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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Bump and Run: Should NASCAR ditch the yellow line rule?

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Does NASCAR need to keep the yellow line rule at Daytona and Talladega? Or would a solution be to have the rule until the final lap of a race and just let anything be in play?

Nate Ryan: The only out of bounds lines at oval racetracks should be the walls. The point of the rule was to reduce the crashes that were resulting from cars that disjointedly shot from the apron back up the banking. As Sunday proved yet again, races at Daytona and Talladega always will feature large pileups. Trying to micromanage driving to reduce those risks is an exercise in futility.

Dustin Long: NASCAR needs to keep the rule for every lap but if the series officials want that line to be considered like a wall than change the rule: Any time anyone for whatever reason goes below the yellow line they will be penalized. And any time anyone forces someone below the yellow line they will be penalized. Put teeth into the rule.

Daniel McFadin: I think the rule needs to be kept in place. It’s there in an effort to keep the racing on superspeedways from getting out of hand. Making a rule apply to all but the final lap doesn’t make sense.

Jerry Bonkowski: The yellow line rule was implemented — at least in part — for safety reasons. So yes, the rule needs to be kept in place as it is. Taking it away for the final lap is a guarantee for chaos and greatly heightened unsafe conditions for drivers and fans.

 

The bottom four — Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and William Byron — each likely need to win to advance in the playoffs. Which one of those four do you give the best chance of winning this weekend at Kansas?

Nate Ryan: Alex Bowman; he should have won there in May.

Dustin Long: Chase Elliott.

Daniel McFadin: I give the edge to Alex Bowman, he’s been the most consistent in the playoffs and was running well Monday before his wreck. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Any of the four can win at Kansas, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Clint Bowyer. Kansas is his home track but he’s had a mediocre record there. It’s time for the odds to turn around in his favor.

 

What’s your take on the manufacturer involvement that has become even more prevalent in Cup at Talladega and Daytona?

Nate Ryan: It’s fine and perfectly understandable … provided it doesn’t reach the point of in-race meetings to chastise drivers about racing three wide for the lead. And it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that it reached that point Sunday because it caused NASCAR and its fan base to air some righteous grievances about the diminishment of driver autonomy in Cup and why that’s bad.

Dustin Long: I understand why the manufacturers do it, but I don’t like it, particularly when it reaches the levels it did this past weekend at Talladega. Those in the garage noted to me that some drivers seemed to make curious moves at times if only to remain in good graces with their manufacturers. That’s not racing. That’s a puppet show.

Daniel McFadin: I get the that manufacturers want to work together to ensure their best chance at winning a race, especially Chevy since they haven’t had a car in the Championship 4 in the last two years. But dictating how drivers should race and possibly threatening consequences if they don’t fall in line feels wrong on multiple levels. The drivers are the ones in control of the car on the track, not manufacturer executives. Only the drivers know what’s best for them at any given moment.

Jerry Bonkowski: The manufacturers play such a key and pivotal part in the sport that if they want their respective teams and drivers to work together more at Talladega and Daytona, that should be their prerogative. It would be very difficult for NASCAR to try and rule against manufacturers in this instance, as it could severely damage relationships between the sanctioning body and manufacturers. Frankly, this appears to be a no-win situation where there is no answer or way to police against it.

Ross Chastain to race full-time for Kaulig Racing next season

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Kaulig Racing announced Tuesday that Ross Chastain will return to the team to run a full-time Xfinity Series schedule in 2020.

Chastain, 26, will drive the No. 10 Chevrolet. He will be sponsored by Nutrien Ag Solutions for 23 races. Joining Justin Haley in the No. 11 Chevrolet, it will mark the first season Kaulig Racing has fielded two full-time cars.

The crew chief for Chastain’s team and the 23 selected Nutrien Ag Solutions events will be announced at a later date.

Four of Chastain’s 17 Xfinity starts this year have been with Kaulig Racing, including July’s race at Daytona where he earned his second career Xfinity win and gave the team its first ever victory. He is set for his fifth start with Kaulig Racing Saturday at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Two of the most important things in my life are agriculture and racing,” Chastain said in a press release. “Nutrien Ag Solutions is the best sponsor I could have ever asked for as it pertains to my family’s long history of farming. (Team owner_ Matt (Kaulig), (president) Chris (Rice) and all of Kaulig Racing gave me the opportunity to race this year when I really wasn’t sure I would ever get another winning opportunity in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. And, we won. Now, next year, we get to try to win more races and also compete for the championship.”
Said Matt Kaulig: “Ross Chastain has it all – he’s competitive, he’s marketable, he’s all-around a great, blue-collar guy. As a team, we couldn’t be more honored to land a driver like Ross. In just four races already this season, he’s not only helped advance our program, but he brought home this team’s very first win. Having him at Kaulig Racing next season, driving full-time, is a great gain for our organization.”

Kaulig Racing made the Xfinity playoffs this year with Justin Haley, who was eliminated after the first round.

Chastain’s news comes a little over 11 months after the last time he had a full-time Xfinity Series ride announced. After he made three Xfinity starts and earned one win for Chip Ganassi Racing last year, Chastain was tapped in November to take over its No. 42 car full-time in 2019.

