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Why Jimmie Johnson’s 12th to first strategy didn’t work in the Sprint All-Star Race

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CONCORD, N.C. – A smile creased Jimmie Johnson’s face as he exited his No. 48 Chevrolet to a simple question about one of the more convoluted races in NASCAR history.

How did the six-time Sprint Cup champion fall from first to 12th in the final segment of the Sprint All-Star Race?

“Tires were a little more important than it appeared it would be,” Johnson said with a chuckle.

That would be the streamlined explanation for an endlessly confusing Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in which nothing was as it seemed – particularly after the first 50-lap segment ended with a caution flag before Matt Kenseth had made his mandatory pit stop for two tires.

It resulted in a one-lap penalty for Kenseth that precluded an anticipated wavearound and left eight cars one lap down – a scenario that hadn’t been foreseen by NASCAR, according to vice president of competition Scott Miller.

And it ruined the strategy of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who had game-planned for the race with the intent of finishing the second of three segments in 12th place.

A random draw would ensure either the top nine to 11 cars would have to pit for four tires. Being 12th after the second segment would ensure a team of at least being in the first two rows for the final 13-lap restart – or first in a best-case scenario, which is exactly what unfolded for the No. 48.

In a race featuring 20 cars, it potentially meant enjoying an eight-car buffer over the strongest contenders with 13 laps to freedom.

“We thought that was really going to be it,” Johnson said. “That was the plan. It just didn’t work.”

Virtually every crew chief in the field probably considered those tactics. Todd Gordon, who helmed Joey Logano’s first win in the exhibition race, said he did.

“(With) 20 cars on the lead lap, and you fall back to 11th or 12th, starting on the front row with 15‑lap old tires and having four rows of cars that separate you from (fresh) tires,” Gordon said, “I think you’re probably pretty safe.”

The history was sound. In the three previous three All-Star Races, the winner led every lap of the final 10-lap segment, lending credence to the concept that being out front in clean air was the key to victory lane.

But because there were only 13 cars on the lead lap (a six-car pileup in the second segment exacerbated the situation that started with the late caution in the first segment), Johnson and Kyle Busch were the only lead-lap drivers who weren’t allowed to pit before the final segment.

They restarted first and second … but with no buffer to the next 11 cars on four tires.

When the green flag fell, it took less than a half-lap for the front row to be gobbled up in a four-wide mad scramble that ended with Kyle Larson in the lead.

Starting on the outside, Johnson said it also hurt that he couldn’t pass Busch before the first turn.

“I didn’t quite have him cleared,” Johnson said. “I think he got a push up in there. Then it kind of broke our momentum.

“Then those guys came so fast and came around us. But I felt like the way everything has gone that if I could have got the lead and got a lap or two under my belt and maintained it, I could have kept it. And that was our strategy all along. When they came by us on new tires, they came by in a damn hurry.”

How many cars would he have needed between him and those on fresh tires to have a shot at his fifth All-Star Race win?

Johnson paused before answering.

“It would have been nice to have a lap or two,” he said. “So maybe third row? Fourth row? Something like that would have really been a big help.

“I think I would have had a better chance if I would have cleared Kyle and got down in front of him. We kind of fought for space into Turn 1, and neither of us ran the corner flat. By the time we got to Turn 2, they were on both sides of me just blowing by.”

Some of Johnson’s four previous wins in the All-Star Race had involved sandbagging. After winning in 2003, he admitted to laying back in an event that involved a midrace inversion, and he won the race in ’12 by winning the first segment and then virtually sitting out the next two.

But that still didn’t make it seem any less weird when he allowed Greg Biffle to zoom by into 11th place three laps from the end of the second segment

Was it odd to yield a spot so easily?

“Yeah,” Johnson said. “Many spots. It’s definitely, definitely different.”

But different was the kind of game being played Saturday from every angle.

Entry lists for Talladega playoff weekend

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NASCAR’s playoffs continue this weekend on its largest oval track, Talladega Superspeedway.

All three national series will be competing on the 2.66-mile track.

More: Las Vegas winners and losers

Here are the preliminary entry lists for Talladega:

Cup – YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Brendan Gaughan is entered in Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 Chevrolet for his final start of the year and his NASCAR career.

Ryan Blaney has won the last two Cup races at Talladega.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity – Ag-Pro 300 (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-five cars are entered.

AJ Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

No driver is listed on SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

Justin Haley won at Talladega in June over Ross Chastain and Jeb Burton.

Tyler Reddick won this race last year over Gray Gaulding and Christopher Bell.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Trucks – Chevrolet Silverado 250 (1 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-nine trucks are entered.

Natalie Decker is on the entry list after she missed Friday’s Las Vegas race due to not being medically cleared.

Trevor Bayne is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 45 truck for the fourth time this season.

Spencer Boyd won this race last year over Todd Gilliland and Riley Herbst.

Click here for the entry list.

Las Vegas Winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kurt Busch Winless in 21 previous attempts at Las Vegas, Busch scored an emotional win at his hometown track. Busch took advantage of a strategy call by crew chief Matt McCall and a timely debris caution to take the point and led the final 26 laps. He earned his first win of the season. “This is 20 years of agony and defeat and now today with triumph,” Busch said after the race.

