HOMESTEAD, Florida — With crowded grandstands as the backdrop, Bob Jenkins welcomed viewers to ESPN’s broadcast of the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup finale, proclaiming it “perhaps the biggest race in NASCAR history, at least in the modern era.’’
Richard Petty would run his final Cup race. Six drivers — some from racing’s royalty — entered with at least a mathematical chance to win the championship. A future superstar was set to make his first series start.
For the first time since that memorable fall day in Atlanta, a season finale has the power to match the significance of that 1992 race. Today’s Cup finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC) features a four-man battle for the title and the departure of fan favorites, including the sport’s most popular driver.
“This is a lot of parallel to what ’92 was,’’ said Bill Elliott, who won the race that day in Atlanta but lost the championship by 10 points to Alan Kulwicki. “I still look back (to that race) as a big deal.’’
Petty said today’s race is “like a changing of the guard. You got so many different facets here.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 14-time and assuredly soon-to-be the 15-time most popular driver, will run his final Cup race.
“I’m having a hard time trying to put my emotions and thoughts into words,’’ Earnhardt said Friday. “Usually I’m pretty decent at it.’’
Danica Patrick, a pioneering driver who introduced many young girls to the sport, announced Friday in an emotional press conference that this will be her final full-time season as a driver. She plans to run only the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next year.
“I feel like this is where my life should be headed,’’ she said.
Former champion Matt Kenseth, is set to depart the sport after this season. Whether he’ll return is uncertain. He’s left that possibility open but has no ride for next year and concedes he might not race in Cup again.
Busch, Harvick and Keselowski each seek a second title and would join seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson as the only active multi-time champions. Truex, whose team has endured heartbreak and tragedy throughout the season, seeks his first series title.
“I know it’s a big mark,’’ Keselowski said of becoming a two-time series champ. “There’s only 15 drivers in the sport that have won multiple championships, and we’re 60‑some years into the sport now.
“So if you think about it, there’s only been 15 multiple champions, and two of them are ‑ or at least one of them’s active now, and (Gordon and Tony Stewart haven’t) had a chance to get in the Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty much a certainty that those drivers will be in the Hall of Fame. Multiple championship drivers always will be. And it’s a chance to really make myself a Hall of Fame driver. That’s not something that anyone takes for granted.’’
That 1992 Atlanta race featured eight Hall of Famers: Petty, Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin and that list will grow in the coming years with Gordon and likely Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.
“I think the sport has evolved very well,’’ Elliott said.
One can only imagine what they might say of Sunday’s race 25 years from now.
Derek Hoyt was 2 years old when doctors discovered his brain tumor. Surgery and radiation treatments followed. Two years later, the tumor returned, forcing Derek to endure more surgery and radiation treatments.
The disease went away and Derek became a “carefree” kid again, one who fell in love with NASCAR, just like his father Jeff. While Rusty Wallace was Jeff’s driver, Derek gravitated to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Derek’s Earnhardt diecast collection flourished and his assortment of Earnhardt T-shirts multiplied. Derek joined the Cub Scouts, in part, to build and race pinewood derby cars. His cars always resembled Earnhardt’s cars.
But 12 years after his second bout with a brain tumor, it returned in fall 2015. The prognosis was grave. Derek and his family were told about Make-A-Wish, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. Many children choose trips to a Disney park. Some select exotic vacations. Others seek more personal wishes.
Derek wanted to meet Earnhardt.
He and his family traveled from their Exeter, New Hampshire, home to the 2016 Daytona 500. Meeting Earnhardt was more than Derek could have imagined. They chatted as if old friends instead of strangers who had just met. Earnhardt signed many items, including a red No. 88 pinewood derby car Derek brought.
“That trip,’’ Derek’s mother, Mary, said, “was a lifetime highlight for him, seeing him that happy.’’
Derek died eight weeks later. He was 17.
