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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.”

Kyle Busch, Bubba Wallace involved in multicar wreck on Lap 2 at Bristol

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – A 15-car wreck occurred on Lap 2 of Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, eliminating Bubba Wallace, AJ Allmendinger, Michael McDowell and Gray Gaulding.

The wreck also involved Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jesse Little, Martin Truex Jr., Ty Dillon, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and JJ Yeley. Martin Truex Jr. narrowly avoided clipping Busch’s car.

The wreck started when Busch spun in Turn 4 and stopped just past the entrance to the frontstretch.

McDowell then plowed into the back of Busch’s car, and Little rammed the left side. Busch was able to continue two laps down after making repairs.

“It just felt like an ARCA wreck,” Wallace said. “I hit the No. 47 (AJ Allmendinger) before my spotter called it I had run into the back of the No. 47, but then I got checked-up enough to pull down out line and just kept getting shoved into cars.  It’s unfortunate.  I was super excited to run tonight and see how we stacked up, but fate had other plans.”

Check back for more.

Songs from driver introductions for the Bristol Night Race

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It’s that time again.

With NASCAR’s summer return to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, that means another round of driver introductions with a special soundtrack.

Below are the songs drivers were introduced to before tonight’s Cup race.

Some of these songs are being reused from April when the songs were voted on by fans.

1.       Kyle Larson                       “Dirt Road Anthem” by Jason Aldean

2.       Chase Elliott                     “A Crazy Racin’ Man” by Bill Elliott

3.       Kyle Busch                        “All I Do is WIN” by DJ Khaled

4.       Paul Menard                    “R.O.C.K. in the USA” by John Mellencamp

5.       William Byron                  “Fan the Flames” by Liberty University

6.       Kevin Harvick                   “Happy” by Pharrell

7.       Denny Hamlin                 “Forever” by Drake, Kanye West, Lil Wayne & Eminem

8.       Aric Almirola                    “Miami Vice”

9.       Kurt Busch                      “Outlaw State of Mind” by Chris Stapleton

10.   Ryan Blaney                     “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash

11.   Brad Keselowski              “Little Deuce Coupe” by The Beach Boys

12.   Ricky Stenhouse Jr.         “People Back Home” by Florida Georgia Line

13.   Jimmie Johnson              “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes

14.   Erik Jones                         “You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet” by Bachman Turner Overdrive

15.   David Ragan                     “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band

16.   Clint Bowyer                    “Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr.                             

17.   Martin Truex Jr.              “Reason to Drink” by Cole Swindell

18.   Austin Dillon                    “Cowboy” by Kid Rock

19.   Joey Logano                     “Brass Monkey” by The Beastie Boys

20.   Jamie McMurray             “One” by Metallica

21.   Daniel Suarez                  “Speedy Gonzales” by Pat Boone

22.   Alex Bowman                  “Rise” by I Prevail

23.   Trevor Bayne                   “Rocky Top” by the Pride of the Southland Marching Band

24.   Ryan Newman                 “Huntin, Fishin & Lovin Every Day” by Luke Bryan

25.   AJ Allmendinger              “I’m Alright” by Kenny Logins

26.   Kasey Kahne                    “5-1-5-0” by Dierks Bentley

27.   Bubba Wallace                “Into The Fire” by Asking Alexandria

28.   Chris Buescher                “Pork and Beans” by Weezer

29.   Matt DiBenedetto           “Rocky Theme Song”

30.   Corey LaJoie                     “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

31.   Michael McDowell          “Taking it to the Streets”, by The Doobie Brothers

32.   Ty Dillon                           “Walk it Like I Talk It” by Migos

33.   Jesse Little                        “John Deere Green” by Joe Diffie

34.   JJ Yeley                              “Warrior” by Imagine Dragons

35.   Ross Chastain                  “Watermelon Crawl” by Tracy Byrd

36.   Reed Sorenson                “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix

37.   Timmy Hill                        “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osborne

38.   Gray Gaulding                 “Makes Me Wonder” by Maroon 5

39.   Landon Cassill                 “Going to Mars” by Judah and the Lion

40.   Blake Jones                      “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle

Austin Dillon’s car fails pre-race inspection, will start from rear

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Bristol, Tenn. — Austin Dillon‘s No. 3 Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection three times Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Dillon will start from the rear and his car chief, Greg Ebert, has been ejected from the event.