Matt DiBenedettoStill seeks his first career Cup win and the 100th series victory for Wood Brothers Racing, but DiBenedetto finished second in both Las Vegas races this season.

Alex BowmanHe finished fifth but scored more points (43) than any driver except Denny Hamlin, who had 53 points. Bowman holds the final transfer spot to the next round.

Chris Buescher — His ninth-place finish is his second consecutive top 10 and third top 10 in the last five races.

Chase Briscoe Had a dominant car and scored the win in the playoff opener for the Xfinity Series at Las Vegas.

LOSERS

Austin DillonHis race was going well — he scored 10 stage points — until overheating problems sent him to pit road. He lost nine laps as his crew made repairs and went on to finish 32nd. That drops him to last among the playoff drivers with two races left in this round.

Chase ElliottWas 10th on the overtime restart but got shuffled back and finished 22nd.

Caution comes at wrong time for Denny Hamlin at Las Vegas

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Denny Hamlin said he knew it would happen. He just didn’t know when.

A debris caution during a green-flag cycle proved key to Kurt Busch winning Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas and Hamlin finishing third despite leading a race-high 121 laps.

The caution on Lap 237 caught most of the playoff drivers a lap down, forcing them to wave around. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not made a pit stop.

Hamlin, who was leading, pitted on Lap 233. He came in a lap after Alex Bowman stopped. Bowman was running second to Hamlin before the stop.

“Our hand got forced by (Bowman) by him coming in early there,” Hamlin said of his team not wanting to have Bowman gain time with fresher tires. “We both had a lead over the field. I thought we could have run a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. We didn’t want to just to kind of give them the lead and count on running them down at the end of the race. You have to keep yourself in front of them.”

Instead of possibly celebrating a win and advancing to the next round, Hamlin left Vegas frustrated with his third-place showing.

“I just hate getting burned by the same thing, that’s it, that’s all I’m saying,” Hamlin said on the radio to crew chief Chris Gabehart after the race. “It’s the same thing I get burned on. I know we had no choice because (where) we were at.”

Gabehart responded to Hamlin on the radio: “The choice is I stay out another five or six laps and if the caution doesn’t come, we have no shot to win. I don’t know what I’d do different. The problem is there is no reason for the leaders to come early because you leave yourself vulnerable to that, but you can’t get all these goofballs to understand that. It’s what happens.”

Even after such a finish, Hamlin is 58 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round.

But that wasn’t enough to console Hamlin.

“I just hate missing out on victories,” he said of his playoff spot. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been so fast in so many races and not finish it like we feel like we should, but we’re up front. That’s what counts. That’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix, keep getting those wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix (for the title race) and hopefully you’’ll get a championship out of  it. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Hamlin’s finish was his best in the playoffs and came after a first round that saw him score a stage win but not place higher than 12th.

Hamlin discounted the notion that putting together a new Cup team with Michael Jordan for next year and signing Bubba Wallace to drive for it had been a distraction earlier in the playoffs.

“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff, but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had bad breaks. Tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was, to be honest with you. Or Bristol. We led laps. We were, I thought, the best car.”

At Darlington, Hamlin missed pit road and had to go back around. Then a debris caution about 10 laps buried him outside the top 10 with less than 50 laps left. He finished 13th.

At Bristol, Hamlin started at the rear because his car failed inspection twice before the race. He ran fifth when he had contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. as Truex returned to the track after pitting. Hamlin finished 21st.

Kyle Busch still below playoff cutline after ‘pretty dismal’ Las Vegas race

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Though he finished sixth Sunday night in the Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch described his experience in the Round of 12 opener as “pretty dismal.”

The defending Cup champion now goes into the second race of the round, at Talladega Superspeedway, outside the transfer position to the next round. He trails Alex Bowman, who holds the final transfer spot, by nine points.

“Started a little up, went a little down and finished just kind of mediocre there,” Busch said. “We brought an okay M&M’s Camry. Just didn’t seem to have the overall speed that it needed, especially on the long runs early in the race. Then there late, just no overall speed. Nothing to go blitz anybody and try to make moves and get to the front. We just salvaged along and got what we got. We got lucky to get what we got for sure. It was looking like it was going to be a 12th- or 14th-place day, but came home sixth.”

Busch’s issues began at the start of Stage 2 after he earned the lead by getting off pit road first. As he raced Joey Logano for the lead on the Lap 87 restart, he was on the inside of Logano as they drove toward Turn 3.

That’s when Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, dove to Busch’s inside to make it three wide and then take the lead.

But as Hamlin pulled even with Busch, Busch lurched to the right and made contact with Logano. The Team Penske driver would pit to repair a tire rub while Busch continued.

“I don’t know if (Logano) knew that was coming and didn’t adjust for it and didn’t plan for it,” Busch said. “It kind of seemed like he expected me to go to the bottom and run the bottom and he was gonna run my door.”

Logano said on the radio to his spotter he didn’t realize he was three-wide until it was too late.

Later, Busch pit from fourth on Lap 118 and fell to 28th when his front tire changer’s pit gun broke, resulting in a 22.5-second stop.

“We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic,” Busch said. “Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess.”

Busch heads to Talladega. He has one win in 30 Cup starts there. He has just one top 10 there in the last six races.

How does Busch plan to navigate the race as he faces his nine-point deficit to the playoff cutoff?

“I’ll just do what I’m told,” Busch said.