Jeff and Mary can’t thank Earnhardt enough for spending time with their child and fulfilling his wish. Separately, it’s hard for them to explain what Earnhardt’s visit meant, but they find the words together.
“He’ll understand more of what he’s done for people,’’ Jeff said.
“Once he’s got a child,’’ Mary said.
POWER OF A WISH
As Earnhardt’s Cup career ends this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his fans reminisce about the special moments that still elicit goosebumps. Daytona. Talladega. Bristol. Those are just among the places Earnhardt provided many memories.
The conclusion of Earnhardt’s Cup career, though, is more personal to the children and families who met him through Make-A-Wish and similar programs. To them, he is not an action hero who drives fast cars and appears on their TV. Instead, Earnhardt is a compassionate and humble man who stood before them, sharing stories, answering questions and uplifting spirits. Those interactions made a lasting impact to the families and Earnhardt.
The prospect of meeting Earnhardt inspired one child to cope with monthly spinal taps and years of chemo treatments so he could one day meet his favorite driver. That child wasn’t the only one to use a wish as motivation. Sometimes a dream can do more than medicine.
Dr. Doug Scothorn, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, has seen the power of a wish while treating children with cancer.
“The experience is part of it,’’ Scothorn said, “but the main benefit is the hope that they have from it and recognizing that just because they’re going through a serious illness that they can still be kids and they can do stuff kids do and that their life is not defined by their disease.’’
He recommends Make-A-Wish to his patients and their families because of such benefits. The organization granted more than 15,000 wishes, a record, in fiscal year 2016-17.
Earnhardt ranks among the top 10 athletes granting wishes in the organization’s 37-year history. He’s met more than 250 children in his career.
Earnhardt met his final wish child as a full-time Cup driver last weekend at Phoenix Raceway when he was introduced to 10-year-old Victor Couto and his family. Victor, who is from Boca Raton, Florida, had heart surgery when he was 5 days old for a congenital cardiac condition. He had heart surgery again when he was 4 years old. He may need more surgery as he grows.
Gustavo Couto said that what Earnhardt did for his son “speaks to what’s good about us as people in general. Yes, he’s famous, but he’s using that in a very positive impact for kids and even families. There are good people out there. (Meeting a celebrity) doesn’t cure any disease, it doesn’t solve any problem, but it does create hope, it creates relief, it creates a moment of light. A moment of goodness.’’
Victor put it another way. He said meeting Earnhardt made him “really happy.’’
‘SCREAMING AND CLAPPING’
Sixteen-year-old Matthew Garland stood outside Earnhardt’s motorhome earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway petting Gus, Earnhardt’s Irish Setter, who had wandered up to the Springtown, Texas, teen.
Matthew suffered a stroke when he was 6 that left him in a coma for 19 days. The left side of his face and right side of his body suffered paralysis from the stroke and his body is unable to regulate its temperature. He undergoes eight hours a day of dialysis, is in stage 3 renal failure and on the list for a kidney transplant.
It was his wish to meet Earnhardt.
As Matthew pet Gus, Earnhardt appeared. Matthew was caught off guard to see his favorite driver standing in front of him. When he had been told two days before that he would meet Earnhardt, Matthew “was screaming and clapping and cheering,’’ his mother, Brenda Garland, said. Her son, so excited, couldn’t sleep that night.
But now before Earnhardt, Matthew said nothing.
“I’ve never seen him at a loss for words,’’ Brenda said. “He’s very conversational. He very rarely meets a stranger. It took him a second. He was so beside himself that he couldn’t say anything but yes.’’
Eventually Matthew talked with Earnhardt, who took off his cap and autographed it for his new friend, signed a few other items and took pictures with him.
Brenda wanted to cry for joy but she won’t let herself shed tears in front of her son. She stays strong for him.
But later that night, when they returned to the hotel, she planned to find time to be alone.
The chemo 15-year-old Cainan Yaskiewicz took during his first six months of treatment was referred to as “red devil.’’
