Dale Earnhardt

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: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch rivalry adds spark to playoffs

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JOLIET, Illinois —Maybe sometime Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski will laugh about days like Friday, but not now, not anytime soon.

Their relationship was built on conflict, sustained by dissent and festers.

There is little common ground between the two former Cup champions who form the closest thing to a NASCAR rivalry that compares to Richard Petty vs. Bobby Allison or Dale Earnhardt vs. Geoff Bodine.

While those drivers expressed themselves with the bumper, the current generation used Twitter on Friday to add spice to the opening weekend of the Cup playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway.

Keselowski has been talking for weeks about Toyota’s advantage, suggesting last month at Michigan that Toyotas would sandbag for fear that NASCAR would take cars from each manufacturer for inspection.

Informed of Keselowski’s comments that weekend, Busch told ESPN: “Brad’s a (expletive) moron.’’

That didn’t deter Keselowski, who continued his public crusade against Toyota’s advantage.

He spoke of it earlier this week and continued Friday on Twitter after Toyotas took the top four spots in practice, forecasting an advantage by one manufacturer not seen in decades.

Busch counterpunched.

They went back and forth on Twitter — much like they’ve raced each other at times, neither giving — and continued their duel after Busch’s blistering pole lap, which was nearly 2 mph faster than the next car.

Keselowski, who rose from a family team before it went bankrupt, won’t back down from what he believes are injustices.

Busch doesn’t put up with what he perceives as b.s.

On the track, their battles have been memorable, particularly multiple incidents at Watkins Glen, including contact this year. After that run-in, Busch radioed his crew that they had “better keep me away from that (expletive) after the race.’’ 

Friday added another layer to a strained relationship that Keselowski wrote about two years ago — and upset Busch.

Asked if anything has happened lately to make him speak up again about Toyotas, Keselowski said: “No, other than NASCAR’s complete inaction to level the playing field which is the precedent that has been set the last few years. Other than that, no.

“There are natural cycles where cars, teams, manufacturers whatever go up and down. At the start of the year, we were at the top of the cycle. And at this moment, we are not where we need to be. With respect to that, we were at the top and it seemed like there were a lot of rules changes to slow us down and now you have cars that are so much faster than the field and the complete inaction by anybody.’’

Busch mocked Keselowski.

“Maybe I’m confused on what rules were changed,’’ Busch said. “The Penske group was 100 percent for the no-skew rule and they got what they wanted over the off-season and we were against that. Take what you want, we just went to work. Moving on.”

But Busch had more for his foe.

“If you ask Brad, he can fix the world’s problems, that’s all there is to it,’’ Busch said. “It’s just a fact of the matter that no one else is doing anything, they’re putting their head down and going to work and he thinks that somehow the big brother is going to come up and help him. I don’t know what the point is, we all just work hard and do our jobs. I wouldn’t think that all the speed we’ve got for the rest of the year is just here this weekend. I would like to think it’s here for the next 10.”

Keselowski said there’s a reason why he’s the only Ford driver to be so aggressive in speaking about Toyota’s run.

“I like my position at Team Penske and feel pretty secure in driving there for a long, long time,’’ said Keselowski, who signed a multi-year exertions this summer. “I am not looking over my shoulder worrying about getting a ride with another manufacturer one day and that gives me some privileges that maybe some other guys don’t have.’’

Busch had something else he wanted to say about Keselowski but forget. Moments later, he remembered.

“I’m way behind in payback, just FYI,’’ Busch said. “He’s way ahead so if anybody is going to be getting it, it’s going to be him.”

Just like how they did it in the old days.

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NASCAR America: What makes Darlington Raceway so challenging? (video)

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On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, one of our show segments discussed the challenges of racing at Darlington Raceway.

One of the biggest challenges is racing one inch off Darlington’s hard walls without getting an almost inevitable “Darlington stripe.”

The segment also reflected back on the supremacy of the late Tim Richmond coming into the 1986 Southern 500, arguably the greatest win of Richmond’s too-brief career.

The late Dale Earnhardt also said of winning at Darlington, “Whether it’s a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition, and, if you happen to be a race car driver, there’s no victory so sweet, so memorable as whipping Darlington Raceway.”

Check out the video above. 

Also, check out the video below of Parker Kligerman‘s and Steve Letarte’s discussion on whether NASCAR Cup rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have a chance at winning one of the next two races to punch their ticket for the upcoming playoffs.

Letarte says an emphatic ‘no.’ Do you — or Parker — agree?

Long: Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch is what NASCAR needs

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For as much as Kyle Busch’s sweep of the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway turned some fans off, it was what NASCAR needed.

