Friday 5: New slogan spotlights Jimmie Johnson’s focus in 2020

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CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson is not chasing history. He seeks to enjoy it.

Johnson’s revelation this week that he has ditched #chasing8 for #One FinalTime as the slogan for his final Cup season is not a sign of surrender, he insists.

Instead, he wants to be more focused on the moment and hope that leads to greater goals.

“I’m not chasing anything,” the seven-time Cup champion said Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

Johnson used #6pack on his quest for a sixth title and #se7en in his bid for a seventh title. He had used #chasing8 while seeking an unprecedented eighth Cup title for a driver.

Jimmie Johnson on his final season: “I’ll lay it on the line and go.” (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Even without the slogan, Johnson says he remains focused on this coming season.

“I’m going to get in that car, I’m going to give it 100% as I always do … I’ll lay it on the line and go,” he said.

But Johnson’s go has been slow in recent years. He is winless in 95 races, dating back to June 2017 at Dover International Speedway.

Since that victory, Johnson has six top-five finishes, 29 top 10s and led 216 laps. He has not finished better than third in a points race in that span.

Such struggles make it easy to discount a driver for championship contention — even one of only three seven-time champions in series history.

It’s not been just one thing, though, that has held the 44-year-old back. His struggles coincided with a decline in performance for Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 and ’18. Chevrolet’s Camaro had its issues. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus split after the 2018 season. Johnson went on to change crew chiefs again in 2019 when performance soured.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Johnson said of missing the playoffs last year for the first time in his career. “I was angry, embarrassed.”

He cites last year as a learning experience in racing without Knaus on his pit box. Without Knaus’ leadership, there was a vacuum and Johnson had to understand how to help fill it. As his performance waned, the team struggled. A late-summer crew chief change failed to get Johnson into the playoffs.

Johnson, considered among NASCAR’s greatest drivers, said that “winning races, making the playoffs would be a good season (this year). A great season is going (multiple) rounds (in the playoffs). The ultimate season is being in that championship four.”

First Johnson must be able to run at the front. And win again.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates his 2016 title with wife Chandra and daughters Lydia (held by Johnson) and Genevieve.(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

While his 83 career Cup victories are tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list, Johnson’s focus is to win again to show his daughters what he can do. Genevieve is 9 years old and Lydia is 6.

“I think deep down inside it would be very satisfying,” Johnson said of winning again. “In my heart of hearts I still now I’m doing my best work out there.

“I can also say from a family perspective, to have another moment or two this year with my family in that environment and winning at the top level would be very special for us.

“I guess, ultimately, my kids don’t remember going to victory lane. They don’t have any vivid memories of it. They have no filters. To come home and especially Lydia is like, ‘so Dad, we didn’t win, what happened?’ Evie is so polite about it: ‘Dad you tried hard, good job.’

“To have that moment with them and a moment they will hopefully remember … would be really special.”

2. Hope for Nashville for 2021?

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are not ready to publicly shut the door on a race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville for 2021, even though no deal has been announced between Nashville and SMI. NASCAR is expected to release the 2021 Cup schedule in April.

“We’re having great discussions with leadership in Nashville,” Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., told NBC Sports this week. “We think it’s a great opportunity for the city and for NASCAR and for Speedway Motorsports. … Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation. I’m very optimistic about NASCAR in Nashville.

“The timing is one of those things that once we get the agreement done, then we’ll have some planning and … the actual construction will take place. It’s a big project and one that when it’s done, the city of Nashville will be really proud of.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc. seeks an agreement with the city to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to Nashville but has not been able to work through financing and other issues. SMI proposed a $60 million renovation plan in May for the historic .596-mile track that would increase seating capacity from 15,000 to 30,000, among other projects.

A previous plan for $54 million in bond payments was rejected by then-Mayor David Briley. John Cooper defeated Bailey to become the city’s mayor in September.

The Tennessean reported in December that the mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that the administration received a new proposal from SMI and it was being reviewed.

Cooper told the Nashville Rotary Club on Monday, according to The Tennessean, that “racing needs to be a success, not just soccer (at the Fairgrounds property). It has to be a workable overall site plan.”

However, The Tennessean notes that that Cooper has not said if he supports a deal to bring NASCAR’s top-tier series to the Fairgrounds.

The Tennessean reported Thursday that Cooper had met with auto racing advocates this week.