“It speaks for itself,’’ said Cainan, diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia when he was 7 years old. “It really was a red devil. That stuff was terrible. It made you feel so weak and so sick because it just blew through your whole system. It killed every cell in its path. That would really be a bad day for me … or getting a spinal tap. Afterwards, it would just hurt so bad.’’
Shannon Yaskiewicz recalls the pain her son suffered, how he screamed, growled and squeezed her hand as hard as he could to keep from crying during such times.
“I held him as much as I could, and I just let him know I wished I could take (the pain) away,’’ she said.
Earnhardt helped Cainan through those bad days. Cainan told Make-A-Wish that he wanted to meet his role model, but his wish could not be granted until his treatments were completed and his immune system restored.
Cainan’s treatments lasted more than three years.
Shannon said her son used his wish of meeting Earnhardt as “the light at the end of the tunnel’’ to get those days.
When Cainan was a month from completing his treatments, the 11-year-old told his mother to make sure Make-A-Wish knew he would be ready to meet Earnhardt soon.
Two months later, Cainan traveled from his home in Sky Valley, Georgia, to Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch the 2013 Coca-Cola 600 and meet Earnhardt. The experience was just as special for Cainan’s parents.
“Seeing and hearing him laugh … my husband and I would just look at each other and just smile,’’ Shannon said. “It was so wonderful.
“We weren’t talking about doctor visits. We were able to go on a car ride and talk about the fun things we were going to do, meeting Dale Jr. We hadn’t seen that light in his eyes in a long time.’’
“A MOMENT OF TIME”
Jayden Crutcher spent much of summer 2013 in a hospital. He was 10 years old, a time when summer is supposed to be about playing outside, riding bicycles and swimming. Instead, he spent more than 100 days in a hospital. The few days he could leave, he was confined to home because his immune system hadn’t recovered from the high doses of chemo combating his Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
There was little doubt when given the opportunity for a wish what it would be. Jayden’s room is full of Earnhardt items, including diecast cars, a blanket and curtains.
The Mason City, Illinois, native traveled with his family to Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the October 2013 Cup race there and meet Earnhardt.
As the golf cart with Jayden and his family approached Earnhardt’s motorcoach, Jayden nearly jumped off before it stopped.
“A moment of time just stood still,’’ Lisa Crutcher said of her son’s meeting with Earnhardt. “It brought tears. You just look at what he’s been through. His one little itty-bitty wish to meet Dale Earnhardt Jr. changed his little mind. He goes ‘nothing is going to bring me down.’ ‘’
The following Valentine’s Day, Jayden’s leukemia returned, and he underwent four months of chemo. In August 2014, Jayden had a bone marrow transplant.
He’s off any medicine now and is considered cancer-free, but the treatments caused complications, particularly with his lungs.
“We have other challenges,’’ Lisa said, “but we’ll take those.”
DALE INSTEAD OF DISNEY
Many children prepared questions to ask Earnhardt during their meeting, but the sport’s most popular driver often had one himself.
Why did they pick me?
“Anything they could do and they want to come to a race and meet us,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s surprising to me. If I were a kid, I’d be like ‘I want to go to Disneyland’ and take in all the opportunities that would be there for that particular trip. You could imagine that a kid would just have the most incredible timeat a place like that and they come to a race.’’
Children have chosen races for years, some wanting to meet Earnhardt’s legendary father. Earnhardt said his father “set a great example for me” and others in the sport by hosting Make-A-Wish children.
“It was important to him,’’ Earnhardt said.
As it is important to Earnhardt. He understands the impact he can have on children and their families.
“They are there for a good moment,’’ he said of their meetings. “They want to be there, the kid is excited. While there’s this side of you that wants to break down and be sad, you can’t help but be affected by it emotionally, they’re wanting to meet their favorite driver.
