Jimmie Johnson reflects on some of the best stories of his career

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for SiriusXM
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With seven championships and 83 victories in Cup, it’s pretty clear Jimmie Johnson loves to win.

But there’s something else Johnson loves to do: Tell stories and reflect on his racing career, particularly before he became one of NASCAR’s most legendary drivers.

Before leaving Thursday for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson spent time reminiscing and telling stories about his racing development on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Happy Hours with Kevin Harvick and Matt Yocum. He also talked about competing in next month’s Boston Marathon.

Here are some excerpts of Johnson’s tales, related from the pool house/radio studio at Harvick’s house in Charlotte:

Home Sweet Hornaday

Early in the careers of Johnson and Harvick, both were short on cash. As a result, they crashed on the couch of NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. as they were working their way up the racing ladder.

“I never saw Kevin,” Johnson said of Harvick. “I saw his luggage. We seemed to be passing and racing in different places all the time.”

Added Harvick, “I think back to Hornaday’s house and that time, and (Johnson) had some unique gatherings at your house, as well. Hornaday always had a spot that everybody showed up to, but Jimmie’s house was always entertaining, as well.”

It almost was IndyCar and not NASCAR for Johnson

Long before NASCAR and stock car racing were even a possibility, Johnson began his racing career on two wheels, racing dirt bikes. His grandparents owned a motorcycle shop near San Diego.

“Really, my whole world, all my heroes, everybody I looked up to were on two wheels,” Johnson said. “We just loved racing. I’d go to many races, a lot of sprint car races, went to Riverside (now-defunct Riverside International Raceway) a couple times and hung on the fences in the esses and watched Richard Petty make a straight line out of it and throw a lot of dirt around the place.

“Then, in the early 1990s, I got a chance to race a buggy in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series. Through that and my dad’s relationship with B.F. Goodrich Tires, it got me a chance to race other types of off-road buggies in the desert and stadiums. That’s kind of the world I was in. Then Herb Fishel (GM motorsports manager) spotted me in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1991 or 1992 (at the age of 15 or 16) and they were looking to bring a second truck along, so I took a Polaroid (picture) with him.

“He went back to Detroit, threw it on the conference room table and said, ‘Let’s put this guy under contract, he’s going to develop our second stadium truck. That was my introduction into Chevrolet. And I thought IndyCar was going to be my route, but (Chevy) pulled out of IndyCar and said if I wanted a future in motorsports, NASCAR is where it’s at. And then, Hornaday’s couch, here I come.

“I was just trying to figure it all out. I’m still trying to figure it out, I guess. My whole view and world was just dirt-related. I didn’t think much of the asphalt side, especially stock-car racing. (IndyCar) seemed interesting, also the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix was right there in the area, so IndyCar was a bit of an idea, but I didn’t think it was going to work out.”

How stalking Jeff Gordon paid off

Johnson was racing in the Busch Series with Stan and Randy Herzog in 2000. Johnson had previously raced two seasons in off-road competition and then ASA Racing for the Herzogs, and Fishel had hoped they could groom him as well as build a Cup team themselves.

Unfortunately, the Herzogs said they couldn’t afford to go Cup racing and told Johnson he could seek out other deals.

“The Herzogs said if they couldn’t find a sponsor, they didn’t want to hold me back, and that maybe I should put word out that I’m available,” Johnson said. “Opportunities came along, but they all meant leaving Chevrolet. I was struggling with that and couldn’t do it.

“I needed to get some advice, so I totally stalked Jeff Gordon at the August 2000 Michigan race. He gave me some advice and said, ‘Man, you’re not going to believe this, but (Hendrick Motorsports) is looking to start a fourth team and the only name that has come up is yours. So we might be able to fix your problem altogether.’

“A month later, I had a signed contract with (Hendrick) to start in 2002 (he would race one more season in Busch for the Herzogs in 2001, with significant help from the Hendrick camp).”

How Johnson won his first championship – with a broken leg

At 8 years old, Johnson was seeking his first dirt bike championship. The season was growing late, and he took a jump but landed the wrong way.

“I went down, got tangled up with the bike, I destroyed my left knee, broke my tibia and fibula and in the end, was in a cast for nine months when it was all said and done,” Johnson recalled. “I was tied for (the lead in) points, and we rigged something up and welded something to the front of the bike, brought my leg up, and I rode the next two events, got the starting points and was able to win the championship.

“For me, I go back to school, I had to try so hard to accomplish what I needed to. I learned things differently and was a little slow in picking things up. But when I’ve been focused about accomplishing something or I’m passionate about it, I just go all-in. And that all-in is what’s helped me through my whole life.”

Oh, dear – uh, make that deer

Johnson recalled how he was in a group riding bikes in some off-time during one of the Pocono race weekends when a deer decided to crash the party – and almost crashed into Johnson and some of his fellow riders, as well.

“We’ve had a couple run-ins with deer, for sure,” Johnson said. “We had this mini-tornado come through and about crashed us all out. We had to hang on to trees.

“Then I did a big charity ride a few years back and we had some deer running next to us in the field, they made a turn and tried to come across the road and just about wiped us all out. It was like Talladega all over again.”

I’m holding out for a hero

Harvick explained how four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears was his hero growing up in Bakersfield, California.

Which led to Johnson talking about his own hero growing up: legendary off-road racer Ivan “The Iron Man” Stewart – and how he became the focus of an equally legendary book report for Johnson on his favorite driver.

“(Stewart) lived in our neighborhood and the one that really stalked Ivan to help me with my book report was my mom,” Johnson said. “Her school bus route went right by his house. I had started my book report about (Stewart). My mom knew she probably could help and popped in to see Linda, his wife, because we all knew each other from the off-road (racing) community.

“She came home with a life-size cutout of Ivan and all these pictures and stats and stuff. It was probably one of the only A’s I ever got in school.”

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Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.