Kligerman: Why the essence of Jimmie Johnson is ‘They won’t outwork me’

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CONCORD, N.C. – Recently, I had the opportunity to test a Monster Energy Cup car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was the first time I’ve had the chance to wheel a car at the top level of NASCAR in just more than four years.

A lot has changed in that time but in my case, the most important was the car itself.

Setup styles, digital dashes, vastly lower downforce levels and lower horsepower.  It’s almost a different car.

This test was for the Coca-Cola 600. Thankfully, the person I leaned on for advice in my first taste of Cup racing at the end of 2013 is still there for advice.

Except he has two more championships to his name. (During the same time, I’ve been yapping into cameras and occasionally racing.)

That person is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2013, I was lucky enough to be able to use Jimmie’s spotter, Earl Barban. So when my Cup debut was upon me, Earl gave me Jimmie’s number, and he was gracious enough to not only text me back but take time to talk to me as he fought for a championship.

To this day, it’s one of the highlights of my career. Per his advice, I earned the team its best qualifying position of the year and best finish on a 1.5-mile track.

Preparing for my first Cup start since April 2014, I wasn’t expecting to have the same chance to talk to Jimmie this time around. Mostly because I would be too shy to reach out.

Yet call it fate: It happened on the day of this manufacturer test for wheel force cars (which are outfitted with million-dollar telemetry equipment to validate and assess tires for their simulation programs).

“Jimmie is driving the wheel force car,” Drew Herring, Toyota’s simulation and wheel force driver, said to me. “Can you believe that?”

“I’m not surprised,” I replied.

Drew was shocked.

Wheel force testing is usually reserved for the drivers who draw the short straw or a talented young driver such as Drew who is happy to have the work.

It’s the closest that driving a race car will seem like a chore. It is monotonous, systematic and doesn’t require you to always go as fast as you can but instead hit certain parameters the engineers need to gather data.

But the job doesn’t end there. The wheel force driver is also required to turn laps in the manufacturer simulator, so the engineers can validate the data. It is a multi-day commitment to working on racecars as if they are a new line of code in an app.

After speaking to Drew, I walked by the Chevy pit area to get to my team’s pit area. Jimmie didn’t look too busy, so I seized the opportunity to strike up a conversation and get his advice on what I was struggling with in my Cup car.

I started by asking the simple question, “What are you doing here?”

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “They won’t outwork me.”

It was this answer as to why I am not surprised he was there.

Earlier, Drew also suggested to me that someone asked Johnson to do the test. But Jimmie’s answer all but confirmed he wanted to be there.

Jimmie and I talked about current Cup cars and how they drive. Just as in 2013, he was very gracious with his time and knowledge to help guide me in the right direction with my own driving (much of what I won’t go into as that is driver-to-driver talk).

As we talked, I’m sure he noticed that I couldn’t stop my eyes from being drawn to the Monster Energy Cup Series logo on his suit. A “Champion 7x” patch is stitched directly below.

That assures him a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In my eyes, he is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. The sheer sight of that simple patch is intimidating, to say the least.

Yet the conversation I was having with the person behind the patch was as if we were two buds hanging out.

At one point, he thought the lap times they were doing were 29.3 seconds, and he then asked an engineer if he was right. “Nah, we are not that fast. More like 29.6s”

It didn’t matter. They weren’t there to set blistering lap times. It’s all about gathering data in an effort to stop the bleeding.

He is in the midst of the longest losing streak of his career – 35 races (if he comes up short in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the drought will be as long as a full Cup season). Last Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, the No. 48 team radio underscored the tension building as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus hunt for performance.

His race team, Hendrick Motorsports, is struggling to build the speed into their new Chevy Camaros that he needs to win.

He went into the facets of what he is struggling with handling-wise and the ways he was trying to adjust his driving style to fix them.

And all the while going through these issues, his face appeared to light up, and a smile came across as he said, “This is fun!”

I joked that it would be boring to just be winning every week. He chuckled and said, “Not exactly!”

As our conversation continued, his eyes filled with the enthusiasm and vibrancy of a young kid getting his first shot by doing the grunt work. Not a seven-time champion who many keep asking how many years he has left.

