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.

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.