Friday 5: Can Jimmie Johnson repeat Tiger Woods’ Masters magic at Indy?

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A generation of drivers grew up watching Jimmie Johnson win races and championships year after year.

After year.

After year

After year

It was nearly all they knew from 2006-10 when Johnson won the Cup championship five consecutive seasons and visited victory lane in nearly 20% of the races run during that time.

Now, they see the seven-time champion winless in his last 84 races and fighting to make the playoffs. Critics question Johnson and expect his 15-year streak of postseason appearances to end when the checkered flag waves in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Those drivers who watched Johnson dominate when they were teens are not among the doubters.

“I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up,” said Kyle Larson, who was 14 when Johnson won his first Cup title. “When you are watching somebody like that dominate, you never expect to see them in this position, being winless for as long as he’s been, at risk of not making the playoffs and having a chance to win the championship.

Kyle Larson chats with Jimmie Johnson last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I think it just shows how tough our sport gets, how tough our drivers are, how close our equipment is, and how good of a combination him and Chad (Knaus) really were. Hopefully they can figure something out and finish upfront where he belongs.”

Xfinity title contender Christopher Bell also is rooting for Johnson this weekend.

“I love to see the greats win,” said Bell, who was a month shy of turning 12 when Johnson celebrated his first Cup crown. “For example, seeing Tony Stewart win at Sonoma (Raceway in 2016) was unbelievable. That was one of the coolest things ever. Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser, the dirt drivers, seeing those guys still compete and win – Steve’s done now, but Sammy still runs – that’s the coolest thing ever to me.

“Like Tiger Woods winning the golf deal, right? How awesome was that when he won the Masters? I don’t think Jimmie is done by any means, but it’s going to be really, really cool whenever we see him win again just because he’s been doing it for so long and you have to respect how good he’s been for so long and we’re not sure if we’ll ever see that again, right?”

Alex Bowman was 13 when Johnson’s title reign began. Now he watches Johnson’s challenge up close as a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

“We are doing all we can to get Jimmie into the playoffs,” Bowman said. “But, at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of bad luck and a tough year. He is still more motivated and fired up than ever, at least since I’ve been around. He’s a big part in the success that I’ve had, I feel like. He definitely still has it and he’s not given up.

“I think everyone has learned over the years that you can’t count the 48 out by any means.”

Johnson enters the weekend 18 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s among four drivers vying for the final two spots. Clint Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Daniel Suarez, who holds the last playoff spot. Suarez and Ryan Newman have the same number of points but Suarez is ahead based on the tiebreaker of best finish this year. Then comes Johnson.

For those that have counted out Johnson?

“I can’t wait to shut up the keyboard warriors that are out there,” he said. “The people that are close to me and the people on my race team know the truth. They know the story. They’ve been working hard on it and when you work hard, wins will come. So, that’s where I find my peace. I know all the effort I’ve put into this program and for what my guys have put into the program.”

2. Sticking to the plan

For all the focus on Jimmie Johnson seeking to make the playoffs a 16th consecutive year, new crew chief Cliff Daniels continues to preach the need to build the No. 48 team at a deliberate pace.

While making the playoffs gives Johnson a chance to win a record eighth title, realistically, his odds of accomplishing that feat this year would be slim based on how the team has performed.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels is taking a “methodical approach” to building the No. 48 team. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It is Daniels’ job to manage building a team while pursuing the playoffs.

“Part of the reason for the methodical approach we took coming (to Darlington) and we’re going to take to Indy is to make sure we’re placing the building blocks correctly so that as we move forward we know why we have run good, why we’ve made the calls that we’ve made or made the decisions that we’ve made and all of that is in place,” Daniels said after last week’s Southern 500.

“Jimmie and I both know how important it is to meet our goals now but sometimes things just don’t work out. We’re still going to go to Indy with a really solid approach and things may work out and I certainly hope they do. But in the event that they don’t, we still have 10 races where this approach, this team, this energy, this vibe and just the whole process that we’ve built is really going to carry us. Now we get to go into the season one way or the other with a plan in place for how we’re going to meet our goals and take that into those final 10 races one way or the other and build on that for next year.”

A key is that Daniels is having more of an impact on the cars Johnson drives. Daniels was promoted from engineer to crew chief before last month’s race at Watkins Glen. With cars built or refined ahead of time, it wasn’t until last week’s Southern 500 where Daniels was able to do more with the car’s setup for Johnson. The result was that Johnson qualified sixth — his best starting spot since Chicagoland in June — scored points in both stage points for only the third time this season. 

3. Don’t look back

History can’t beat someone but history can show the challenges ahead.

Take Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing. Newman enters this weekend outside of the final playoff spot based on a tiebreaker with Daniel Suarez.

Ryan Newman seeks to lead Roush Fenway Racing into the playoffs for the second time since 2015. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While Newman could finish deep in the field and still make the playoffs, that scenario isn’t as likely. Good chance he’ll need a strong finish, but history has not been kind to Roush Fenway Racing at Indy.

The organization’s last top 10 at Indy was in 2012 when Greg Biffle placed third.

Since, these are the organizations that have scored at least one top 10 at Indy:

Joe Gibbs Racing (16 top 10s since 2013)

Stewart-Haas Racing (10 top 10s)

Hendrick Motorsports (9 top 10s)

Team Penske (8 top 10s)

Chip Ganassi Racing (5 top 10s)

Richard Childress Racing (5 top 10s)

JTG Daugherty Racing (2 top 10s)

Furniture Row Racing (2 top 10s)

Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10)

Go Fas Racing (1 top 10)

Michael Waltrip Racing (1 top 10)

If you wish to counter that, then look at what Newman did the past two seasons with Richard Childress Racing, finishing 10th at Indy last year and third the year before. And he won the 2013 race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

4. Familiar foes

Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have each qualified all their drivers for the playoffs. That’s nine of the 16 spots taken by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson.

Hendrick Motorsports has qualified three of its drivers (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron) with Jimmie Johnson trying to claim one of the final spots.

Stewart-Haas Racing could have all four of its drivers make the playoffs for a second year in a row if Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both advance to join Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola.

Roush Fenway Racing is trying to break into the playoff picture with Ryan Newman.

Unless there is a surprise winner Sunday at Indy, the Cup playoffs could feature drivers from just five organizations. Last year’s Cup playoffs featured drivers from seven organizations.

5. High standards

Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title in Saturday’s race at Indianapolis (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title Saturday at Indianapolis. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

He needs to leave Indy with a 61-point lead on second in the standings. Reddick holds a 51-point lead on second-place Christopher Bell.

Reddick, the reigning series champion, is on the cusp of the regular-season title because of a season that ranks among the best in series history.

His average finish of 4.9 ranks second all time among drivers to compete in all 24 races. His 21 top 10s are tied for second most through 24 races all time in the series. His 19 top-five finishes are third most through 24 races all time in the series.

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Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”