Asked if Nashville was still a consideration for the 2021 schedule, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

3. Changes for 2020

Along with the changes to stage lengths this season — and how a race will be official once it hits the halfway mark (unless the end of the second stage occurs first) — NASCAR also revealed a few other changes for the coming season.

Last year, NASCAR typically took no more than one car to the R&D Center after a race. That was primarily to study trends in the sport and if NASCAR needed to adjust any rules. The point was to get away from issuing penalties days after the race.

This year, series officials said they would look at taking multiple cars back to the R&D Center after Cup races.

“We tried to do the best we could in response to the teams and try to curb development,” said Jay Fabian, NASCAR Cup director. “Part of that there is that there’s been a new set of rules as far as a parts freeze. Teams have to submit a significant amount of parts and they have to run those parts throughout the year. They have options of each part, they can mix and match as long as they are on that list.

“We will bring more cars back this year because that’s, quite honestly, a lot of work postrace. So we’re going to bring that back and make sure everybody is on the up and up.”

Fabian said if NASCAR found “a major, significant issue, we’d react to it” by issuing a penalty that week.

Erik Jones drives the Next Gen car in a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Jan. 2020. (Photo: NASCAR)

In regards to the Next Gen car, NASCAR’s next test will be March 2-3 at Auto Club Speedway. That’s expected to have only one car but NASCAR anticipates having two cars test by April. That would give officials more information on how a Next Gen car reacts behind another car. Teams are expected to take delivery of their first Next Gen car by July. Tests will be set up for August and beyond.

Five tests are expected to be held for teams before next season. How those tests will be done — whether only one car per organization is allowed or one car per team — will be determined later.

Also, NASCAR officials were scheduled to meet Wednesday with manufacturers in the sport and those that could join the sport about a new engine for 2023, among other issues.

4. Stress of rule change on teams

There have been many reasons discussed for Team Penske’s decision to change its entire driver/crew chief lineup for this season after winning six Cup races and placing all three drivers in the top 10 in points.

As Brad Keselowski acknowledged this week, that type of season was good but not good enough.

“We want to be great,” he said. “We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Brad Keselowski with crew chief Paul Wolfe last season. As part of Team Penske’s moves, Wolfe will be Joey Logano‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Keselowski, who will be teamed with crew chief Jermey Bullins this season, also expressed his belief on why the change was made at Team Penske.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think the rules package is as much a factor as anything else,” Keselowski said. “The rules changed when we went to the high downforce and the really small horsepower. That’s really hard to accept. It’s hard to accept for the drivers. It’s really hard to accept for the teams with respect some of the things that we consider telltales of the past that are not necessarily the telltales of today.

“Used to get into this car and you were a good racecar driver if you could run every lap within half a tenth to a tenth (of a second). With these rules, the lap time variance is very significant. You might run one lap, let’s say around (Charlotte Motor Speedway), a 30 (second) flat and the next lap you catch the draft wrong in all the wrong places and you run a 31 flat and the team sees that and they say ‘What the hell? What is this guy out here doing? Is he drunk? Is he not focused? What’s going on?’

“I think it’s part of the package. When you’re not winning, when you’re having the bad days you’re going to have in this sport … it really has put a lot of stress on the team relationships, driver relationships, that dynamic. I think that dynamic has caused a fair amount of rift and ripples across the whole sport and the easiest way for Team Penske to fix it was this change because it forces everyone to think a little bit more thoroughly and different about it.

“That’s one of many examples, it’s not the only reason. I do think the rules change has had a drastic impact on the drivers’ and teams’ abilities to communicate with each other and value the right things.”

5. An unforgettable ride

One of John Andretti’s greatest gifts was what he could give others. Sometimes it was his wit that left one laughing. Sometimes it was his smile and positive nature even through a battle with colon cancer that ended Thursday with his death at age 56.

Other times it was his drive.

Andretti, the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, won an IndyCar race, two Cup events, a Rolex 24 and even a USAC national midget race. He also competed in NHRA, reaching the semifinals once. 

Of all that, there was one drive that illustrates Andretti’s essence.

It came in his 1999 Cup win at Martinsville Speedway for Petty Enterprises. Andretti won the day after Petty Enterprises claimed the Martinsville Truck race, completing a weekend sweep for the famed organization that no longer exists.

But Andretti’s path was not easy that day. He fell a lap down less than 50 laps into the event after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton and spun. No Martinsville Cup winner in the previous decade had come back from a lap down to win.