Dillon had qualified 18th.

Dillon will have to serve a 30-minute practice hold in two weeks at Darlington Raceway.

Kyle Larson seeks turnaround at ‘by far my favorite racetrack’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – With his team in a mini-slump in midsummer, Kyle Larson is back in his happy place, and the Chip Ganassi Racing driver wouldn’t mind returning more often.

“I love racing here,” Larson said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I wish we could race here weekly. I think our sport would be in a good spot if we could.

“I didn’t watch a ton of NASCAR growing up, but I’d never miss a Bristol race. If you were to ask me what Bristol race stands out, I couldn’t tell you. I just loved watching Bristol. It was always a lot of fun. Ever since they added the progressive banking, it’s been a lot better, too, as far as style of racing goes. It’s by far my favorite NASCAR track.”

The love of Bristol grew only stronger Friday night as he won the Food City 300 and scored his first victory in 18 Cup and Xfinity starts at the 0.533-mile oval.

Larson will be trying for his first win in NASCAR’s premier series at the track – and his first in Cup this season – while starting from the pole position in tonight’s race.

A victory would be a welcome result for Larson’s team, which is virtually locked into the playoffs but has only two top 10s in six races since his memorable runner-up finish to Kyle Busch at Chicagoland Speedway.

While Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing seem to have gotten faster in recent weeks, Larson’s No. 42 Camaro seems to have tailed off slightly after easily being the best Chevy in the first half of the season.

“I don’t know where we might be off,” he said. “Nobody really honestly knows where other teams have gotten speed from, so we’re working on all areas, really, I’m pretty sure, to try and get faster. We have moments where we’re really fast, but I would say we’re just a little inconsistent from track to track.

“You look at last year, we were good everywhere. This year, we’re good at our good tracks. Not as good at the tracks that we have struggled at years prior.”

But what about starting and finishing 17th last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, where he won three consecutive races from 2016-17?

A loose wheel after his first pit stop mired Larson in traffic and out of sequence, and then contact on a restart hampered into using an older set of tires for the last run of the race.

“It just snowballed into a bad run where I felt like we were going to have a shot to run top 3 or 5, but it just doesn’t show for it, and other people look at it as we just ran bad all day,” he said. “If you look at lap times, we were running some of the fastest laps of the race, just buried in traffic. I feel like we’re not that bad. We just had a little bit of a bad luck that cost us finishes we deserved the last few weeks.”

The urgency to maximize his speed stems more from being well positioned in the playoffs than making the 16-driver field. Larson is one of three provisionally qualified who have no playoff points yet.

“That part is a little frustrating,” he said. “It makes you more nervous when it comes to the playoffs, but the good thing is there’s been three guys taking up all the playoff points, so the other ones don’t have a whole lot, either, but every point matters.

“You look at it as you need to win some stages and win a race, but I also view Bristol as being my best opportunity to get some playoff points. I feel like we can win both stages and win the race. Not easily but this is our best shot. That five to seven points would be huge.”

And after getting bumped from the lead by race winner Kyle Busch at Bristol in April, Larson has earned some leeway in playing rough – not that he plans to use it.

He prefers the “options” afforded by the 2007 addition of progressive banking (which was retrofitted in 2012 in a manner that often makes the top groove the fastest).

“If there was progressive banking 20 years ago, the racing would have been a lot better back then,” he said. “I’m not a fan of the bump and run. I’m just a fan of Bristol.

“I’d much rather see two to three wide racing at Bristol than single file. I think the racing is really good, and that’s why I love coming here to race.”