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

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
13 Comments

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.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

0 Comments

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

0 Comments

TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

0 Comments

The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

0 Comments

Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.