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

Leave a comment

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.

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.

——————————————————————————————————————————

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.

NASCAR announces merger agreement with International Speedway Corp.

Getty Images
Leave a comment

International Speedway Corp. announced Wednesday morning that it has entered into an agreement and plan of merger with NASCAR. The deal is valued at approximately $2 billion.

Shareholders will receive $45 for each share.

This deal is expected to close this calendar year.

International Speedway Corp. owns 12 tracks that host NASCAR races, including Daytona International Speedway, Darlington Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

NASCAR issued a statement Wednesday: “We are pleased with the progress that the negotiation and execution of the merger agreement between NASCAR and ISC represents.  While important regulatory and shareholder approval processes remain, we look forward to the successful final resolution of this matter and continuing our work to grow this sport and deliver great racing experiences for our fans everywhere. With a strong vision for the future, the France family’s commitment to NASCAR and the larger motorsports industry has never been greater.”

NASCAR Chairman Jim France told competitors in the drivers meeting before the Daytona 500 that “this sport was built by families and we’re just a part of it. It’s so important that we remember that this is still a family business. Our family is committed to it.”

The agreement announced Wednesday allows NASCAR to control those tracks, along with Iowa Speedway, which it already owns. That could make it easier for NASCAR to move dates to take a date from one track to another. NASCAR President Steve Phelps has stated that the schedule is among the areas the sanctioning body is looking at making changes. NASCAR’s five-year sanctioning agreement with tracks ends after next season.

With NASCAR private, it won’t have to publicly report attendance revenue and other financials as ISC had to do as a publicly traded company.

ISC also announced that a class-action lawsuit that had been filed against it after NASCAR and ISC announced last November plans to merge will be dropped.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns eight tracks that host NASCAR races, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, announced April 24 that it had received a non-binding proposal from Sonic Financial Corp. to acquire all outstanding shares of common stock other than those already held by Sonic. Bruton Smith and his family own and control Sonic Financial Corp. Smith is the founder and majority stakeholder in Speedway Motorsports Inc.

The only tracks not owned by ISC or SMI that host Cup races are Pocono Raceway, Dover International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NBC Sports Power Rankings heading into Coca-Cola 600

Getty Images
Leave a comment

After finishing third in the All-Star Race, Kyle Busch is back atop this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings – although it was not a unanimous decision.

The real story this week is Kyle Larson. Although it was a non-points event, Larson’s win in the All-Star Race propelled him from not even in last week’s rankings to No. 3 this week. Larson is one of three drivers who went from unranked last week to into this week’s top 10. Also making a big jump from last week was Kevin Harvick (from 7th to 2nd).

Several drivers took big drops from last week, including Chase Elliott (1st to 5th), Alex Bowman (2nd to 6th), Clint Bowyer (4th to tied for 10th) and Brad Keselowski (5th to out of the top 10).

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look heading into the Coca-Cola 600:

1. Kyle Busch (38 points): Finished third in All-Star Race but climbs the rankings for his rant on the radio late in the race. If you can’t win .… But he did win the Truck race and finished the year winning all five of his starts. Last week: 3rd.

2. Kevin Harvick (32 points): Once again, falls short of victory lane. Pit crew mistakes again. Will they finally get things fixed in time for the race that typically has the most pit stops of the season in it? Last week: 7th.

3. Kyle Larson (30 points): Will the $1 million man build upon his riches to earn some wins that will actually count towards the playoffs? Last week: unranked.

4. Joey Logano (24 points): Strong run at the end to secure top-five finish in All-Star Race. Could be a big factor in the 600. Last week: 8th.

5. Chase Elliott (22 points): Things didn’t go his way. Hey, he has 600 miles this weekend to make things happen. Last week: 1st.

6. Alex Bowman (17 points): With three straight runner-ups and eighth in the All-Star Race, a win could be right around the corner – perhaps as early as Sunday. Last week: 2nd.

7. Bubba Wallace (14 points): Storybook night – stage win in Open and fifth-place finish in All-Star Race – gave him an emotional boost that may lead to better things to come. Last week: unranked.