“I imagine they spend a lot of time around a lot of people that try to take their mind off the situation they’re in and you try to do that. You try to find anything that peaks their interest and expand on it and find what you have in common. I’m just a normal person … and you try to show them that and help them see that ‘man, this guy is just like the guy next door’ and feel very comfortable in that conversation with you.’’
It’s not just the children who benefit from such meetings. The visits made a lasting impression on Earnhardt.
“It has had a positive effect on me as I think it has on the kids and the parents,’’ he said. “It’s been something that has helped me understand some of the more important things in life and where my priorities should lie, not to take things for granted, really appreciate the people around you.’’
Earnhardt, whose wife Amy is due to deliver the couple’s first child in the spring, is inspired by the parents of children facing life-threatening illnesses.
“The parents that I have met have given me the strength to face anything,’’ he said. “Being around strong people that handle those situations the way they do gives you faith and confidence that you would be able to do a similar thing if put in that situation.’’
It also includes highlights of Earnhardt’s wins at The Winston in 2000, his 2004 sweep at Bristol Motor Speedway and the 2004 Daytona 500. It spends the most time on Earnhardt’s July 6, 2001 victory at Daytona International Speedway in the first race after his father’s death in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“We created this short film to pay tribute to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his incredible career,” Ricardo Marques, the vice president of marketing for Budweiser, said in a release. “Budweiser has great memories of working with Junior and we will never forever his time spent in the Bud car. Thanks for the unforgettable moments, Junior.”
“Budweiser will always have a special place in my heart,” Earnhardt said in a release about the video. “They took a chance on me early on, sponsored my first Cup ride and paved the way to many great opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’m deeply honored in what they’ve done to commemorate my final race.
“It was unexpected and humbling. It brought back a rush of memories, but more than anything it reminded me how awesome it was to drive that red No. 8 car.”
Here’s your Cup Round of 8 and Martinsville history primer
Joe Gibbs Racing (six), Furniture Row (five) and Chip Ganassi Racing (two) won 13 of the last 15 races.
The pole winner has won six times in 2017: Kyle Larson ACS, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Talladega-1, Kyle Larson MIS-1, Kyle Busch POC-2, Kyle Busch NH-2, Martin Truex Jr. KS-2.
The final lead change came in the last 10 laps in 17 of 32 races in 2017, the final three laps in 12 races and on the last lap in three races.
Either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch have won a stage in 23 of 32 races in 2017.
Martin Truex Jr. has won at least one stage in 14 of 32 races in 2017 but has not won a stage in the last four races which is tied for his longest stretch of races without a stage win.
Martin Truex Jr. is the only driver to win both stage 1&2 and go on to win the race (Las Vegas, Kentucky).
Five drivers have won a race but have not won a stage in 2017.
Four drivers have won a stage but have not won a race in 2017.
Atlanta, Pocono-1, Michigan-2 and Chicagoland are the only races without a caution before the end of stage 1.
Atlanta, Michigan-2 and Chicagoland are the only races to not have a caution other than stage breaks in the first two stages of the race.
Three cautions at Watkins Glen are the fewest in a race in 2017.
15 cautions at Kansas-1 and Dover-1 are the most in a race in 2017.
The last three races all had 10 or more cautions, there were less than 10 cautions per race in the prior nine races of 2017.
Three times a driver has won after going to the rear: Jimmie Johnson Texas-1 (unapproved tire change), Joey Logano Richmond-1 (transmission change), Jimmie Johnson Dover-1 (rear gear change).
Denny Hamlin won in New Hampshire-1 after going to a backup car prior to qualifying.
Three times in 2017 a driver has gone on to win after a speeding penalty: Kurt Busch Daytona-1, Brad Keselowski Martinsville-1 and Martin Truex Jr. Chicagoland.
Martin Truex Jr. won at Kansas after a restart violation on lap 36, it was the fourth time in 2017 a driver has recovered from a in race infraction to win and the second time by Martin Truex Jr.