After a couple minutes, it was time for us both to get back in our cars and do our jobs. In his case, it was working with the multitude of Chevy engineers to make sure the data they were gathering was useful to improve their chances in the battle against the pointy end of the Cup field.

And in my case, it was to lament that I didn’t take notes.

As I was working with a small team that has only a handful of starts, Jimmie’s advice was once again invaluable to me. When we take the green flag at the Coca-Cola 600, it will be my team’s seventh start – the same number as Jimmie has championships.

The thing is, often in my other job, I am asked what makes Jimmie Johnson so good. People want to know what makes one driver better than another.

Usually, I’ll name a couple of his attributes and his incredibly unassuming nature. But on this fateful day at Charlotte, I finally saw the answer.

What makes Jimmie tick is a challenge. He loves, relishes and searches for a challenge. And right in front of him is maybe the largest he has ever faced.

But I’m not betting against him.

As he said, “They won’t outwork me.”

Friday 5: Is it time to change how NASCAR champion is determined?

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Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both raise questions about how NASCAR determines its champion with a one-race event after whittling the 16-driver playoff field to four through a trio of three-race rounds.

Since 2014, the driver who finished the highest among the four championship contenders in the season finale won the title. The format creates a Game 7 type of moment for the sport in an event that has become a winner-take-all race. Joey Logano won the season finale at Phoenix to win his second Cup title. Ty Gibbs claimed the Xfinity title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. Zane Smith won the Truck title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. 

Thursday, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a new way of determining its series champion that mirrors the NASCAR format. The late model series will cut its field of playoff drivers through eliminations, leading to one race where the four remaining championship contenders will vie for the title in 2023.

One of the questions with the NASCAR format is if it provides the most fair way to determine a series champion. Of course, the NFL determines its champion by the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all game. The best team hasn’t always reached that game or won that game, but the event has been played for more than 50 years with no change in sight.

Those who question NASCAR’s way of determining a champion note that the Super Bowl is between two teams, while the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series not only includes the four teams racing for a crown but also the rest of the field, which can include 30 more vehicles. What those drivers and teams do can make an impact on the race and play a role in who wins the championship.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

Hamlin, who seeks his first Cup title, says that the previous Cup champions have been worthy and admits that “I’m the last one that should comment on this” because he doesn’t have a title. 

Still, he raises questions.

“From a purist’s standpoint, it needs to have a bigger sample size,” he said.

Hamlin notes how he knew he wouldn’t win the 2020 Cup title even though he was among the four contenders because his team was not as strong at the shorter tracks such as Phoenix. 

“If you had more of a sample size, you have a chance,” he said. 

Earnhardt expressed the questions he had about the format when he spoke with former NASCAR Chairman Brian France on the Dale Jr. Download this fall.

Earnhardt said the playoff format, which features three-race rounds, is “compelling. It can be argued that it’s relatively fair. Everybody’s got the same opportunity. It’s three races. You can kind of dig yourself out of a hole. But I’ve always kind of struggled with the final race being all or nothing.

“The reason why I struggle with that is because the venue may suit a team or a driver. … You wouldn’t ever consider running it at a road course or a superspeedway because that certainly suits some drivers more than other. You try to have it at a neutral facility, if you will, like a Homestead or a Phoenix.

“But I always had a hard time with saying, ‘OK, it all boils down to this one race where you’ve got to get it right and if you don’t you’re not a champion this year.’ Even though you’ve really got this amazing body of work. You can still have that guy that wins one race be the champion and the guy that wins six not even make the final round.

“I wish we could figure out a way to make that championship moment not an all or nothing three-hour affair. … I’ve really warmed up to everything else we’ve done. It took me a long time because I was too much of traditionalist. But I still feel like there’s got to be a better scenario for the final moment.”

France responded to Earnhardt’s query by saying: “The reason you feel that way is because those are fair points that you make. They are.”

France went on to say that such questions are “part of the challenge of a playoff format in general with auto racing. You’re just going to have to accept that is not exactly perfect.”

France then said: “My decision was we’re not going to hold ourselves back from getting those (Game 7) moments because auto racing doesn’t quite fit perfectly into that. We just couldn’t do it.”

NASCAR changed how its champion was crowned ahead of the 2004 season. From 2000-03, three champions were so far ahead in the points that they clinched the title with one race left in the season (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in 2003). 

