Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’ve questioned myself’ in quest to win again

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CONCORD, N.C. — In the midst of a career-long winless streak, Jimmie Johnson has questioned everything.

“You just start searching,” Johnson said, standing next to new crew chief Cliff Daniels in the Hendrick Motorsports race shop.

The seven-time champion sits outside a playoff spot with five races to go. While there have been some encouraging performances — Johnson scored pair of top-five finishes in the last month — the results show an 80-race winless streak that dates to June 2017.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Johnson said. “I also know that I’m part of the problem of why the car hasn’t had the success that it’s accustomed to having. I don’t think I’m the problem, but I know I’m a part of it and part of the solution.

So I’m all ears and always studying my teammates to try to figure out what I can do better. All ears to the staff that sits in that transporter and feeds me info. We’re all ready and hungry to get to the track.”

Jimmie Johnson is outside a playoff spot heading to Watkins Glen. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Johnson enters Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 12 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s there after finishes of 30th (Kentucky), 30th (New Hampshire) and 15th (Pocono) in the past three races.

He takes the blame for the crash at Kentucky while running in the top 10. A mechanical issue while in the top 10 ruined his race at New Hampshire. Johnson scored his first stage victory of the season at Pocono but he only gained five points on the final playoff spot.

Johnson admits he’s been honest with himself as he’s watched others celebrate victories he once did.

Am I stuck in a way that I’m not open-minded to change?” Johnson said. “Of late, I feel like I’ve probably been trying too hard and it’s very easy to try too hard.

“I’ve questioned myself. Do I talk too much? Do I overanalyze things too much? Am I confusing the engineers, the crew chief with the level of sensitivity I have in the car? At one point I felt that was a huge strength that I had. Now has it flipped? Now am I focused on too many small details and not worried about the big things? I’ve been bouncing around with various approaches on those three areas and I feel like I’m in a much better place in confidence as the year has went on.”

That confidence grows with Daniels as the crew chief. Daniels, who replaces Kevin Meendering, was one of Johnson’s race engineers from Dec. 2014-2018 before moving in-house at Hendrick Motorsports. Daniels returned to the team in June at Sonoma Raceway. Johnson said Daniels’ return created a spark that lifted the team. They both said that their previous time working together helps Daniels better understand Johnson entering this pivotal period.

Johnson has never missed NASCAR’s postseason since it debuted in 2004. He’s the only driver who can claim that. That streak is in jeopardy because of a season awash in disappointment. He’s not had more than back-to-back top-10 finishes this season.

“With five races to go, I think we would certainly be disappointed in our ourselves … if we hadn’t done everything we could possibly do at this point in time to get Jimmie and this team and (sponsor) Ally into the playoffs,” said Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, of the crew chief change coming now.

Cliff Daniels became Jimmie Johnson’s new crew chief Monday. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

The result was only the second in-season crew chief change Hendrick Motorsports has made since 2010. The other in-season crew chief change made by HMS during that time was in 2017 when Darian Grubb replaced Keith Rodden as Kasey Kahne’s crew chief with nine races left in the 2017 season.

With the challenges Johnson has faced and will face in the coming weeks, Daniels says that Johnson’s “fire is so intense right now.”

“If you look at the last four or five weeks, we have been top 10 or better contenders every time. Is that where we want to be? Absolutely not. We don’t just have expectations, we have the highest expectations on the 48. So just being a top 10 team isn’t good enough.”

Daniels’ elevation is part of the next stage for Johnson, who is in his first Cup season without having Chad Knaus as his crew chief. While Meendering is no longer Johnson’s crew chief, he played a valuable role to the driver.

“I think this year in working with Kevin and his support and the way he’s believed in me as a driver has been very helpful to my confidence,” Johnson said. “At the end of last year, the drought we’ve had, the fighting that Chad and I went through and all of that, it took a toll on me. Kevin did a really nice job of building me up this year and really helping me recognize the job I’m doing behind the wheel. I feel that I’m on my game and really doing a respectable job there.”

