Ryan: Jimmie Johnson’s Chase exit stuns, stings in many ways

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DOVER, Del. – So this is how ignominiously the end can arrive for a six-time Sprint Cup champion.

With a whimper and a whiff of axle grease.

That was the cold truth for Jimmie Johnson on a blustery Sunday at Dover International Speedway, where his championship hopes wafted away in a puff of smoke at the track where he had enjoyed more triumph than anywhere in his illustrious NASCAR career.

“I worry about a flat, a pit call, hard racing,” Johnson said calmly while facing down a wave of cameras and recorders Sunday evening. “I don’t worry about an axle seal failing, and the rear end burning up. It’s just not on your radar.”

It will loom large in his rear-view mirror, though, as the unexpected death knell for the No. 1 seed of NASCAR’s 2015 postseason.

With a 41st-place finish, Johnson’s first-round elimination was the most stunning development of a race in which all of the focus had been centered on which of a trio of heavyweights – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – would be knocked out of the playoffs before the 10-race title run hardly had begun.

Incredibly, Harvick, Busch and Earnhardt all advanced.

The only star eliminated Sunday was Johnson, who had entered the AAA 400 with a comfortable cushion on the Chase for the Sprint Cup cut line and surely the feeling that his team already had weathered all the adversity that can be expected from a three-race elimination round.

At Chicagoland Speedway, he escaped with an 11th after a dicey restart collision with Kevin Harvick led to the shove seen around the world.

At New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he rallied for sixth after falling to a lap down in 30th because of a flat tire with 100 laps remaining.

Surely, he could breathe easy at Dover.

His 10 victories here rank first in the record book, and he hadn’t finished lower than 17th in 11 years at the concrete 1-mile oval.

All he needed to secure a berth in the second round, regardless of anyone else’s finish, was a 25th at Dover.

And after a summer slump in which he didn’t finish in the top five for six consecutive races, the first 100 laps of Sunday’s race seemed to indicate his team was continuing to turn a corner. After a Lap 42 penalty for speeding in the pits, Johnson quickly sliced through traffic and seemed headed for at least a top 10.

“We had a very, very fast race car,” he said. “The last three or four weeks, we’ve had very competitive cars. We’ve been moving forward.”

Until Lap 103, when his No. 48 Chevrolet started shaking violently as he exited the fourth turn.

The sickening, grinding sound of metal on metal filled the cockpit as the fluid drained from the right-rear hub, and the bottom literally dropped out on the bid for a seventh championship.

After a brief stop in the pits, Johnson hung a left at the end of the pits into the garage. He waited in his car as his Hendrick Motorsports crew hustled over for a repair job that took roughly 25 minutes and gave Johnson a lot of time to ponder the delicate harmonics behind the thousands of parts and pieces needed to keep an 800-horsepower stock car humming

“You just take things for granted,” said Johnson, who patiently answered every question for more than seven minutes with his typical class and diginity. “There’s so many parts and pieces on these cars, and we take for granted what they all do. It can’t be more than a $5 part that took us out.”

If there’s any consolation, it apparently has become something of a silent killer in NASCAR. Harvick’s team discovered their right-rear wheel and brakes covered in gear lube after an eighth at Martinsville in March, and crew chief Rodney Childers said it “scares me to death” to learn of Johnson’s misfortune because they use the same equipment as Hendrick.

“It’s one of the things that is the scariest of everything that race teams deal with,” Childers said. “You think that the race teams worry about engine trouble or things like that. But these axle seal problems, they happen all the time, and a lot of times you don’t hear about them.

“It’s something that all the teams have fought for a long time. We fought it earlier this year. We still change stuff on it. It seems like every week we’re looking at those things trying to figure out how to make them better. Those things are pretty dangerous.”

Yet the failure rate is relatively rare. Johnson lost an axle seal in practice earlier this year but estimated it had happened to his team perhaps five times in the past 14 seasons.

“It’s a really vulnerable and simple piece,” he said. “We’re always very cautious with axles coming in and out of the car.

“We pride ourselves on no mechanical (failures). Stuff doesn’t fall off our race cars. Our cars don’t break. This stings for sure.”

It’s a sting that will last much longer than the faulty part that caused it.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).