The Chase was created to generate interest in the fall, particularly when NASCAR was going against the NFL on Sundays. The Chase morphed into the playoffs and included eliminations and one race to determine the champion. 

Hamlin says a three-race round to determine the champion will keep the interest of fans.

“I think when you spread it out amongst a bigger sample size, such as a three-race (round), I don’t see how that’s not a positive thing for ratings. People will be compelled every week to tune in because this is the championship round. I think there’s something to be gained there.”

Asked about what if one of the title contenders wins the first two races to all but assure them the title ahead of the final race, Hamlin said: “Will not happen. There’ll be no lockup. No one will be locked going into the final race.”

Hamlin acknowledges that his viewpoint will not be shared by all.

“I’m a traditionalist like Dale,” Hamlin said. “This is just my opinion. I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion on it, but I just believe a larger sample size of our champion makes it more legitimate. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that, especially in the industry. 

“If you ask the drivers, ‘Do you see championships as valuable today as they did 10 years ago?’ I don’t think any one considers them as valuable just because it’s one race. It’s one race.”

2. Plugged in

Tyler Reddick moves to 23XI Racing and will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as his bosses. Reddick says that Jordan is not an absent owner.

“We’ve gotten to spend time (together) a little bit, here and there,” Reddick said of Jordan. “His involvement with the team is, I think, more than most realize.”

Reddick referenced the Martinsville race in October when he pulled out of the event because he wasn’t feeling well after contact on the track. Jordan reached out to Reddick afterward.

“It was really cool that you have a guy like him checking in on you to make sure you’re OK,” Reddick said. “He’s definitely locked in, and he really wants the team to do well. I’m excited to be working with him.”

3. Staying home

Kyle Larson said he will race very little this offseason. He’s staying at home for the birth of his third child with wife Katelyn Sweet.

Larson will compete in the Wild West Shootout, a dirt late model event at Vado (New Mexico) Speedway Park on Jan. 7-8 and Jan. 11-15.

Larson will not compete in the Chili Bowl this year. 

He said his focus will be on family this offseason.

“Help out where I can and just spend as much time with the family,” Larson said. “I normally go race a lot, but this year I’m not. I’m actually excited about it. I’ve only run one race so far this offseason. I’m surprised that it already feels like the offseason is going by really fast because I thought it’d be really slow with me not racing. It’s been good to just not race for once.”

4. Looking to improve

Ryan Blaney said he and crew chief Jonathan Hassler have looked back on the season and compiled a list of things to do for next year.

Blaney won the All-Star Race but did not win any points races. He finished eighth in points. It’s the sixth consecutive year he’s finished in the top 10 in points, but he’s never placed higher than seventh in the standings at the end of a season.

“We were up front so many races and led a lot of laps and won a bunch of stages, just never won (a points race),” Blaney said. “It is kind of a bummer. 

“So what kept us out of victory lane? Was it me? Was it a bad pit stop? It was kind of everything in some certain races. Sometimes they don’t work out for you. Some are self-induced. I felt like we took ourselves out of a handful of races I felt like we had a good shot of winning. … It is a bummer we didn’t win, but I was proud of the consistency and just hope to build on that.” 

Blaney is ready for the new season to begin.

“I’m kind of like two weeks is nice and then I kind of get itching to get back going,” he said. “It is nice to reset, and you kind of go through things you want to be better at. You have your own little list between myself and my team. … It’s a perfect time to work on that stuff.”

5. New partnership 

Among the new driver/crew chief pairings for 2023 is Austin Dillon working with Keith Rodden.

Rodden last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Rodden served as crew chief for William Byron in one race in 2020 but returns to full-time duty with Dillon, who finished 11th in points this past season, tying his career best. 

Rodden most recently worked on the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors. He takes over for Justin Alexander.

“Keith and I first got to work together in a wheel-force test for the Next Gen car at Richmond,” Dillon said. “It was a two-day test. We had dinner that night. It was good to talk to him. … Just knowing his passion was still very high to get back to the Cup level and crew chief. Him having the ability the work with Chevy this past year and seeing the different odds and ends of the Next Gen car was really the key to us (for him) to come over and crew chief for.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.