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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.”

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR’s West Coast swing continues this weekend with a visit to the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will be in action, with the weekend capped off by Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

For Friday, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies, a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain.

For the start of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, the forecast is for sunny skies and a high of 70 degrees.

On Sunday, the forecast for the start of the Cup race is cloudy skies, a high of 54 and a 39% of rain.

Here’s the full weekend schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, Feb. 28

Noon – 10 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (FS1)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

5:02 – 5:27 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

5:35 – 6:25 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

Saturday, Feb. 29

10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

1:05 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1)

2:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief introductions

2:35 p.m. – Cup qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. – Production Alliance Group 300; 150 laps/300 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 1

11:30 a.m. – Cup garage opens

1:30 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

2:50 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

3:30 p.m. – Auto Club 400; 200 laps/400 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Myatt Snider: It’s ‘game on’ if conflict with Noah Gragson continues

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The spat between Xfinity Series drivers Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson may not necessarily be over.

The pair tangled in Sunday night’s Xfinity Series race in Las Vegas. Gragson made contact with Snider’s car, sending it into a spin.

Snider discussed the incident Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” and where things stand between the two drivers.

“It, to me, just seemed like some impatience on Noah’s part,” Snider said of the incident. “I had gotten into a rut and was trying to figure out how to make the car faster but at that point in time, I didn’t. So he was running me down and he actually had a run on me going to the frontstretch.

“So I was, ‘Okay, he’s going to go by me.’ Then I felt a little yoink in the left rear quarter and around I was going. It’s kind of unfortunate it had to go down that way, that’s not racing to me. But I’m a big believer in karma and what goes around, comes around. We’ll be performing at our best over these next couple of weeks and I’m not worried about it.”

Snider also told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he hasn’t texted or talked to Gragson since Sunday, but Snider said he’s ready if the spat continues.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced,” Snider said. “I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.”

On Tuesday, here’s how Gragson explained what happened on “Sirius Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was just some hard racing between the two of us and we got into each other, so I think we both can look forward to the next couple of races and stay out of each other’s ways,” Gragson said. “I think we’re both at fault. It was a long race, none of us were going to give and we’re going to go on to California and run as good as possible and do as good as we can.”

Much has been made about the TV replays of Gragson and Snider meeting after the race to talk about the incident. Gragson tried to give Snider a fist bump only to have Snider walk away without fist bumping him.

“I told (Myatt) let’s play rock, paper, scissors,” Gragson quipped in part on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I went with rock and he still hasn’t gotten back to me if he wants scissors, paper or rock.”

Gragson won the season opener at Daytona and finished fourth at Las Vegas for JR Motorsports. Snider, who won the pole at Daytona, finished 33rd at Daytona and 16th at Las Vegas for Richard Childress Racing. Snider will race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for RSS Racing.

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Ryan Newman gets standing ovation in visit to Roush Fenway Racing

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Exactly 10 months to the day when the country will celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization gave thanks and a warm welcome to driver Ryan Newman, who visited the team’s shop Wednesday.

Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash coming to the finish line of the Daytona 500 just nine days earlier, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and posed for a number of photos.

While there is still no timetable for Newman’s return behind the wheel of his No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang — Ross Chastain is scheduled to drive the car until Newman comes back — Wednesday’s appearance was yet another positive move in that direction.

“Just a good day,” RFR president Steve Newmark tweeted about Newman’s visit.

Newman said in a prior statement he suffered an undisclosed head injury in the crash but did not suffer any broken bones or internal injuries.

Tuesday he took part in one of his favorite pastimes:

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Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

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Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

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