Three drivers got their first career win in 2017: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Talladega-1, Austin Dillon Charlotte-1, Ryan Blaney Pocono-1, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the first first-time winner to get his second win in 2017.
There has been one track record set in 2017: Kyle Busch (Kentucky).
Three races were won with a last lap pass: Daytona-1 Kurt Busch passed Kyle Larson, Talladega-1 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passed Kyle Busch, Talladega-2 Brad Keselowski passed Ryan Newman.
Three drivers ended the longest winless streaks of their career in 2017: Ryan Newman 127 races, Kasey Kahne 102 races, Kyle Busch 36 races.
Martinsville recent race history:
October 2016 ended a six race Martinsville winless streak for Johnson, tied for his longest drought at the track.
The last seven Martinsville races were won by seven different drivers, the previous 19 races were won by six different drivers.
In April Brad Keselowski became just the sixth first time Martinsville winner in the last 25 Martinsville races.
The race winner has started seventh or better in the last four Martinsville races.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were passed for the win in four of the last five Martinsville races, Kyle Busch was passed by Brad Keselowski with 43 laps to go in April.
The winner of five of the last eight Martinsville races got his only win of the season.
Only once in the last eight Martinsville races has the driver who led the most laps gone on to win (Kyle Busch in April 2016).
The Martinsville race winner led less than 100 laps in six of the last eight Martinsville races.
Since caution data has been available there has never been a Martinsville race that went caution free for the first 130 laps (length of stage 1.
Last October at Martinsville the final 114 laps went green, the longest green flag stretch to end a race at Martinsville in the last 54 races.
There were 14 cautions at Martinsville in April, more than both races at Martinsville in 2016 combined.
Although there were 14 cautions in April there was still a green flag stretch of 120 laps.
There have been five overtime finishes at Martinsville, the most recent was April 2012.
There was one last lap pass for the win at Martinsville, Darrell Waltrip passed Dale Earnhardt on lap 500 in September 1987 after Earnhardt and Terry Labonte made contact in turn three and Waltrip took the lead from third.
12 Drivers got their first Cup win at Martinsville but only one has done so in the last 33 years, Ricky Craven in 2001.
11 of the last 14 Martinsville races were won from a top-10 starting position.
Brad Keselowski won at Martinsville in April, Ford’s only Martinsville win in the last 29 races at the track before April they had not won at Martinsville since October 2002.
Chevrolet drivers won 10 of the last 13 Martinsville races, Chevrolet has not gone more than one Martinsville race without a win since 2010.
28 of the last 29 Martinsville races were won by four organizations: Hendrick Motorsports (16 wins), Joe Gibbs Racing (7 wins), Stewart-Haas Racing (3 wins), Team Penske (2 wins) (RCR won the other race).
Hendrick Motorsports has 24 Martinsville wins, including the organization’s first win by Geoff Bodine in 1984, the most wins at a single track by an organization in Cup Series history.
Five different drivers won a race at Martinsville driving for Hendrick Motorsports, tied with Junior Johnson for the greatest number of different winners by an organization at Martinsville.
Jimmie Johnson won at Martinsville last October, it was his ninth win at the track again tying Jeff Gordon for third in Martinsville wins.
The all time Martinsville wins leader is Richard Petty with 15, Darrell Waltrip is second with 11, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are third with nine.
Martinsville Playoff Highlights:
Martinsville has been a playoff race in all 14 years of the playoffs.
11 of the 13 playoff races held at Martinsville have been won by a playoff eligible driver.
Chevrolet has won 11 of the 13 playoff races held at Martinsville including the last six straight.
Hendrick Motorsports drivers won the last five playoff races at Martinsville.
Ford has never won a playoff race at Martinsville.
Jimmie Johnson has won six of the playoff races held at Martinsville, the most of all drivers.