MORE: Motorsports world mourns passing of John Andretti 

Andretti needed less than 100 laps to pass leader Jeff Gordon and get back on the lead lap. A two-tire pit stop with about 120 laps left played a key role and Andretti did the rest. He was third with 50 laps to go.

Andretti passed Gordon for second with about 12 laps to go as his car suffered a vibration.

“With 12 to go, I figure the heck with it,” Andretti said later that day. “Nobody is going to remember if you run third.”

Andretti challenged close friend Jeff Burton for the lead and drove past the Virginia driver with four laps to go as the crowd cheered.

After taking the checkered flag, Andretti took an extra victory lap. On his way to victory lane, he stopped to give car owner Richard Petty a ride.

The sight of Petty sitting on the driver’s window opening as Andretti drove the No. 43 to victory lane is a memory that won’t be forgotten.

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.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.

Long: Drivers make their point clear on Clash at the Coliseum

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LOS ANGELES — So what to do with the Clash at the Coliseum?

The second edition of this exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum showcased beating, banging and 16 cautions in a 150-lap race won by Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night.

A year remains on NASCAR’s three-year contract with the Coliseum — NASCAR holds the option for next year — and it seems all but certain Cup cars will be back next year.

With Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen saying Saturday that his track will not host a NASCAR event in 2024 while being converted from a 2-mile speedway to a half-mile track, the Los Angeles area would be without a NASCAR race if the Clash did not return.

NASCAR is not likely to leave the nation’s No. 2 TV market without a race. 

A question this weekend was if the Clash would become a points race next year to replace the Auto Club Speedway date and allow NASCAR to have a new venue for the Clash.

“I think they should put (the Coliseum race) in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect,” Denny Hamlin said straight faced after Sunday’s race before breaking into a smile to show he was speaking sarcastically.

Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano was emphatic in his response.

“No,” Logano said, shaking his head Sunday night. “We can’t do that.”

Why?

“You’re going to fit 40 cars out there? We can’t even make a caution lap without the pace car bumping the last-place car.”

Logano smiled as he spoke — then again he often smiles as he talks. He was not speaking sarcastically as Hamlin showed with his smile. Logano’s grin was part of a passionate defense.

“No. You can’t do that,” Logano continued of why a points race at the Coliseum is a bad idea. “That’d be dumb.”

Even in a celebratory mood after his first victory in NASCAR in more than a year, Truex was clear about his feelings of making the Clash a points race.

“Why would you screw it up,” he said, “and make it a points race?”

Just because drivers don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

But much would have to happen to make this event a points race.

Those familiar with the charter agreement between teams and NASCAR told NBC Sports that they weren’t sure that the language in the agreement would permit a points race at such a venue. With the charter system guaranteeing all 36 teams a spot in a race, it’s not feasible to run so many cars on this small track. Only 27 cars ran in Sunday’s Clash. That almost seemed too many.

Should there be a way to make this event a points race without all 36 running in the main event, there are other issues. 

The purse would have to significantly increase. NASCAR stated that the purse for Sunday’s Clash was $2.085 million. Last year’s championship race at Phoenix had a purse of $10.5 million. The purse for last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen was $6.6 million. The purse for last year’s race at Nashville Superspeedway was $8.065 million.

If NASCAR made the Clash a points race, then the purse would be expected to fall in line with other points races. Of course, there still would be the logistics. 

But is it worth it to try to make an event something it doesn’t need to be?

While the attendance appeared to be a little less than the estimated 50,000 for last year’s race, it wasn’t enough of a drop to warrant abandoning this event. Is a points race at the Coliseum going to increase the attendance significantly? No.

Just bring this event back next year as is.

“I think it’s good for what it is,” Logano said. “It’s a non-points race. I think we need to go back to maybe only four cars (instead of five) transferring from the heat (races) … there’s just too many cars (on the track). I think that’s part of the issue as well.”

Then, to make sure he got his point across about if next year’s Coliseum race should be a points race, Logano said: “A points-paying race. No. I’ll be the first to raise my hand that’s a very bad idea.” 

But it’s possible 2024 could be the final year for this event at the Coliseum. 

If Auto Club Speedway’s conversion to a short track can be done in time to be on the 2025 schedule, then the Los Angeles region would have a short track and NASCAR could move the Clash to a new area to reach more fans.

That’s part of the goal this new dynamic NASCAR, which has moved Cup races to different venues in the last couple of years and will run its first street course race in July in Chicago. 

While NASCAR has made such changes, making the race at the Coliseum a points race serves no purpose. Just listen to the drivers.