Johnson seeks to do more in strengthening the team as its leader.

“I’m learning a lot about team dynamics especially over the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “It’s been a responsibility that Chad always had in the past. Since we went our separate ways I’ve had much more of a role in that.

“You never know if things are truly going to work especially when you start from ground zero with somebody new. But I think intensity is a piece of it. I’d say the most important thing is the ability to communicate and that’s one thing that stood out so much when (Daniels and I) started working together at Sonoma was the level of communication. I think personalities can be different if you share that common drive and intensity and can talk about it. Just in life, right? Communication is everything and that’s really the piece that I’m most focused on.”

Daniels’ focus is on getting Johnson to the playoffs. Off the track, Daniels and his wife will welcome their first child, due in less than two weeks. Johnson said airplanes will be ready to take Daniels back to North Carolina if he is at the track when his wife goes into labor. Should Daniels leave the track, Hendrick Motorsports has a number of former crew chiefs who could take over that role for a day or so if needed, including Grubb, who is the organization’s technical director.

With the crew chief change, Johnson notes that Meendering  “didn’t do anything wrong at all.

“We’re still growing and learning each other, but we have to act now is the bottom line. We don’t have any time to waste. The history that Cliff and I have, I know that we’re going to come to the track and really be able to up our game.”

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Kyle Busch feeling like ‘the new guy’ during his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Busch was looking forward to his first stint at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The two-time Cup champion was less enthused about his second turn behind the wheel in the IMSA season opener. Busch will climb back into the No. 14 Lexus RCF GT3 at 2 a.m. Sunday, just past the midpoint of the endurance race classic at Daytona International Speedway.

“That’s going to suck, yeah,” Busch deadpanned. “That’s exactly when I told them I did not want to run, and I got it.  Thank you very much.

“(I’m) the new guy.  I pulled the short straw.”

Click here to read more about how Busch felt about his AIM Vasser Sullivan car.

Kyle Larson has one last chance to rally for Australia title

Photo: Robert Lake Photography via Kyle Larson's official Twitter page
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The last week has been like the old Wide World of Sports slogan for Kyle Larson: namely, the thrill of victory followed by the agony of defeat.

After his triumphant win in the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Oklahoma last Saturday, it has been nothing but agony for the NASCAR Cup star since he flew across the Pacific Ocean to compete in several sprint car races in Australia.

Larson’s first race on Wednesday in the King’s Challenge at Borderline Speedway was rained out.

That agony continued for Larson Friday in the first of the three nights of the Grand Annual Sprint Car Classic in Warrnambool, Australia, the biggest race of the year down under.

First, he wrecked heavily, including flipping, in a heat race (he was uninjured). After making repairs, he went back out on-track in another heat race, only to suffer a blown engine that knocked him out of contention to race in that evening’s feature event.

In Night 2 of the Classic on Saturday, Larson did not compete, leaving him to serve as a cheerleader for fellow American and teammate Carson Macedo, who finished 14th out of 20 drivers in the 30-lap main event.

Not being able to compete was a disappointment for Larson, who was one of the top-billed drivers taking part in the overall three-day Classic.

Larson will have one last chance to make Sunday’s featured championship event — but he’ll need a lot of luck and good fortune on his side. There will be several heat races that will whittle the top 48 drivers from each qualifying event to determine the top 16 in points who will compete in the A Main championship event.

There are 80 other drivers — including Larson — still left to compete in the B, C and D Mains who will also try to race their way into the A Main.

Larson currently sits tied for 77th place in the combined point standings in the 107-car field. Meanwhile, sitting 19th in the combined points, Macedo is the highest-ranked American driver heading into Sunday’s finale.

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Hailie Deegan on IMSA debut: ‘I’m not mad. I’m gaining experience’

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The first day of Hailie Deegan’s foray into sports car racing was one with mixed results.