Johnsons six Martinsville playoff race wins are the most by a driver at a track.
Only five drivers won the 13 Playoff Races at Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson (6 wins), Jeff Gordon (3 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins), Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win each).
Three organizations have won the 13 playoff races at Martinsville: Hendrick Motorsports (10 wins), Joe Gibbs Racing (2 wins), Stewart-Haas Racing (1 win).
In the three years of the elimination format (since 2014), Jimmie Johnson in 2016 is the only driver to win at Martinsville and go on to win the championship.
Five cautions in the 2016 Martinsville playoff race, the fewest in the 13 playoff races at the track and the only race with less than 11 cautions.
There was a caution in the first 50 laps in all 13 playoff races at Martinsville Short Track Highlights.
Short Track Highlights:
Jimmie Johnson’s 14 short track wins are the most of all active drivers, Kyle Busch ranks second with 11.
Five different drivers won the five short track races in 2017, the last time six different drivers won the six short track races in a year was 2013.
Three drivers finished in the top-10 in four of five short track races in 2017: Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Six drivers led 84% (1,937 of 2,304) of the laps raced on short tracks in 2017: Kyle Busch (469), Martin Truex Jr. (356), Kyle Larson (353), Matt Kenseth (264), Erik Jones (260) and Brad Keselowski (235).
Joey Logano has an average finish of 5.0 on short tracks in 2017 the best of all drivers and is the only driver to finish in the top-five in four of the five races on short tracks this season.
Six drivers finished on the lead lap in all five short track races in 2017: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Six different drivers won a stage on a short track in 2017, Martin Truex Jr.’s three stage wins on short tracks are the most.
Kyle Larson’s 61 stage points on short tracks are the most of all drivers.
Martinsville Track History and Fast Facts:
Henry Clay Earles was the owner of The Spot service station and several houses in Martinsville. After attending a few races in 1947 with his friend Sam Rice, the budding entrepreneur thought that racing would be a profitable business. With partner’s Sam Rice and Henry Lawrence, a site for a racetrack was located at an overgrown 30 acre cornfield just outside Martinsville. The track was soon underway and ended up costing $60,000. The first race was for modified stock cars on September 7, 1947 (pre-NASCAR). William H. G. France had persuaded Earles that stock cars were the future of racing and he helped to promote the event for a percentage. The total purse was $2,000. Only 750 of the planned 5,000 seats were ready and parking capacity was 1,400 cars. The crowd was overwhelming. Earles said that nearly 10,000 fans attended, 3,000 unpaid. Red Byron won the race and $500.
The first NASCAR sanctioned race was for Modified stock cars won by Fonty Flock on July 4, 1948. The eighth place finisher was Bill France.
The first NASCAR Cup (Grand National) race on September 25th, 1949, won by Red Byron over Lee Petty. Byron drove the No. 22 Raymond Parks owned Oldsmobile led by crew chief Red Vogt, the race consisted of a 15 car field.
The track surface was dirt for the first 12 Cup races.
In 1964 Earles decided it was time for a different type of trophy for race winners. His choice was a grandfather clock produced by nearby Ridgeway Clock Company. On September 27, 1964, Earles awarded the first Clock trophy to Fred Lorenzen, the winner of the Old Dominion 500 that afternoon.
Richard Petty has the most clocks with 12 (he won three times at Martinsville prior to the introduction of the clock. Darrell Waltrip won 11 Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson each have 9 clocks.
In 1976 the corners were resurfaced in concrete. The track was completely resurfaced following the spring 2004 race when Jeff Gordon ran over a chunk of concrete that had come loose in turn 3.
International Speedway Corporation (ISC) purchased privately owned Martinsville Speedway in 2004 for $192 million.
Starting in March of 2015 the Iconic Martinsville Hot Dog has been provided by Valleydale Hot Dogs, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Valleydale provides a dog that closely resembles the Jesse Jones Southern Style hot dog in taste and color and will continue to cost $2. The change ended a relationship with Jesse Jones that dated back to 1947. South Boston Speedway and Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, N.C. continue to sell Jesse Jones dogs.
