Long: Jimmie Johnson says ‘we’ve just got to make some better decisions’

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It’s easy to view Jimmie Johnson’s sixth-place finish Saturday at Kansas Speedway as a sign of that team’s improvement.

But that’s also ignoring other signs for a team that has gone winless the past 71 points races.

While Johnson concedes some bad luck at times this season, he also notes that “we’ve been aggressive when we shouldn’t have. It’s a tough environment we live in and we’re trying really hard, but at the end of the day we’ve just got to make some better decisions and just get a little closer and then we’ll be in good shape.”

He said after Saturday’s race that the team is off on speed — he qualified 18th at Kansas but started 12th because of cars failing inspection. He ran in the top 15 only 45.4% of Saturday night’s race. The top five finishers all ran in the top 15 at least 80% of the race.

“We know we want to get better, so we want to be aggressive and bring new stuff to the track,” the seven-time champion said. “We’re probably on the aggressive side of trying to bring new stuff to the track and doing a nice thing for our company in developing and proving it, and I wish I could tell you what went wrong at Dover last week but the company learned a lot from it.

“So, I’m trying to stay patient but years are flying by. We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to be winning races and finishing higher in the points if we’re going to have a shot at the championship. So, hopefully we can clean that stuff up and get where we need to be.”

Johnson holds the final playoff spot as the series nears the halfway point of the regular season.

This is not the first time Johnson has mentioned how aggressive his team has been.

“At times you need to be aggressive and put new stuff on the car,” Johnson said before his 10th-place finish a month ago at Bristol, his last top 10 until Kansas. “Then there are other times when you know there is a proven component or proven product that you just need to stay the course with. 

“I don’t envy the crew chief position, or other positions when you have drivers saying we need more, we need more … we need something new, what we have is not working. So we put in all new sometimes. That is what we did at Martinsville (24th-place finish). New wasn’t the thing to do.”

Johnson also was asked at Bristol how tempting it can be for any team to experiment too much.

“Well, simultaneously we have the aero group working on stuff (and) the vehicle dynamics group working on stuff,” he said. “There is just stuff and ideas that are coming through the system and becoming readily available. Things that look good in (simulation) and we are ‘oh, well, okay, we are putting that in.’ 

“We still have to go prove it in race conditions. That is one thing simulation can not do. What the track is going to do when it rubbers up. And, honestly in a lot of cases, what it is like in traffic? That is all speculation. We don’t have any simulation that replicates what goes on in dirty air. We’ve been learning a lot.”

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A 10-lap caution for a tire sitting in the grass off pit road?

That simply can’t happen. No other caution in Saturday night’s Cup was more than six laps.

While issues were compounded by the caution happening in the middle of a green flag pit cycle on Lap 219 of the 271-lap race, another matter was that NASCAR twice called off the restart to get cars in the right position.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, suggested Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that the caution should not have been called when it was.

“I would say if that was a normal caution, nobody on pit road, two laps and we’re back racing,” he said. “That’s probably the worst-case scenario for us when cars are in the middle of green flag pit stops and we have to throw the caution. Looking back, we’ll review. Could we have waited until the round of green flag stops had happened and then gone and got the tire? Probably.”

“But it was what it was and that presents some challenges with cars coming off pit road thinking they’re on the lead lap and they’re not, i.e. (Erik Jones), where the leader is, who gets off pit road before the leader, so a lot of that takes time.

“We had some challenges getting cars in position. That’s on us. It took one or two laps more than we would have hoped and we’ll improve that.”

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Was it blocking or racing?

Clint Bowyer thought Erik Jones’ move on the last lap put Bowyer and others in jeopardy. Bowyer lifted and lost spots, finishing fifth.

Jones, running second, cut down the track to block Bowyer to begin the final lap. Bowyer went up the track to make a move and Jones countered by also going up and blocking him.

That move allowed Alex Bowman to get by Jones for second. Jones finished third. Bowyer placed fifth.

NASCAR seeks to avoid officiating such conduct so rigidly. Instead, NASCAR prefers to let competitors settle it. That may still work but will there come a point where the blocks are so egregious that officials will have to take action?

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There have been three races this season where inspection after qualifying was done the next day and also served as the inspection before the race.

In those instances — Martinsville, Richmond and Kansas — any car that failed inspection once lost its starting spot. Twenty-two cars combined have failed inspection at those tracks.

Eleven cars failed inspection at Kansas, eight cars failed inspection at Richmond and three cars failed inspection at Martinsville.

The teams of Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott each failed inspection at Kansas and Richmond.

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Even with two victories this season, there remain questions for Martin Truex Jr.

Particularly at 1.5-mile tracks.

Truex conceded before Saturday night’s race that “we have not been stellar” with the race package this season.

“We did run second in Atlanta, and thought we had the best car at the end of the race,” Truex said. “That place is a lot different than (Kansas), and Vegas, and some of the other places. It would be a big boost for our team to figure this package out.”

He finished 19th at Kansas.

“There is just a lot of different options when it comes to the cars on what you can do, so it is just trying to find that right combination for us that has been a little bit tricky,” Truex said before the Kansas race. “I felt like we have been on both sides of the drag part of it and both sides of the handling part of it and we haven’t quite hit it yet. We are just searching a bit, but it is definitely tricky.

“Typically, you try to make the cars as fast as you can. That is how we always tried to do. You were always grip limited; when the car handled better it always paid off. Now that is not the case. Sometimes making your car handle better doesn’t pay off. And that’s difficult to get your arms around as a driver. It feels better, but it’s slower. In that mind, it does not make much sense but that is kind of the way it is. It’s a difficult balance.”

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Brad Keselowski’s victory Saturday marked a milestone. It was the 30th career Cup victory for the future NASCAR Hall of Famer.

The former Cup champion becomes the 27th driver in series history to reach that victory mark. With a championship and 30 wins, there’s little doubt he’ll be in the Hall after his career ends. 

Nineteen drivers who have 30 or more career Cup victories are in the Hall of Fame. That list is expected to grow on May 22 when the selection committee reveals the 2020 Hall of Fame Class. Tony Stewart, who has 49 career Cup victories, is expected to be selected in his first time on the ballot.

The remaining seven drivers who have at least 30 wins are all ineligible for the Hall of Fame at this point. Six are still competing: Jimmie Johnson (83 wins), Kyle Busch (54), Kevin Harvick (45), Denny Hamlin (33), Kurt Busch (30) and Keselowski (30). The other driver is Matt Kenseth (39). He is not eligible for the Hall of Fame yet. A driver who has competed in NASCAR for at least 10 years must be retired for two years to be eligible.

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.