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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Xfinity race results, point standings after Bristol

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Chase Briscoe led the final six laps and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol for his seventh win of the season.

Briscoe beat Ross Chastain for the win. The top five was completed by Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

Playoff standings

The 12-driver field for the playoffs has been set with Briscoe’s win in the regular-season finale.

Brandon Brown placed 12th and clinched the 12th and final spot.

Here are the re-seeded point standings entering the playoffs.

Chase Briscoe – 2,050 points

Austin Cindric – 2,050

Justin Allgaier – 2,033

Noah Gragson – 2,025

Brandon Jones – 2,020

Justin Haley – 2,018

Harrison Burton – 2,014

Ross Chastain – 2,010

Ryan Sieg – 2,002

Michael Annett – 2,002

Riley Herbst – 2,001

Brandon Brown – 2,000

Click here for the re-seeded standings.

Click here for the normal point standings.

Chase Briscoe wins Xfinity race at Bristol Motor Speedway

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Chase Briscoe took the lead with six laps to go and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which marked the end of the regular season.

Briscoe passed Austin Cindric to assume the lead and went unchallenged to the checkered flag. The victory is his series-leading seventh of the season.

“I was so mad after last week (at Richmond),” Briscoe told NBCSN. “I told all the guys there ain’t no way we’re getting beat today. I was so mad after how we ran last week and I get on the internet all the time and see guys count us out after one bad race and I know what this team is capable. … I finished second here the last two races and I wanted to win here so bad and it’s awesome that I can actually celebrate it with all these race fans.”

The top five was completed by Ross Chastain, Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

More: Race results, playoff standings

Allgaier dominated the early portion of the race, leading 126 laps and winning the first two stages. But he lost the lead for good in the pits during the Stage 2 break.

Brandon Brown finished 12th and clinched the 12th and final playoff spot.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ross Chastain led three times for 117 laps, but had to settle for his fifth runner-up finish of the season without a win … Austin Cindric earned his 13th top-10 finish in the last 14 races … Harrison Burton earned his 13th top five of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brett Moffitt finished 27th after he had to pit three times in the opening laps and was penalized for taking fuel before the competition caution … BJ McLeod finished 34th after he was eliminated in a multi-car wreck that began when he made contact with teammate Jeffrey EarnhardtMichael Annett finished 31st and Joe Graf Jr. placed 27th after they were involved in an incident on Lap 120.

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “I hit pit road and I wanted to cry.” – Ross Chastain after he finished second for the fifth time this year. He is winless entering the playoffs.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity playoffs open at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 26 on NBCSN.

 

Fans not allowed at Las Vegas races

Fans not allowed
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Spectators will be not be allowed for any of the NASCAR playoff races next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track announced Friday night.

A press release said only essential personnel will be allowed to attend the Cup, Xfinity and Truck playoff races there.

“To say we’re disappointed that we will conduct the South Point 400 playoff weekend without fans would be a gross understatement,” said Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell. “Our staff has been working – many of them remotely – since the February Pennzoil 400 to prepare the speedway for our playoff tripleheader.

“But we must adhere to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive that limits gatherings due to COVID-19.  While we disagree with this policy, we have no choice but to oblige.  We certainly regret this situation for the thousands of race fans who won’t be able to attend our NASCAR-weekend events.”

Nevada’s re-opening plan does not permit fans at sporting events, concerts. Groups are limited to 50 or fewer people.

The Las Vegas Raiders announced last month that they would not have fans at any of the team’s home games in its inaugural season there.

The Truck playoff race will be at 9 p.m. ET Sept. 25 on FS1. The Xfinity playoff opener will be at  7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 26 on NBCSN. The Cup playoff race will be 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

Fans holding tickets for those events will be contacted by the speedway ticket services department to discuss credits for future races or refunds.

Pit crew change for Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson teams

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Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson each will have a pit crew change for Saturday night’s playoff race at Bristol.

The change is the result of an injury to one pit crew member.

Dustin Lineback, jackman for Bowman’s team is out with an injury, the team stated. Kyle Tudor, who has been Johnson’s jackman, moves over to that role for Bowman’s team. Eric Ludwig, a backup for Hendrick Motorsports, moves up to be the jackman for Johnson.

MORE: Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast, lineup

Bowman enters the elimination race 27 points ahead of teammate William Byron, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the second round. Bowman opened the playoffs by finishing sixth in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He followed that by placing ninth at Richmond. Bowman was collected in a crash and finished 37th in the May Bristol race.

Johnson, who is in his final full-time Cup season, seeks his first victory of the season. He finished third at Bristol in May.