Deegan and teammate, NASCAR Xfinity driver Chase Briscoe, finished 43rd of 51 teams that were entered in Friday’s Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona International Speedway.

Deegan ran as high as 15th before the car experienced mechanical issues roughly three hours into the four-hour event, and it was brought in to be worked on for the remaining time.

Deegan and Briscoe were in the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Inc. Ford GT4, which ran a total of 86 laps. One other NASCAR driver, Xfinity pilot Austin Cindric, was teamed with Seb Priaulx in the No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Inc. Ford Mustang GT4, and together they finished 45th, completing 78 laps.

One other name of note was IndyCar driver Gabby Chaves, who finished 28th (completed 107 laps).

The fastest team in the field was Dylan Murry, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Jim Cox, who collectively ran the entire 110 laps.

While her team continued to work on the car in the garage, Deegan visited the infield media center to speak about her first race experience in an IMSA sports car.

I feel like I just gained a lot of experience,” Deegan said. “I’m here to gain experience after that three-day road test, coming here and practicing for two days.

“I just feel like I know a lot more about racing than I did before. And that’s why I’m here and supposed to be doing.”

The biggest challenge, Deegan said, was the large number of cars she had to compete against.

“The traffic is a little difficult to deal with; it’s not bad, though,” Deegan said. “It makes it fun. It makes it interesting. You constantly have to be on your toes.

“What I like about sports car racing is how many of the points you have to remember in your head. You get a little distracted for a second, and the next thing you know, you overdrive the corner that kind of laps into the next corner.

“So there’s constantly so much going on, you have to be on top of your game.”

While she would have liked to have more time on track had it not been for the mechanical issue, Deegan was philosophical about how the day played out.

“I’m not mad, I’m gaining experience,” she said. “That’s what I’m here to do.”

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DC Solar founders to plead guilty to charges related to $1 billion Ponzi scheme

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Thirteen months after the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service raided the headquarters of DC Solar and the home of its founders, Jeff and Paulette Carpoff, the couple has entered plea agreements related to a $1 billion Ponzi scheme, the impact of which saw Chip Ganassi Racing close its Xfinity Series program in 2019.

Jeff Carpoff has agreed to plead guilty to one count each of wire fraud and money laundering while Paulette Carpoff will plead guilty to one count each of conspiracy and money laundering.

According to the plea agreements filed with the Eastern District of California, the government will recommend an initial sentence of 30 years in prison for Jeff Carpoff and 15 years for Paulette Carpoff prior to any co-operation they provide with the case.

The agreement outlines a Ponzi scheme that operated from March 2011 to December 2018, ending with the raids on the Carpoff’s residence in Martinez, California, and DC Solar’s headquarters in Benicia, California.

DC Solar was a company that built and leased solar energy equipment and also sponsored Chip Ganassi Racing in the Cup and Xfinity Series. It was the primary or co-primary sponsor for Kyle Larson in 16 Cup races and for three races with Jamie McMurray in 2018. It also sponsored 10 Xfinity races with Ganassi and announced in November 2018 it would sponsor Ross Chastain’s full-time ride in 2019.

It also sponsored Xfinity Series races in 2018 at Phoenix Raceway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the infield “FanGrounds” at Richmond Raceway.

In the wake of the raids and the company filing for bankruptcy in January 2019, CGR was forced to close its Xfinity operation.

During the nearly eight-year scheme, the plea agreement says the Carpoffs used the money generated from it to buy their NASCAR sponsorships, 150 luxury and collectible vehicles and luxury real estate in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, the Caribbean and Mexico.

They also purchased a suite at a professional football stadium, a subscription private jet service, the Martinez (California) Clippers minor league baseball team and a 2018 performance by an internationally known rapper at a company holiday party.

Funds were also used to make illicit payments to their co-conspirators and others.

As part of their respective plea agreements, the Carpoffs have agreed to pay restitution to their victims, totaling between $800 million and $1.6 billion.