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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.