Long: Once Superman, Jimmie Johnson seems ordinary


CHICAGO — Once so dominant that haters complained he was ruining NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson now is overlooked and seemingly ordinary.

It was only three years ago that Johnson won his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy, leaving him one shy of the sport’s all-time record that is shared by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Seven isn’t even a part of the conversation now with Johnson, who last won in March with a Superman logo on his car and a cape around his neck. Some people don’t think he’ll make it out of the first round of the playoffs — just like last year.

Johnson feels the vibe. That concerns him less than the fact he’s had five top-10 finishes in the last 19 races.

“I don’t like where we’re at,’’ he said Thursday matter-of-factly.

But Johnson is fine with who he is with, dispelling any thought that he should part with Chad Knaus, who has been his crew chief since Johnson’s rookie season in 2002.

“If we were being outrun by our teammates week in and week out and we weren’t the lead car at Hendrick, we would probably have to look real hard at the relationship between me and Chad, but with that not being the case, we’re just frustrated,’’ Johnson said.

“The things that are seen and heard and the unhappiness is due to the competitive spirit and fire in both of us. We don’t want to be in the position that we’re in.’’

It’s not just Johnson, it’s Hendrick Motorsports, which is mired in a 21-race winless streak heading into Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. The last time Hendrick went that long between victories was 1993-94 — before rookie Chase Elliott was born. He arrived in 1995.

Hendrick cars have struggled to lead laps, score top 10s and be a factor this season. With only Johnson and Elliott in the Chase, it represents the fewest number of teams Hendrick has had in the playoffs since 2010.

What’s worse for the organization is that other Chevrolet teams are beating it with Hendrick equipment. Hendrick engines power cars for Stewart-Haas Racing (three cars in the Chase) and Chip Ganassi Racing (two cars in the Chase). Stewart-Haas Racing also gets its chassis from Hendrick.

“They take our best equipment, that’s part of the deal, fully refined and what we’re racing, and their engineering staff gets to make it better,’’ Johnson said of Stewart-Haas Racing. “Same thing is going on at (Joe Gibbs Racing). They’re providing all the equipment to the 78 car. They’re smart people and are like ‘Oh, that’s pretty good, I’ll tweak this and tweak that and make it better.’

“I understand the business dynamic, but it’s tricky and it hurts to be outrun by somebody in your equipment, Ganassi as well. From a business standpoint it’s something that we have to do.’’

The difference is at Joe Gibbs Racing, they’re still fast.

As Johnson and his team have tried to overcome the deficiencies, they’ve made mistakes, putting them further behind.

A slow pit stop at Michigan hurt him. Johnson admitted making a mistake and crashing at Darlington. Three times in the last seven races, Johnson has been called for speeding on pit road. That’s not the sign of a championship-caliber team.

“I feel like it’s just trying so hard,’’ Johnson said. “Getting back to a smooth rhythm, identifying with 100 percent for myself and the effort I’m putting out.

“There’s nothing worse than getting passed and going backwards. It might seem like somebody is just letting off the gas and they don’t want to go up there and race, (but) you’re dead sideways in the car and uncomfortable and hanging on. It’s frustrating. You’re mad. You’re trying to drive through things and so you spin out.’’

Or make a mistake on pit road.

“You come to pit road and you have a chance to make up some spots and (are) pushing too hard … and get in trouble,’’ Johnson said. “I feel like we’ve had to operate and push ourselves really hard since the start of the season to get the wins and be where we want to be and that leads to mistakes.’’

And it’s why some are not expecting Johnson to go far in the Chase, especially with all five Toyotas so strong. This is as anonymously as Johnson has entered the Chase in years.

Former teammate Kyle Busch, though, remains wary of Johnson.

“You can’t ever discount him and Chad and what they’ve been able to accomplish in this sport over the last decade,’’ Busch said. “So that’s why you always put them in there.’’

But that would be the only reason to do so.

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”