Even better, Busch understood.

After he won Saturday night’s Cup race, Busch goaded booing fans by putting his fingers to his ears, prompting more catcalls.

He walked to the back of his car and raised three fingers — for his three wins last week — as the boos (and cheers) grew louder.

And he smiled, a winner’s grin but also one of somebody who proved the doubters wrong. Again.

Part superstar, part showman.

The good guy to his fans, Busch also can be cast as the villain to the rest of the fanbase. He’s accepted that role, embraced it and learned how to egg on the haters in the stands and the trolls on social media. 

Sports is about us against them. While fans have their favorite drivers and teams, there remains the need to root against someone or some team. Without that distinction, sports would be as anticlimactic as a youth game — pick the sport: baseball, football, basketball, etc. — where no score is kept. That’s called recess.

Without Kyle Busch, who would make sane people insane and cause alcohol-fueled fans to do things they tell their children never to do? The new drivers haven’t been around long enough to anger the fan base. Maybe Kurt Busch could fill the role because anyone with the name Busch is more inclined to be booed. There are other drivers who have their detractors but not as much as Kyle Busch based on the visceral reaction he gets at many tracks.

“The best of the best that have won here have been booed … for a long, long time,’’ Busch said after his second Cup win of the season. “So I’m fine with that.’’

Busch follows a history of drivers that fans loathed (and some loved). Before Busch, it was Tony Stewart. He inherited the mantle after Dale Earnhardt, who took it from Darrell Waltrip and so on.

Earnhardt made the image of a villain into a cottage industry. For every boo and middle finger he received, he just smirked and kept on winning, infuriating his haters and thrilling his fans.

When Earnhardt was introduced before races, many fans didn’t sit. They stood to cheer or show how much they despised the seven-time champion.

Rarely was the anger as intense as the 1999 Bristol night race when Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte out of the lead on the final lap. Earnhardt said he “meant to rattle his cage.’’ Didn’t matter. Boos cascaded down the packed stands. Several minutes later, the track replayed the radio broadcast of the final laps on the P.A. system and when it came to the moment Earnhardt turned Labonte, a heavy chorus of boos reverberated throughout the stands from fans not yet ready to leave.

At 32 years old, Busch can grow more into such a role for years to come. And win more than his one championship.

Having not yet reached his prime, Busch is likely to keep winning — Saturday was his 40th Cup victory to tie Mark Martin for 17th on the all-time wins list. At his current rate, Busch will climb into the top 10 wins list before he retires. Busch can further irritate fans by also winning Truck and Xfinity races.

Us against them.

Yes, Busch will make fans cheer and boo for years to come.

“I’m sure they’re still booing, whining and crying all the way home tonight,’’ Busch said well after his win Saturday night. “They’re driving home mad, so people be careful.

“But, you know, my people get to go home safe and secure and slow and steady and patient because they get to celebrate.’’

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Darlington stripe going ‘green,’ Turn 3 towers renamed after Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr.

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The famed “Darlington stripe” is getting a “green” facelift for the looming race weekend at the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

Darlington Raceway has announced Turn 4 will be painted green for the Sept. 1-3 race weekend as part of sponsor activation with Pee Dee Electric Cooperative and state-owned utility Santee Cooper.

The track is using 100 percent renewable energy to generate electricity at the track for the Xfinity and Cup series races.

As part of the environmental awareness initiative, fans can sign up to win three laps in a pace car around the track on Sunday, Sept. 3, at www.DarlingtonGreenStripe.com.

Darlington has also announced it will be renaming its towers in Turn 3 after Dale Earnhardt Sr and Jr.

The renaming comes as the track will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Earnhardt Sr.’s 1987 Southern 500 win and Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup start at the track.

Earnhardt Towers will feature graphics that depict memorable moments of Earnhardt Sr. and Earnhardt Jr.’s careers featured on the backside of each tower. The Earnhardt Towers name will also be displayed on the front of the towers facing the track.

Earnhardt Sr. won at Darlington nine times in his Cup career, including three times in the Southern 500.

The towers will be dedicated on the morning on Sept. 1 prior to Cup and Xfinity practice in a ceremony featuring track president Kerry Tharp and Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports and daughter of Earnhardt Sr.

“Darlington Raceway is fortunate to have many of the sport’s legends honored throughout our property,”  Tharp said in a press release. “We felt that it was fitting to honor Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for their positive impact on the sport and on the track Too Tough To Tame. Earnhardt Towers will forever celebrate and recognize their achievements and be a lasting landmark at our tradition-rich facility.”

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