Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson grows impatient as winless streak continues

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With a winless streak nearing two years and a contract expiring next year, Jimmie Johnson admits he’s getting impatient.

“We haven’t been in contention to win a race yet this year, and we’ve got to fix that,” Johnson said this week after unveiling the camouflage car he’ll drive in next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. “If I’m not in contention to win a race, there’s no chance of winning a championship. This middle portion of the season is key for me to get things where they need to be so we can win races and ultimately win a championship.”

Asked if he’d rather win this weekend’s All-Star Race or the Coca-Cola 600, the seven-time champion quickly answered: “600. Lock me into that championship. I want eight, damn it.’’

He laughed, but it’s clear how serious he is.

Johnson enters the All-Star Race winless in his last 71 points races. His last Cup victory came June 4, 2017, at Dover.

Since stage racing and playoff points were implemented in 2017, 80% of the drivers who had two or more wins by the All-Star break went on to compete in the championship race in Miami. The only driver who had multiple wins before the All-Star Race and didn’t make it to the championship race was Johnson in 2017. He had two wins before the All-Star Race but was eliminated in the third round of the playoffs that year.

Four drivers this season have multiple Cup victories coming to Saturday’s All-Star Race: Kyle Busch (three wins), Brad Keselowski (three), Denny Hamlin (two) and Martin Truex Jr. (two). Based on the past two years, it would mean that at least three of those drivers should make it to Miami to race for a championship.

By dominating victory lane this season, Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin and Truex also are stockpiling playoff points that could help them advance and offset a bad race in a round. Johnson doesn’t have that luxury. He has no playoff points.

Johnson also is in a precarious spot. He’s 16th in the standings — which would be the final transfer spot to the playoffs provided a driver below him in points doesn’t win.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Kevin Meendering. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Johnson is the only driver who has competed in NASCAR’s postseason format every year since it debuted in 2004. To keep that streak going, he and his team have to be better.

Even though he finished sixth last weekend at Kansas Speedway, Johnson struggled with the car’s handling for more than half the race and said that the team needed to “make better decisions.”

“Certainly I was venting when I got out of the car Saturday night,” Johnson said. “We have been working hard on things, our processes and decision-making process looking at the All-Star Race. We’ve made some changes to be a little wiser going into the All-Star Race and hopefully have that play out and take it to the 600, but it’s tough.

“When we look at pre-Texas, we knew we had to make big changes. We kept changing and changing and changing. We go to Texas and (three of the four Hendrick) cars qualify one through (three).

“So after that, it’s like, ‘Let’s be aggressive, continue to be aggressive.’ Then you get burned a couple of weeks and you’re like ‘OK, where is that fine line really at?’ I don’t have a clear answer. Ultimately for us to win and compete for another championship that process has to clean up somehow.”

Johnson has ranked last among his Hendrick Motorsports teammates the past three races in green-flag speed, according to NASCAR’s statistics. Although teammate Alex Bowman finished second in each of the past three races and teammate Chase Elliott won at Talladega, putting their setups on Johnson’s car isn’t that simple. 

“We have flexibility in the group to change cars and build cars in different ways,” Johnson said. “At times, we’ve found ourselves very close together. I think there are some areas where the cars are closer together than they have ever been … but we have flexibility to run different versions of chassis, spindles, certain suspension components and shocks and springs.

“The journey the driver kind of leads the team or the engineers on that team lead the group on, we all end up in our own spaces with our own setups. Unfortunately, this weekend when we unloaded (at Kansas), we knew right off the truck that we were down on speed, our team was. We made some provisions to race better and try not to pay attention to single-car speed, a lot like you would see at a restrictor-plate track.

“So Friday we’re trying to react and hoping it would race better. When I got into the race, the first half of the race was so bad for us. We didn’t have the raw speed and we didn’t have a better car in traffic. I have to give Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) a ton of credit. … He made some killer decisions. Our pit stops were awesome. Those guys rallied around him, and we had a great second half of the race and finished sixth. We know what’s making speed with our own company. We just need to figure out how to put those pieces into our car with our philosophies.”

As for Johnson’s future, he’s unsure at this point.

“I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a couple of years,” he said. “My contract is up in 2020, and I’ll have to evaluate what I want to do after that.”

Until then, his focus is on finding enough speed to win again.

2. More close calls coming?

Erik Jones’ block of Clint Bowyer on the last lap of last Saturday’s race at Kansas upset Bowyer, but it might be just the beginning.

In a season where only six drivers have won, drivers will have to be more aggressive to get a victory. If they can’t, then they will need all the points possible. That can mean everything from pit calls by crew chiefs to drivers blocking.

“There’s a lot of blocking that goes on,” Austin Dillon said Thursday after unveiling his car for the Coca-Cola 600. “Somebody is going to get turned eventually. That’s just part of it.”

With the races dwindling before the playoff field is set — next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point of the regular season there could be more big moves on the track.

“The points are so close at the edge there at 16th,” said Dillon, who is 18th in the standings, 11 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final transfer spot. “There’s going to be a lot of guys fighting for every point.”