On October 12, 2016 Martinsville track president Clay Campbell announced that the track would have an LED lighting system in place for the 2017 season, which would coincide with Martinsville’s 70th anniversary. The project cost an estimated $5 million and is described as more of an “insurance policy” against late after noon finishes like the one in October 2015. No night races are scheduled for 2017 at Martinsville.
Martinsville has become the 15th of 23 tracks on the Cup circuit with permanent lights in place. The only tracks that now remain without lights: Dover, Indy, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pocono, Sonoma, Talladega and Watkins Glen.
October 29th will be the 138th race at Martinsville, every season since 1949 and multiple races a year every year since 1950.
Martinsville is the only track to host a race in every season of NASCAR’s existence, and is the only remaining active “Charter Track” on the schedule.
At 0.526 miles in length Martinsville is the shortest track on the Cup schedule.
Long: Lack of stage points could end Jimmie Johnson’s bid for 8th title
Should the seven-time series champion fail to move on to the Round of 8 — he holds the final transfer spot entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway — it won’t be because spotter Earl Barban told the team it could work on Johnson’s car before NASCAR had withdrawn the red flag at Talladega, incurring a penalty that ended the team’s race.
No, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team can look at their failure to collect as many Stage 1 points as their competitors. Even if Johnson advances, his lack of stage points could keep him from racing for a championship if he doesn’t win a race in the Round of 8.
Before the playoffs began, Johnson was asked if there would be more of a penalty for his summer slump that cost him stage points.
“I really think so,’’ he said. “We know our qualifying average doesn’t lead to a Stage 1 opportunity.’’
Johnson’s struggles in qualifying have put him in a mid-pack spot and made it difficult to score many points in the opening stage. His average starting spot of 17.0 this season is worst among the remaining playoff contenders
The result is that Johnson has scored 59 Stage 1 points in 31 races this season — fewest among all but one of the remaining playoff contenders. Johnson has scored only 35.8 percent of his 165 total stage points in the opening stage. To compare, Kyle Busch, who has an average starting spot of 7.1, scored 58.7 percent of his 315 total stage points in the opening stage.
Johnson’s difficulties in the playoffs have been as pronounced.
Johnson’s average starting spot of 15.2 in the postseason is only better than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16.2 average starting spot in playoffs) and Jamie McMurray (18.2).
Johnson’s 27 stage points are more than only Stenhouse (14) and McMurray (13) in the playoffs.
Johnson also has scored 37 percent of his total stage points in the opening stage — the lowest percentage among the remaining title contenders in the playoffs.
To compare with Busch, he has an average starting spot of 4.8 in the playoffs. That’s allowed Busch to score 63.5 percent of his 52 total stage points in the opening stage.
Add it together and Johnson could face quite a challenge to stay in title contention.
Having to hold off Busch won’t be easy, provided Busch doesn’t run into problems.
In four of the first five playoff races, Busch has scored five or more stage points than Johnson in the opening stage. If Busch does that Sunday, he will be in position to pass Johnson for a spot in the next round over the final 187 laps of the 267-lap event.
That’s a likely scenario. Busch has outscored Johnson 80-41 in stage points in the season’s eight races on 1.5-mile tracks.
If Busch moves into a transfer spot, Johnson likely will have to beat Ryan Blaney to have a chance to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships. Blaney has a two-point lead on Johnson.
Blaney has scored 108 Stage 1 points compared to Johnson’s 59 for the entire season. Blaney has outscored Johnson 196-165 in total stage points this season. In the playoffs, Blaney has a 10.2 average starting spot (compared to Johnson’s 15.2). Blaney has outscored Johnson 28-27 in total stage points in the postseason.
The challenges could be difficult for Johnson this weekend.