But that fell apart in the wake of the December raids by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service on the headquarters of CGR primary sponsor DC Solar and the home of its CEO. In January, CGR shut down its Xfinity operation due to a lack of sponsorship.

As a result, this year has seen Chastain make 67 starts across all three national series, including all 20 Truck Series races with Niece Motorsports. After a wreck in Saturday’s Talladega Truck race, Chastain is last in the playoff standings with two races left in the Round of 6. He is two points back from the cutoff spot held by Matt Crafton.

As for NASCAR national series races outside of Xfinity next year, Chastain said in a Tuesday teleconference he plans to compete in “as many as I can” but didn’t provide any details.

“I want to race anything and everything,” Chastain said. “There’s an Xfinity off-week next year and I’m talking about going to run a front-wheel drive four-cylinder race with some buddies. I don’t know. … Anybody that drives a race car, works in racing, none of us have to do this. We all are in racing and motorsports because we love it for one reason or another. That’s truly my reasoning. It’s not just what I tell people. That’s the real reason. It’s not for the glamorous lights or the paycheck, because I’m not there still. I will race anything that I can get my hands on.”

In June, Chastain switched his points declaration from Xfinity to the Gander Outdoor Truck Series after eight races had already been run in the Truck Series, including a race won by Chastain at Kansas Speedway.

But with the points switch, Chastain started from zero points and had eight races to qualify for the playoffs. To do so he had to win again and then be in the top 20 in points by the end of the regular season. He won two of those eight races (had a third stripped due to an inspection failure) and finished in the top 10 five times, ensuring a playoff spot.

Jeb Burton to compete in Truck Series race at Martinsville with Niece Motorsports

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Jeb Burton will compete for Niece Motorsports in the Oct. 26 Gander Outdoors Trucks Series playoff race at Martinsville Speedway, the team announced Tuesday.

He will drive the No. 44 Chevrolet.

It will be Burton’s second start of the year for the team after he competed at Kentucky Speedway on July 11. He finished ninth.

The son of former Cup driver Ward Burton, it will be his 55th career start in the Truck Series. Martinsville is the home track for the Virginia-native.

“I’m excited to get back behind the wheel of one of these Niece Motorsports Chevrolets again,” Burton said in a press release.  “Martinsville is certainly a very special track to me, and a place that I have a lot of experience, so I’m confident that we can turn that into a strong result.”

Burton has made eight national series starts this year, including five with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. His best finish was fourth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in September.

 

Where Cup playoff drivers stand heading to Kansas

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The tumult of Talladega is behind and that final lap changed things significantly.

Had Ryan Newman won the phone finish instead of Ryan Blaney, then Blaney would not have secured a spot in the next round and it would have changed the cutline, putting Alex Bowman in the final transfer spot.

Instead, Blaney won, secured a spot in the next round and moved the cutline up, creating a gap between Joey Logano, who holds the final spot, and those behind.

Now, the focus turns to Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

DRIVERS WHO CAN ENJOY THE WEEKEND

Ryan Blaney (Talladega) and Kyle Larson (Dover) don’t have to worry about anything this weekend because their wins in this round have put them into the Round of 8. Enjoy it now before the next round begins the following week and the pressure intensifies.

 

FEW WORRIES INDEED

Denny Hamlin is 56 points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round. It would take quite a series of circumstances for Hamlin not to advance to the next round.

 

SEE YOU DOWN THE ROAD

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, also are in a good spot to advance to the Round of 8. Truex is 48 points ahead of Bowman and Busch is 41 points ahead of Bowman.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

While Kevin Harvick didn’t have a memorable Talladega — few playoff drivers did — his 17th-place finish left him 36 points ahead of Bowman. Harvick also should be in good shape to advance provided nothing catastrophic happens to his car at Kansas.

 

JUST AVOID TROUBLE

Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano hold the final two transfer spots entering this weekend. Keselowski is 20 points ahead of Bowman. Logano is 18 points ahead of Bowman. Keselowski won at Kansas in May.

“Brad and I are l looking OK,” Logano told NBC Sports after the race. “It’s better than being 18 behind. We’ve just got to be smart (at Kansas) … and no crashing.”

 

NO HOLDING BACK

Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and William Byron are the four drivers outside a transfer spot heading to Kansas.

Bowman trails Logano, who holds the final transfer spot by 18 points. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points. Bowyer is 24 points behind Logano. Byron trails Logano by 27 points.

All can get in via points but realistically, it’s going to take a win.

“I think we need to go and try to win,” Elliott said after Monday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

POINTS STANDINGS

3114 — Denny Hamlin

3106 — Martin Truex Jr.

3099 — Kyle Busch

3094 — Kevin Harvick

3078 — Brad Keselowski

3076 — Joey Logano

3069 — Kyle Larson (Dover win moves him to next round)

*3058 — Alex Bowman

3056 — Ryan Blaney (Talladega win moves him to next round)

*3054 — Chase Elliott

*3052 — Clint Bowyer

*3049 — William Byron

* Outside a transfer spot to the Round of 8