8. William Byron (10 points): Strong move to win the first stage in Monster Open and then finishes the night with a ninth-place finish in the All-Star Race. Last week: unranked.

9. Martin Truex Jr. (9 points): Fast car but then later had issues and finished 10th. Last week: 9th.

(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Punched his ticket to a 12th-place finish, then went out and punched Ryan Newman on pit road. Will their feud flare up again on Sunday? Last week: 4th.

(tie) 10. Kurt Busch (7 points): Late crash left him with a disappointing 17th-place finish (out of 19 drivers). Look for a big comeback in the 600. Given his consistency this season, he’s overdue for a win. Last week: 6th.

Others receiving votes: Brad Keselowski (4 points), Aric Almirola (3 points), Austin Dillon (2 points), Ross Chastain (1 point).

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. Download with Mike Helton, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Getty Images
Leave a comment

On today’s Dale Jr. Download, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton.

Earnhardt has known Helton his whole life, and while the two consider each other good friends, Junior told one story where that friendship was tested a bit. 

Here’s a brief segment of what Junior had to say about Helton:

You can be an incredible friend, but the funny thing is when you need to chew somebody’s ass, you can get that done, too. There was one time you had to get after me pretty hard at Bristol Motor Speedway. … We had a car explode a brake rotor on the race track and threw brake parts all over the place.

There was about 15 laps to go and we were running under caution. Typically, NASCAR red flags the race and I was wanting them to do that, but they didn’t. I don’t see the brake stuff, everything’s great, I’m raising hell. This was in the Bud days. Tony (Eury) Sr. was on the radio and I think he was encouraging me a little bit. Our spotter came over and said they want you and Tony Sr. to come to the truck after the race. I stopped talking immediately.

That’s when I learned that Mike Helton and the guys in the booth listen to the drivers and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, they heard me.’ … We go up in the hauler and me and Tony Sr. still feel like we’re in the right and that we’re going to tell ‘em this and tell ‘em that, and that we’re going in there thinking we’re going to tell Helton and he’s going to say ‘you’re right, we should have red-flagged the race.’

As soon as Helton’s head comes into the door jamb, Tony Sr. and I both started pleading our case. And Mike Helton said, ‘Both of y’all hush. Y’all aren’t going to talk, I’m going to talk.’ You were so mad, so angry, and when I realized how mad you were, I was so disappointed in myself for disappointing and angering him. … I realized now what I had done.’”

Tune in to hear the rest of the story on the Dale Jr. Download (the above portion starts around 51:00).

And then stick around for the following show, IndyCar Live, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 6-6:30 pm ET with Kevin Lee.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway heavily damaged by possible tornado

Maria Neider/KY3 official Twitter account
Leave a comment

Severe storms barreled through south central Missouri on Monday night, causing a number of injuries and heavy damage to the area, including significant damage to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, about two hours southeast of Kansas City.

According to a media release from track officials, “The storm moved into the area shortly before midnight and damaged several buildings, destroyed the grandstands at the off-road track and also damaged some of the grandstands at the dirt track. There also was damage in the campground and debris was scattered throughout the facility. Several vehicles on-site were toppled, including some campers that had arrived for the weekend.”

There were several injuries reported at the RV park located nearby. Investigators were trying to determine if the storm actually spawned a tornado that caused the damage.

The storms left the track without power and forced officials to cancel this weekend’s Lucas Oil Show-Me 100, one of the its biggest races of the year.

Lucas Oil Speedway general manager Danny Lorton said in the media release that this weekend’s racing – which is considered part of the “Crown Jewel of dirt Late Models” – would be rescheduled at a future date. Lorton said the earliest some announcement may be made is Tuesday.

Also in the media release, track racing operations director Dan Robinson noted, “Our first thoughts are for the people of the Wheatland community and the area and we are thankful that there were no fatalities. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who were affected.”

Check out the following social media posts:

Follow @JerryBonkowski