3. An idea for next year

Car owner Richard Childress says he likes the rules package that NASCAR has gone to this year, but he’d make one change for next year.

“If I were them, I would have the 550 (horsepower) engine everywhere,” Childress said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “We’ve got it at Daytona and Talladega. We got it everywhere except the half-mile tracks and the 1-mile tracks. Just go with one engine package. That way your development is around one engine package (instead of two).”

Cup cars run the 550 horsepower engine or 750 horsepower engine depending on the track’s size. Teams use the 750 horsepower engine for all races on ovals 1 mile or less and the road courses. That’s 14 of the 36 points races. The 550-horsepower engine is used at the other points races.

4. One last time (for this year)

Kyle Busch after his Texas win. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Friday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will mark Kyle Busch’s fifth and final start of the season in that series. He seeks to complete a sweep of his races.

Busch and all other drivers who have more than five full-time seasons in Cup and are scoring Cup points are limited to five Truck races a season (and seven in the Xfinity Series).

Busch has won Truck races at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Martinsville and Texas this season.

5. Slight change

Pocono Raceway announced a change to its race weekend in two weeks. Cup qualifying will be held before the Xfinity race on Saturday, June 1.

Last year, Cup teams had one practice on Friday and then qualified. Cup teams had one Saturday practice.

Now, Cup teams will have two practices Friday and then only be on the track Saturday for qualifying. The race is Sunday, June 2.

NASCAR will have choose rule for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Following support from drivers, NASCAR will allow competitors to choose which lane they want to restart in during the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The choose rule designates a spot on the track where a driver must select if they wish to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. The choose rule also will be in place for the NASCAR Open.

NASCAR also announced the format for the NASCAR Open and All-Star Race.

In the NASCAR Open, which is for drivers who have not qualified for the All-Star Race:

  • Stage 1 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

The winner of each stage advances to the All-Star Race. After the NASCAR Open, the Fan Vote winner will be announced. That will go to the driver not yet qualified for the All-Star Race after competing in the NASCAR Open.

In the All-Star Race, the format will be:

  • Stage 1 will be 55 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 3 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

Both green flag and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages. Only green flag laps will count in the final stage. There will be an unlimited number of attempts at a green, white, checkered finish under green flag conditions.

NASCAR also stated that the car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give more exposure to the teams’ sponsors

The biggest change is the choose rule. At Bristol, the outside line is dominant on restarts. The leader chooses to restart on the outside line and the driver starting in the second row — in fourth place — often is second shortly after the restart because of the lane’s advantage. With the rule change, others would have the chance to start on the outside lane if they wanted.

“I see nothing bad that it can bring,” Joey Logano said of the chose rule concept in May. “It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about. You don’t have luck becoming involved. …

“I tell you, if I see a bunch of 12-year-olds do it in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I’m pretty sure all of us could figure it out.”

Said Austin Dillon: “As a sport we’re always changing. We’ve done a really good job with the mile-and-a-half program and brought it back to life. I think the next thing is trying to make it better for the fans and create more drama than it already has.”

Some drivers have called for this type of rule to prevent the brake checking that takes place at the exit of pit road so a driver can be in an even-number position in the running order and restart on the outside lane.

“It takes out pit crew’s fast stops,” Dillon said. “Your pit crew could’ve gained a couple of spots there, but instead you’re giving up two spots because you’d rather start on the outside. That’s gotta stop. I think it’s gonna knock someone’s nose in at the end of pit road before too long, so that will end a guy’s race. I don’t feel like it is a hard thing to do.”

The All-Star Race was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Bristol Motor Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic and North Carolina restrictions on mass gatherings. Bristol will be allowed to have up to 30,000 fans.

Drivers who have already clinched an All-Star Race spot: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Justin Haley, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

Or is it Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

They’ve won four of the last six Cup races, including the past two, and came within a late caution flag of being the last two Brickyard 400 winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC).

MORE: Indianapolis weekend schedule

MORE: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick 1-2 in Power Rankings

“For the most part, when we have had chances to win races, we have won them,” Harvick said. “I think Sunday (at Pocono) was probably the only one that I could point to and say that we had the car to win the race and didn’t win the race. I think for the majority of the races that we have had chances to win we have capitalized on those situations.”

That Pocono race Sunday? Harvick finished second to Hamlin, who has won two of the last four races.

“I would say specifically the last 10 to 11 (races) we’ve been exceptional, really since coming back from the break that we had,” Hamlin said. “I thought we’ve been really good.

“My team is really strong. They’re doing a lot of really good work at the race shop preparing our cars to be set up, optimized right from the first run of the day.

“Where we’re really struggling is not getting stage points. I think we’d be winning the regular season if we could get some. The way the races have played out, we’ve kind of made our bed to try to win the race because we’ve had race‑winning cars. I’ll definitely take race wins over stage wins, especially knowing that a race win counts for five (playoff points).”

