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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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.”
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.