Jimmie Johnson mentors NASCAR’s next wave: ‘He leads by example’

0 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On the eve of Jimmie Johnson’s last full-time season, he is being hailed as one of NASCAR’s greatest.

Not just as a driver but as a person.

Beyond 83 victories and seven championships in Cup, Johnson also established himself as a highly accessible and supportive mentor whose wisdom is viewed with great regard by the next generation in NASCAR’s premier series.

Perhaps the best example is Corey LaJoie, whom Johnson vouched for to help get the 28-year-old in a Cup ride. Because of Johnson’s support, LaJoie could be among the candidates being considered by Hendrick Motorsports to fill the No. 48 next season.

“In this garage area, as we all know we’re around each other so often, so much, if you want, you can form a relationship and a friendship pretty quick,” Johnson said. “I just always have. I’ve always had people be open and available for me. I know how it’s shaped my career. I’ve just wanted to do the same.

“It’s just me.”

At Media Day for Sunday’s Daytona 500, several drivers in their 20s were asked for their best stories about Johnson, how he’s influenced them and what his impact and legacy will be in NASCAR.

Here are their responses:

Ryan Blaney: “I grew up watching Jimmie and I was in Late Models when he was winning five in a row. As a kid, how could you not be a fan of that guy and how humble he is? It has been a pleasure to race with him the last handful of years. It has been a lot of fun. I got chewed out by him last year (at Watkins Glen), which was great. I look back on that, and it is a fond memory of mine. I will never forget that. It is a good memory because we got over it the next week. You never see that side of Jimmie. It is unfortunate that I had to be the one to bring that side out in him.

“I remember standing at driver intros with my dad when I was a kid, and Jimmie was standing there, and now I am standing at driver intros with him. I am lucky enough to become friends with him over the years. It has actually made me pretty upset the last couple of years that people have been saying negative things about him. He has had a rough couple of years from what he is used to and people are saying he is washed up and things like that. That actually pisses me off. You see that a lot with great athletes as they get further on in their careers. People forget the great things they have done and just focus on the here and now. It is going to be weird not racing with Jimmie because I love racing with him. I don’t think people realize how good he really is until he isn’t around it anymore. You will look back and be like, ‘Man, we were experiencing a legend.’ I don’t think people give him enough credit and that is unfortunate.”

Alex Bowman: “In 2014, when I was driving my first year in Cup for a low-budget team, he was like the first guy to come up to me and be like, ‘You’re doing a really good job with that car.’ I think we had just run Vegas, and he was like, ‘Man, that thing looked terrible, but you’re doing a really good job’. So, he was the first to come up and say that. I thought that was really cool because I didn’t know him at all before that. But just really being able to be around him, see the type of person that he is and just try to be a sponge when he’s around. He’s more successful than anyone that is racing right now and he’s also the most humble guy in the garage. He’s just a great human being and the way he carries himself has been really cool to learn from.”

William Byron: “He’s been a huge mentor for me, kind of given me a lot of support. We’ve just kind of grown the off-track relationship, being at the karting track, working with him on a personal level with fitness, understanding how my body works and things like that. He’s been a huge mentor in those areas. I grew up being a big Jimmie Johnson fan, and that feels cool. I think just the mentor side he has for us, what he brings to the table in that area is going to be missed.”

Matt DiBenedetto: “He’s always been a good level-headed guy to go to and talk with and even just talking on basic, personal things just as a human being has always been good to get to know him. He’s always given really neat reinforcement of ‘Keep grinding.’ He’s understood my path to get here and how hard I’ve worked and for a seven-time champion to have always been so encouraging throughout my career has really meant a lot more than he’ll know.”

Austin Dillon: “When I was in Xfinity and running for a championship in the first year, I reached out to him. I was running like second or third while running for that championship and just wanted his advice as a Chevy driver.

“And he came back with everything he could give me as far as wisdom in racing for a championship. How he would race for a championship. He started texting me after each race and was coming back to me with something even through Homestead and practices. It was cool. Then in the second year in Xfinity when we won the championship, we were doing similar things. But this time he was actually asking me similar questions on what the track would do.

“Hearing that from a guy that won five championships at that time, I was just kind of mind blown that he was able to talk to someone that is in a lesser series and be able to learn from them. He was going to take anything he could take and apply it to his game. That is something that I will always remember from Jimmie, is the relentless effort and not afraid to get better in any way.”

Chase Elliott: “He won five (championships) in a row. Like the seven thing is great, that’s amazing. But five in a row? Y’all sit back and think about that. That’s about as many times as I’ve won a race, which isn’t saying much. I think about all the great drivers who won one. That’s crazy. Probably won’t ever happen ever again, ever.

“I think he just exemplifies how you should go about your life really on and off the racetrack. I think he’s a great person. He has his off-the-track life figured out. He treats people the way they deserve to be treated. He’s just a class guy. I think he leads by example. I’ve enjoyed having somebody like that to look up to.

“I don’t understand why (Johnson doesn’t get as much credit for his results). I don’t know if it’s just an era thing. On the same token, he was around in the mid-2000s when some other guys were, too, that I feel like get a lot of that recognition and names that you know. I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve often wondered that. I’ve never really understood.

“I do think it will be one of those things that once he’s gone, people are going to be like, ‘Whoa!’ Maybe it’s just because he’s such a nice guy that he hasn’t changed at all. He’s had that same even keel that he had when he came in in 2000 or 2001. Never had the big personality, I guess, to go along with all the success, which I think is great. I think that’s how it should be or how you should be.”

Tyler Reddick: “Any time I’ve ever needed anything or had questions, he’s always been real quick to reply. If I ever had any questions — racing related, bikes, whatever — he’s right there to help, give advice. Just speaks to who Jimmie is. Everyone here for the most part knows what I’m talking about. He’s a standup guy. If you need help with something, he’s going to help you. That’s really cool.”

Bubba Wallace: “Last (November) at Texas, we were under caution. We were having a terrible race. I looked up on the pylon, and he was like fifth and I’m like hell yeah. I just happened to look over and he’s right next to me so I pulled (up) and I get close to him and I gave him a thumbs up and he comes back and revs it up at me. So, he was pumped. I’m a huge fan of Jimmie. Everybody in the field wants to compete against him, but all of us are pulling for him. I know I am; to get back into Victory Lane and go out and win the championship. That would be cool.

“When they say, ‘seven-time champion,’ they say ‘Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.’ And then they’re like, ‘Oh, and Jimmie Johnson.’ It’s like ‘What? He’s right there with them.’ I guess that’s just Jimmie’s persona. He’s cool, calm, and collected and under the radar. Jimmie is an all-around great guy. He knows how to get it done on the race track.”

Photos: Getty Images

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

0 Comments

NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

0 Comments

Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

0 Comments

While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
0 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

HELIO’S ‘DAYS OF THUNDER’ MOMENT: Recalling a memorable 2022 victory drive through the smoke

“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.