Jimmie Johnson on brink of missing playoffs: ‘Just one of those nights’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Jimmie Johnson stood smiling outside his battered No. 48 Chevrolet, joking with a few team members who gestured knowingly at the remains of the car.

The seven-time Cup Series champion is on the brink of missing the playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons of the NASCAR postseason after finishing 19th Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it was hard to get upset after the way the cards fell over 500 laps on the 0.533-mile oval.

“Just one of those nights,” he told NBCSports.com. “We had one thing go our way, and about 15 that didn’t. It was just a shitty night.”

After starting 30th, Johnson got caught in a crash with Austin Dillon (who had suffered a right front tire failure) on Lap 80. He fell two laps down and spent the rest of the race playing catchup that now leaves him in a serious hole with two races remaining in the regular season.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is ranked 18th in the standings, 26 points behind the cutoff line, and if a driver below him in the standings were to win at Darlington Raceway or Indianapolis Motor Speedway (as Matt DiBenedetto nearly did Saturday at Bristol), that would make Johnson’s situation even more dire.

“I think I’ve got one more shot,” he said when asked if he was facing a win-or-else situation. “I don’t know. It’s just so hard to predict. (Darlington and Indianapolis are) two great tracks for me. Two places I love. So we’ll just see what happens.”

It would help if Johnson can get a better start. Saturday was his fifth-worst starting spot in 36 races at Bristol, and the second time in the past four races that he had qualified 30th or worse.

“Without a doubt, qualifying put us in that spot,” Johnson said. “Better qualifying effort would have had us in a much better position. I wouldn’t have been near (Dillon) when he blew his tire, and life would be totally different.”

Still, Kyle Busch qualified one spot behind Johnson and was able to lead 30 laps and battle his way to a fourth.

The critical moment for Johnson might have happened just before the halfway mark. After pitting under yellow with five laps remaining in Stage 2, he sustained damage after contact with Paul Menard on the restart with two laps to go.

Though he ended the stage in the free-pass position, he had to pit again under yellow to fix a left-front fender rub – losing the free pass position and any hope of regaining the lead lap.

He got caught in a five-car wreck on Lap 373 that ripped off the right side of his car and required repairs for the energy-absorbing foam that fell out in the collision. He ended up finishing four laps down in a “respectable” 19th, his sixth consecutive finish outside the top 10.

But he seemed in good spirits after debriefing with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who doesn’t have a top 15 in three races since taking the helm of Johnson’s team.

“For as beat up as that car is and to run as we did on old tires most of the night, we had a good night, we just had a lot of bad luck,” said Johnson, who turns 44 in September and likely will need to decide soon if he will race beyond his contract expiring after the 2020 season. “I’ve got to look at the truth inside this team and how strong this team is, how good this team is geling, and I know the results are coming.

“It’s just a series of bad luck, and all of it started with a bad qualifying effort. We have to clean things up for sure. This team is really starting to gel and come along.”

NASCAR mourns Kobe Bryant

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Joining their brethren in other sports, the NASCAR world took to social media upon learning the tragic news of the death of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant, killed Sunday morning in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Bryant had met a number of NASCAR drivers in his career, including Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. They were among a number of NASCAR notables who took to social media to mourn Bryant:

 

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Chad Knaus and wife expecting second child

Photo courtesy Brooke Knaus official Instagram account
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Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion crew chief Chad Knaus and wife Brooke are expecting their second child.

Brooke made the announcement Saturday on her Instagram account.

The couple, already parents to one-year-old son Kip, will soon be adding a daughter to their growing family.

Brooke Knaus’s Instagram post said the baby is due in July.

Kip figured prominently in the baby revelation, coming at the end of mom and dad’s ski run while vacationing in Telluride, Colorado:

 

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Kyle Larson flips, misses finals of Australia’s biggest sprint car race

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Kyle Larson’s hope of following up last week’s Chili Bowl win with a triumph in Australia’s prestigious Grand Annual Sprint Car Classic fell far short Sunday.

Larson’s bid to race his way into the 24-car finals of the three-day race at Premier Speedway in Warrnambool, Australia, ended when he flipped (uninjured) on the opening lap of a last-chance qualifying heat race earlier in the evening.

Instead of being one of the featured drivers in the Classic’s 40-lap finale – the largest and most popular sprint car race of the year in the land down under – Larson was left to watch the event from the pits and cheer on Dyson Motorsport teammate and fellow American Carson Macedo.

Even that didn’t go very well, as Macedo flipped his own sprint car on the first lap of the Classic, resulting in a last-place finish. The highest finishing American was Cory Eliason, who ended up fourth.

Meanwhile, it was an all-Australian podium, with James McFadden winning the Classic for the second time in his career, followed by James Veal and Kerry Madsen.

In eight days, Larson went from capturing what he called the biggest win ever of his racing career on all levels – the Chili Bowl in his 13th try last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma – to nothing but bad luck and utter frustration throughout his Australian journey.

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

Then, in the first night of the Classic on Friday, Larson wrecked heavily in his first heat race, including flipping (he was uninjured). After his team repaired his car, Larson went back on the track, only to suffer a blown engine that knocked him out of contention to race in that evening’s feature event.

After not being on the schedule to race in Night 2 of the Classic on Saturday, Larson had one last chance to make Sunday’s featured championship event.

A total of 80 drivers battled it out in the B, C and D Mains for the eight remaining spots in the A Main, but Larson would end up not being one of those — as can be seen in the second line of the following tweet by his team:

Larson now returns to the United States to prepare for the Daytona 500 on February 16.

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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.