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.

 

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”