500 used an MPI steering wheel.

“I’m just amazed how a dream can come true, servicing the sport, providing better safety can lead into something creating a business,” said Papis, whose company also makes steering wheels for Late Model, sprint car, off road and drag racing. “This is a true American dream.”

During his appearance on the podcast, Papis also discussed:

–His memories of racing in the IndyCar series;

–A long career in various racing disciplines (and which he considers to be the most pure);

–His work in tutoring young NASCAR drivers such as William Byron.

Papis also will appear on NASCAR America today from 5:30-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, breaking down Kevin Harvick’s win at Sonoma Raceway with Leigh Diffey, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

Kevin Harvick wins Cup race at Sonoma, ends 20-race winless streak

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Kevin Harvick led the final 22 laps and managed to save enough fuel to win Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

The top five were Harvick, Clint Bower, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

It was Harvick’s first win of the season and ends a 20-race winless streak dating back to last October at Kansas Speedway. It is also Harvick’s first win since Stewart-Haas Racing switched from Chevrolet to Ford.

“It’s been a lot of work, a lot of the guys have put in a lot of hours” Harvick told Fox Sports 1. “It’s paying off. I feel like we’ve got a lot of room to grow.

“For us, it’s been okay. We’ve been competitive, we just haven’t gotten to victory lane. I felt like we’ve had a couple of opportunities to get there but just came up a little bit short. This is worth the wait, to come to Sonoma so many years.”

The 1.99-mile road course was one of four tracks on the Cup circuit Harvick had not won at. The win comes in his 17th start at the track. It came after Harvick placed 25th in Stage 1 and 20th in Stage 2

Harvick, who grew up about 300 miles south of Sonoma in Bakersfield, California, completed a weekend sweep after winning Saturday’s K&N Pro Series race the track.

“I guess we’ll have to do that again because it worked out pretty good,” Harvick said.

Stage 1 winner: Martin Truex Jr.

Stage 2 winner: Jimmie Johnson

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Brad Keselowski successfully used pit strategy to earn his first top five at Sonoma. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only other track he does not have a top five … Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished sixth in his final Sonoma start after being involved in two accidents early in the race. It’s his fourth top 10 of the year … Paul Menard finished 11th, his best result since placing ninth at Talladega.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: After winning Stage 1 and leading 25 laps, Martin Truex Jr. left the race with 24 laps to go with an engine problem. He finished 37th in his second DNF of the year. …. Kasey Kahne crashed on the frontstretch on the last lap of the race. He finished 24th. … Danica Patrick salvaged her day by finishing 17th after being in two accidents early in the race, the second a wreck in Turn 4 early in Stage 2 that took out Ricky Stenhouse Jr.AJ Allmendinger finished 35th, six laps down after suffering battery problems mid-race. … Pole-sitter Kyle Larson finished 26th, one lap down. It’s his worst finish of the year outside his DNF in the Coke 600.

NOTABLE: Harvick is now four wins away from having 100 total among all three of NASCAR’s national series … Harvick’s win over Bowyer was the third time Stewart-Haas Racing has finished 1-2 in a Cup race … Alon Day, the first Israeli-born driver to compete in the Cup series, finished 32nd in his series debut.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I had no earthly idea what was going on. I passed so many cars. I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.” – Jimmie Johnson after finishing 13th.

WHAT’S NEXT: Coke Zero 400 at Dayton International Speedway at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 1 on NBC.

Brad Keselowski enjoys ‘every moment’ of best Sonoma finish of career

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Before Sunday, Brad Keselowski had never finished better than 10th and had only led seven laps in his Cup career at Sonoma Raceway.

The Team Penske driver improved those stats significantly by finishing third in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, a race he enjoyed “every moment” of.

He did it after leading 17 laps in the middle of the race’s final segment in a pit strategy bid that never came to fruition.

“It looked like it was putting us behind, but we had such a great long‑run car that it played back out for us, which was great,” Keselowski said. “In fact, I think we were hoping to catch a yellow and didn’t catch it. If we would have, I think that would have been the race‑winning move.”

Instead, after battling with teammate Joey Logano for a time, Keselowski pitted with 17 laps to go. But both he and Clint Bowyer were able to charge to the front as the laps dwindled down and the leaders began conserving fuel.

“When you have a car that great, you just ‑‑ you really enjoy every moment of it, and today was a day I really enjoyed,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski now has just one track where he’s never scored a top-five finish: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Keselowski finished 28th in Stage 1 and second in Stage 2 behind Jimmie Johnson.

The only blemish on Keselowski’s day was a run-in with Bowyer on Lap 23, when he made contact with Bowyer in Turn 8 and sent the No. 14 Ford spinning off course. The contact left Keselowski’s left-front fender bent out of shape, but it never caused him any problems.

“I had the slip‑up there and got into Clint and that really stank, but other than that, just an incredible race car, and really a pleasure to drive,” Keselowski said.

Sitting at fifth in the points, the Team Penske driver now heads to Daytona where he will attempt to defend his win in last year’s Coke Zero 400. Keselowski won the summer race at Daytona and the following race at Kentucky last year.

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Results from Cup race at Sonoma Raceway

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Kevin Harvick scored his first victory of the 2017 season and his first at Sonoma Raceway, easily winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Harvick’s No. 14 Ford qualified for the playoffs with his 36th career victory in Cup and second on a road course. Harvick also won in 2006 at Watkins Glen International.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer finished second, followed by Brad Keselowski Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sixth, the highest-finishing Chevrolet driver. Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 10.

Martin Truex Jr. won the first stage for his series-leading 11th stage victory of the season but finished 37thth because of an engine failure.

Jimmie Johnson was victorious in the second stage, the first stage win of his career.

Click here for the results of Sunday’s race at Sonoma.