Ryan: For Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, split is perfect timing again

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Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have been so good doing everything else together in racing, it’s no surprise they’re even good at splitting up.

They’ve always had a knack for timing, and this is the opportune moment for the conscious uncoupling of the crew chief-driver combination that redefined the bar for excellence in NASCAR’s premier series … and which now seems to have run its course.

The signs are exigent:

–Knaus and Johnson have made a first-round exit from the playoffs for the second time in four seasons.

–Since last year, they’ve been supplanted as Hendrick Motorsports’ lead team by the No. 9 of Alan Gustafson-Chase Elliott (who have won two of the past nine races while Johnson remains mired in a career-long 53-race winless streak).

–And the No. 48 Chevrolet whose continuity has been synonymous with Johnson and Knaus since 2002 will bear a fresh paint scheme and sponsor in 2019.

It’s the right time for a clean break and new chapter, but only after a well-deserved epilogue (that still could include one final trip to victory lane, particularly given the speed of their cars lately).

The most successful duo in NASCAR history won’t win a record eighth championship together, but they will give the world a six-race farewell tour to appreciate their greatness, along with the yin and yang possessed by any legendary pairing.

This is NASCAR’s version of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady leaving the building, and the parallels go beyond just the coinciding dynasties built on the field (five Super Bowl wins in 17 seasons from ’01-17 for the Patriots) vs. on the track (seven Cup championships in 17 seasons from ’02-18 for the No. 48).

With his drill sergeant demeanor and obsessively tactical preparations, Knaus has every bit the field general presence of Belichick (along with an exacting precision under fire that team owner Rick Hendrick once said would have made Knaus into “a damn fine Navy SEAL”).

He is the crew chief who had the gumption to fire his underperforming pit crew during a 2010 playoff race … and then win a fifth consecutive championship two weeks later with a new outfit.

And just like Brady, the suave and debonair quarterback who is cool facing pressure while always pleasantly agreeable with a wide smile, Johnson comes off as the calming driving force who rarely makes mistakes while turning blazing laps with the steadiness of a metronome.

He is the driver who took a catnap in his cockpit during a red flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway just before he smoothly executed the restart of his life to win the 2016 finale and his seventh championship.

There is hardly any overlap in their relationship roles, and their longtime understanding of that is why it has worked so well for so long.

Knaus has been the leader who governs with a gruff and unquestioned brilliance, and Johnson has been the superstar who subjugates himself for the greater good.

“It’s not something we or anyone at Hendrick when they paired us together saw, but it’s one of the things we’ve learned about our relationship,” Johnson said in a 2014 interview. “Chad and I made this decision early on, and I told him right away, ‘Man, I’ve always been good at listening and adapting. We need one guy at the helm. I’ll put my trust in you, and I’ll just take direction.’ So that’s been our philosophy.

“I’ve always been in that position of looking up to someone and being mentored by someone. That’s really been key. With Chad’s personality, if he had a strong-minded and very opinionated (driver) that was similar to his, I think it would be pretty volatile.”

Yet there still has been turbulence.

After their run of five consecutive championships, 2011 was a season on the brink for Johnson and Knaus, who openly bickered like an old married couple on the team’s radio. Those signs of public friction had prompted questions before about their working partnership’s expiration date.

After all, we know they infamously had considered a divorce since before they ever won a title.

An argument during the 2005 season finale – when Knaus kept his car on track until a crash despite Johnson’s insistence there was a tire going flat that would cause the wreck — led to Hendrick brokering a peace with the “milk and cookies” meeting (the theme was to highlight their juvenilia) that buried the hatchet and began the record title run.

That historic march was built on pitch-perfect chemistry between a laid-back Californian and a brusque Midwesterner who always seemed to make every right move together.

Their final move to separate is no different.

It still somehow just feels right — like virtually everything else they did before it.

That’s the legacy of Jimmie and Chad.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.

Starting lineup for Texas Cup race: Brad Keselowski wins pole

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Brad Keselowski will be at the front of the field to start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 pm ET, USA Network).

Keselowski, who is not a part of the 12-driver playoff group, won the pole Saturday afternoon with a speed of 188.990, edging Joey Logano‘s 188.805.

MORE: Texas Cup starting lineup

The race is the first of three in the second round of the Cup playoffs. Round of 12 races will follow at Talladega Superspeedway Oct. 2 and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval Oct. 9.

MORE: Waffle House a headquarters for race winners

Also starting in the top five Sunday will be William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell. It is McDowell’s best oval start of the season and his ninth top-10 start of the year.

Brad Keselowski wins Cup pole at Texas Motor Speedway

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Brad Keselowski, hoping to extend Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing’s turnaround, won the pole Saturday for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

It was the second piece of good news for RFK Racing in two weeks. Chris Buescher,  Keselowski’s teammate, won last week’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the first victory for the team under the RFK banner.

Keselowski, who ran 188.990 mph, is not a part of the 12-driver playoff group. Nine of the first 14 starting positions were filled by playoff drivers.

MORE: Texas Cup qualifying results

Following in the top five Saturday were Joey Logano, William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell. Playoff point leader Chase Elliott will start sixth.

“Texas is a really tough track,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “As hot as it’s going to be, that will be even tougher.”

Race-time temperatures are expected to be in the mid-90s Sunday.

The race (3:30 p.m. ET), the first event in the second round of the playoffs, will be televised by the USA Network.