Harvick enters Sunday’s race at Indy as the defending winner. He led 118 of 160 laps in last year’s race, winning by more than six seconds.

In 2018, Hamlin led at Indy when a caution with six laps to go took away his advantage. Brad Keselowski passed Hamlin coming to the white flag and won.

If not Harvick or Hamlin this weekend, Keselowski could be one to watch.

“My confidence level right now is very, very high that we can be a contender for the entire season and continue to build and get stronger,” said Keselowski, who has two wins and eight top-10 finishes since the season resumed in May. “Very, very pleased to see how the team has come together. … Now we’re starting to show a lot of speed. I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential.”

Even with Keselowski’s success, Harvick and Hamlin have been stout. This is how dominant Harvick and Hamlin have been all season and since May:

Most wins this year (15 races)

Most wins since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (3 wins)
  •  Kevin Harvick (3 wins)
  • Brad Keselowski (2 wins)

Most top-five finishes this year (15 races)

Most top-five finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 5s)
  • Kevin Harvick (7 top 5s)
  • Chase Elliott (6 top 5s)
  • Ryan Blaney (6 top 5s)

Most top 10 finishes this season (15 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (12 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (10 top 10s)

Most top 10 finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (8 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (8 top 10s)
  • Martin Truex Jr. (8 top 10s)

Patriots of America PAC to be primary sponsor for Go Fas Racing in nine races

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Patriots of America, a political action committee supporting President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, will be the primary sponsor of Corey LaJoie’s car this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Go Fas Racing announced Wednesday.

Patriots of America PAC will be the primary sponsor on the car for eight additional races.  

“Our mission is to get voters registered and to the polls in November,” said Jeff Whaley on behalf of Patriots of America PAC. “We are excited about our sponsorship with Go Fas Racing No. 32 and Corey LaJoie. We feel this partnership is the best way to help us communicate this message to the NASCAR community and encourage all Americans to do their part by heading to the polls.”

Team owner Archie St. Hilaire said in a statement: “I am honored to be part of the President’s re-election campaign through the Patriots of America PAC. As a Trump 2020 supporter, this team will do everything possible to secure victory on and off the track electing President Donald Trump to a second term. Let us bring this country back and Keep America Great!”

According to public documents, Patriots of America has paid Go Fas Racing $350,000 to this point for the sponsorship.

Sunday’s Cup race airs at 4 p.m. ET on NBC.

NASCAR, Coca-Cola to honor military, frontline healthcare workers

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NASCAR will honor members of the U.S. Armed Forces and frontline healthcare workers throughout the month of July as part of this year’s expanded “NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola” initiative.

Per a media release, NASCAR said the program will be “an industry-wide opportunity to recognize and thank those who have gone above and beyond to keep society safe and healthy.”

The kickoff event for the program begins with Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard (4 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), shifting to a mid-summer window due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We take pride in honoring all who work tirelessly to keep our nation safe, whether a frontline worker in the fight against COVID-19 or part of our U.S. Armed Forces protecting us around the world,” said Jill Gregory, executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer, NASCAR. “The NASCAR industry has always been passionate about saluting our nation’s heroes both past and present, and we once again look forward to recognizing those who serve.”

Per a statement in the media release, NASCAR and Coca-Cola will create content to honor the “heroic work from our military and first responder community during the COVID-19 pandemic. … Through NASCAR digital and social channels, the industry will spotlight even more stories with a new ‘NASCAR Salutes Refreshing Moments’ feature that will also be hosted on NASCAR.com/Salutes.”

“While this crisis has impacted everyone’s daily lives, we are able to race because of the selfless acts by our military community and frontline workers,” said John Mount, vice president, sports marketing and region assets, Coca-Cola North America. “NASCAR Salutes offers an impactful opportunity to showcase our pride and appreciation for these heroes and their families.”

In addition to premier partner Coca-Cola, several other NASCAR Official Partners will also take part in the program:

  • Mack Trucks will wrap its NASCAR Mack Anthem haulers with NASCAR Salutes-themed graphics voted on by fans at com/NASCARSalutes. The paint schemes honor both military and frontline heroes and the winning designs will be unveiled July 4 and debut during the NASCAR Salutes window.
  • AMR, the “Official Emergency Medical Services Partner of NASCAR,” will feature the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola branding on its NASCAR safety trucks and safety team helmets throughout the program.
  • Goodyear continued its tradition of replacing the iconic “Eagle” sidewall for 600 Miles of Remembrance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This year’s recognition was the Honor and Remember organization, which works closely with the industry to honor gold star families who have lost family members while serving.
  • Mack Trucks and Blue-Emu also collaborated on a day-long effort to thank truckers and critical workers for their hard work during COVID-19. After a kickoff at Mack Trucks’ headquarters, NASCAR’s Mack Anthem haulers visited Virginia-based Sovah Health to thank the frontline workers at the hospital en route to the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

Fans can learn more about the heroes honored throughout the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Colaprogram by visiting NASCAR.com/Salutes.