Ryan: The curious case of Jimmie Johnson

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RICHMOND, Va. — He’s the top seed entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup! He’s a six-time series champion! He’s demonstrated an uncanny mastery for conquering the 10 tracks that determine the title in NASCAR’s premier series!

So, Jimmie Johnson clearly enters the 2015 playoffs as a clear-cut underdog.

Huh?

After stopping his No. 48 Chevrolet in the pits after the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Johnson climbed out of his car with a slight look of befuddlement.

It wasn’t because of the lack of news media – a whopping two reporters – who were seeking comment after a nondescript ninth-place finish.

It was a tacit acknowledgment that despite earning the Chase’s No. 1 ranking – by virtue of a quirky tiebreaker from having more second-place finishes than fellow four-win drivers Matt Kenseth (Saturday’s winner at RIR) and Kyle Busch – Johnson barely has merited consideration in his quest for a record-tying seventh championship.

Not when the Joe Gibbs Racing armada of Kenseth, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards had won seven of the past nine races and spent much of 400 laps at Richmond occupying the top four spots. 

The speculation over title favorites starts with those four Toyotas, touches on Joey Logano (the only driver to beat JGR since July) and defending series champion Kevin Harvick (who led the points much of the season) and ends with nary a mention of the most dominant driver of his generation.

“We’re not in the conversation,” Johnson said. “The last couple of months, we haven’t been in the position we want.

“We’ve been looking for speed for a couple of years now. We can race well and hold our own, and when we get to our better tracks, we seem to be able to figure out how to get to victory lane at the end of the day.”

This has been the most peculiar of regular seasons for the only NASCAR driver to qualify for every year of the Chase (12 seasons and counting).

Though he won four of the first 13 races, he hardly flaunted the lockdown dominance of his title campaigns. Most of the checkered flags (at Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Dover International Speedway) came mostly because of solid racecraft by Johnson and sound strategy by crew chief Chad Knaus, who aggressively capitalized on his team earning a Chase berth in the season’s second race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That win was among the rare times the fastest car clearly belonged to Johnson, whose deficiencies have been magnified over a nine-race stretch to conclude the regular season. Since a runner-up July 7 at Daytona International Speedway, Johnson has one top five and an average finish of 14.7.

He hasn’t led a lap since Daytona, and the two-month absence from first place is the longest of his Cup career.

Anyone else’s titles chances would be written off at this point. But every rival does so with Johnson at their own peril.

“I don’t count out Jimmie,” Denny Hamlin said. “No one ever will. You just have to see how this Chase goes.”

For Johnson, it always seems to go extraordinary well, regardless of how poorly he might have run before it. He had one top five in the final nine races of the regular season in 2006 and two in 2009 and ‘13 … he won the title each year.

“We’ve been here before,” he said. “We’ve had a summer slump many years, so it’s not a surprise to us.

“We’re getting ready to go to a lot of really good racetracks. That keeps us very optimistic. I just don’t know. It’s hard to really tell.”

The lack of certitude isn’t solely about a lack of results.

It’s as much a function of the Chase format in its second year of points resets and eliminations after every third race. The 2014 debut showed how it capriciously treated formidable championship contenders while an underwhelming but reliable entry such as Ryan Newman could survive and advance to the final round.

As much as JGR has dominated the narrative, Hamlin conceded its recent success means virtually nothing because “it’s a new season.” Winning guarantees a slot in the next round, but there still are only three available. The bulk of the advancement will be accomplished via posting solid results and avoiding disaster.

While inching closer and closer to a more traditional playoffs (through four overhauls in 12 years), NASCAR actually has re-emphasized the importance of consistency.

“That’s what this deal is all about,” Harvick said. “It’s really not about having the fastest cars week in and week out, it’s about capitalizing on situations.  The guy who makes the least amount of mistakes is going to be the one who keeps advancing.

“It’s not about stats or what’s pretty or not pretty, it’s about three weeks and making it to the next round. Three weeks, making it to the next round, trying to get yourself in position for (the season finale at) Homestead.”

Said Johnson: “You still need speed, but you don’t have to win until the end. You might need to win to move along there in the rounds depending on some bad races, but I think the way Ryan got to the final four last year showed a lot of us you don’t have to be set on kill the whole Chase.”

Though his Hendrick Motorsports team has been accused of playing possum in his previous title runs and experimenting with newfangled setups that are mothballed for the final 10 races, he insists that hasn’t been the case.

“We’re always trying to learn, but it’s not like we were sitting on something that we’re going to try or develop something different,” he said. “We were trying to get better.”

Can he improve over the final 10 races? In the marathon of a Sprint Cup season, it seems eminently achievable.

Consider the plight of JGR, which struggled for the first two months of this season. It then dominated the past two months.

But the season still won’t end for another two and a half months. That’s an eternity in NASCAR from which hope springs eternal.

“I feel like we’re going to be in the thick of it, but the championship isn’t decided until Homestead, so it’s hard to really get my head around,” Johnson said. “I’d have to put favorites on the Gibbs cars and certainly (Harvick).

“We’re just sitting there on that next tier down, and we’ve got to get a little bit better.”

A top seed minus the top speed.

It’s an oddly fitting reality for Johnson this season.

 

Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”

TikTok to sponsor Ryan Vargas in six Xfinity races

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JD Motorsports
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TikTok is coming to NASCAR.

The popular video sharing app will break into the sport next month as a sponsor of Ryan Vargas in the Xfinity Series.

TikTok has partnered with JD Motorsports to sponsor the 20-year-old Vargas in the final six races of the season, beginning with the Oct. 3 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“TikTok has provided me with an incredible outlet to reach new fans and demographics through fun and creative content, and I’ve seen the highest growth in followers on TikTok over my other social channels,” Vargas said in a press release. “The opportunity to run the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet Camaro in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the rest of the season is an absolute dream come true. Johnny Davis and the whole JD Motorsports with Gary Keller team took a chance on me last year and I’m excited to bring this amazing TikTok partnership their way. I wouldn’t want to make this partnership a reality anywhere else.”

Vargas has made three Xfinity Series starts this year. His best finish was 13th at Pocono.

The sponsor deal is part of TikTok’s Latinx Heritage Month programming.

A native of La Mirada, California, Vargas joined TikTok last year. He is a former member of NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity programming and a winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer award, which is given to a minority or female driver who displays exceptional on-track performance, sportsmanship, and community service.

The partnership and paint scheme were inspired by a concept scheme by graphic designer Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas’.

“Creators of all sizes and backgrounds show up to TikTok with their genuine, authentic selves,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s Head of Global Marketing, said in a press release. “Partnering with an iconic brand like NASCAR to sponsor Ryan Vargas on his racing journey is a way for us to continue to support, celebrate and elevate the diverse creators that make our TikTok community what it is today. Ryan is an incredible athlete, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on alongside the rest of the TikTok community!”

According to CNBC in August, TikTok has roughly 100 million monthly users, up nearly 800% from January 2018.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, has been in national headlines recently after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States for national security reasons if it was not sold to an American company. On Sept. 19 he approved a deal for its U.S operations to be operated by Oracle and Walmart.