Jimmie Johnson remembers “the wildest 30 minutes of my life” with Jeff Gordon

5 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Of all the impressions left by Jeff Gordon on his NASCAR peers, none is more indelible than his mark on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

The trajectory of the six-time Sprint Cup champion’s career permanently was altered by his first formal meeting with Gordon nearly 15 years ago.

“It was the wildest 30 minutes of my life,” Johnson said with a laugh Thursday on Daytona 500 Media Day.

Johnson had spent his first three seasons in the Xfinity Series trying to catch Gordon’s eye but had no luck with arranging a meeting until a Saturday morning in August 2000 at Michigan International Speedway. With his team on the verge of losing a sponsor and his options including a switch to another manufacturer, Johnson sought the counsel of Gordon.

“I needed advice,” Johnson said. “I knew Jeff left Bill Davis and Ford and went to Rick Hendrick and Chevy, so I thought he had the magic answer. I asked for a few minutes of time and introduced myself, and he brought me back to the transporter.”

Gordon indeed had some career guidance for Johnson – namely, that he was on the verge of being set for life with a NASCAR powerhouse.

“(Gordon) said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we’re talking about starting a fourth team, and your name is the only name that’s been brought up,’ ” said Johnson, who had gotten off to a nondescript start in NASCAR and wouldn’t win until midway through the following season. “In a 30-mintue window of time, it went from trying to work up the nerve to introduce myself to him, looking for some advice and then practically leading with the job. It was just insane.”

With Gordon poised to begin his final full-time season in NASCAR, it has triggered countless reflections on the impact of the four-time champion who changed the dynamics of multiple racing series. Bursting onto the scene in 1993 as a California native entering a circuit with predominantly Southern roots, Gordon paved the way for drivers with open-wheel backgrounds to make NASCAR their ultimate goal instead of the Indianapolis 500, and his success fostered a more welcoming environment among the stock-car community.

He’s done so much on so many levels, and we’re all looking back and having some, ‘Aha!’ moments,” Johnson said. “Like wow, he really was instrumental in helping car owners and sponsors realizing there are drivers far and wide who can come in and be competitive. Now we have more drivers from California than any other state. It’s wild to think in NASCAR that’s the case.

“I think Jeff is responsible for that trend happening. … We needed a clean-cut well-spoken person to carry the sport. Jeff was that guy. His dominance helped our sport. The fact he gave me my chance, created a team to go racing, and what has happened from there. You won’t find another competitor singing his praises like me.”

There were many others who were Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. Here’s a sampling of drivers’ tributes to Gordon:

KYLE LARSON: “I always looked up to him as a kid watching on TV and trying to follow his career path as well as I could. He grew up in Northern California close to where I grew up. We raced sprint cars and Midgets at a lot of same racetracks and won a few of the same big races. Jeff was a guy I looked up to and paved the path for dirt guys to get to the Cup Series. Getting the chance to say I got to race with Jeff Gordon is pretty cool.

“I got to hang out with him a couple of times away from the track at Knoxville, Iowa. He sponsored our sprint car this year. I got to hang out with him the last couple of years as part of his Children’s Foundation Kick-It program. We’d hang out after the races at night. He’s a character. He’s a lot of fun, and that’s the kind of Jeff Gordon a lot of people don’t get to see. He’s definitely a fun guy to be around.”

JOEY LOGANO: “I think it is really cool I got to race against him. For me, I never got to race against Bobby Allison or Richard Petty but I got to race against Jeff Gordon and that is just as cool. For me personally, I watched him when I was 6 years old, that is when he first started and I was a big Jeff Gordon fan. Why? Because he was the young guy out there. I rooted for him. You never think then that you are going to race against him someday or race against him for wins like we did in Texas or for a championship like we did last year. That is really cool. … It is funny because when I was 7, the Hartford Courant interviewed me, and I said I was going to be Jeff Gordon’s worst nightmare. It is hilarious. I don’t think I am his worst nightmare by any means but it is so cool to race against him now.”

CASEY MEARS: “The most impressionable time I had (with) Jeff racing was the first time that I was in this series. I qualified right near him, and I was starting next to him in one of my first races ever. I couldn’t believe I was getting ready to start a race next to Jeff Gordon. Now it’s really crazy because he is one of my good friends. We just had dinner last night together. It’s crazy where life takes you.”

CLINT BOWYER: “It was an Atlanta, a long time ago, but we raced for like 30 laps. I was a lot faster than him and he knew it. I was running the bottom. I was really loose. I couldn’t get to the outside of him like I needed to. I’d go to the outside and get loose and would drive off four or five car lengths. I’d get back to his bumper in half a lap and try to get under him and he’d keep me pinched down. A couple of times I slid up and about got into him and wrecked us both. I was screaming at the spotter, ‘What the hell is doing?’ I was extremely frustrated and it just like something hit me about 30 laps later and I started laughing because I knew he was in his car laughing at me because I couldn’t get around him.

“(After the race) I’m trying to figure out if he’s going to be pissed. I was looking for him because I was upset. He was coming laughing at me. That was fun. That was one of the fun moments. I bet he remembers that.’’

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

0 Comments

AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

0 Comments

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

1 Comment

Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: TalladeTalladega Truck results

MORE: Talladega Truck driver points

The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.