Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief makes a simple request

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A year into his role as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief and facing another challenge to make the playoffs, Cliff Daniels has a simple request.

“I’m not even asking for things to exceptionally go our way,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m just asking for them to exceptionally stop going against us. When that happens, we’ll be OK.”

This has been a dizzying season of disappointment for Johnson and his team since the season resumed in May. The result is that the seven-time Cup champion is outside a playoff spot heading into this weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway and in danger of missing the playoffs for a second year in a row.

Since May, there have been few highlights for Johnson and the No. 48 team.

# In NASCAR’s return May 17 at Darlington, Johnson was on his way to winning the first stage when he made contact with Chris Buescher and crashed on the final lap of the stage.

# Johnson finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 but his car failed inspection for what Daniels said was a part failure and was disqualified. The penalty cost Johnson 45 points.

# Clint Bowyer gained five spots in the last 11 laps at Atlanta to remain 12th in the owner standings and ahead of Johnson. That was critical because cars 1-12 in owner points are eligible to start in those spots via the random draw. Cars 13-24 in owner points, drew for those spots. Johnson’s luck in the random draw would prove to be terrible in the summer, costing him points in the first stage. Johnson has scored Stage 1 points in three of the 10 races since Atlanta.

Cliff Daniels has completed his first year as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. His first race in that role was Aug. 4, 2019. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

# Johnson missed the July 5 race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19.

# He returned the following week at Kentucky and was third on a late restart when contact with Brad Keselowski spun Johnson. Instead of a chance to win, Johnson finished 18th.

# Johnson started 20th at Texas and finished the opening stage seventh. He hit the wall in the second stage and that ruined his race, finishing 26th.

# While running 13th at Kansas, Johnson was collected in a multi-car crash and finished 32nd, again losing points.

# Last weekend at New Hampshire, contact with Clint Bowyer’s car spun Johnson as they raced for fifth place late in the opening stage. Johnson went on to finish 12th — his best finish in his last eight starts.

All this has put Johnson 25 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron for what would be the final playoff spot with six races left in the regular season.

The challenge is that with Johnson only eligible for starting spots 13-24, it is not easy to score points in the first stage of any race. It won’t be easy this weekend at Michigan. The first stage in both races is at Lap 40 — a quarter of the way through the 156-lap race. Last year, the first stage ended about a third of the way into the race. With fewer laps, it makes it more challenging to gain points early. NASCAR will change how the starting lineup is determined beginning next weekend and that could help Johnson.

Johnson will start 17th on Saturday. That also impacts how Daniels will set the car.

“We really have to slide our scale more toward the traffic balance potential, and you’ve got to be aggressive on the restarts, get all we can for positions there, and then make sure we’ve got a car that is able to pass,” Daniels said. “If you look at Kentucky, if you look at Texas, if you look at Kansas, that kind of paid off for us in making sure that we could pass and we did. We were able to pass and get up into the top 10 or better at all three of those tracks pretty quickly. … I do expect us to get our shot out front at some point during the day (at Michigan), at least that’s the plan.

“We’re going to keep marching forward in what we have built into the car in terms of being able to pass, have good pit stops and good restarts and a good strategy. The tough part is when we get up to the front we may not have quite the raw potential built into the car, so we’ll have to duke it out with them and that puts even more emphasis on executing those restarts and pit stops to keep our track position.”

2. Now what does Toyota do?

With the sale of Leavine Family Racing and expectation that the new team will not be aligned with Toyota, it leaves the question of what does Toyota Racing Development do?

If TRD can’t find another organization to align with, that would leave Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-car operation and Gaunt Brothers Racing’s new one-car effort in TRD’s fold.

PODCAST: How Toyota develops its young drivers 

With what Toyota invests in driver development, it will need more seats to avoid losing drivers as it will do with Erik Jones not returning to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season.

Erik Jones started the year winning the Busch Clash. He’ll end it headed for another team in 2021. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

The statement from Ed Laukes of Toyota Motor North America seemed clear that Toyota would not have a place for Jones in 2021.

“Unfortunately, the time has come that we have to part ways from a competitive standpoint,” Laukes said in his statement.

With Jones’ departure, it leaves Toyota with Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez, who came up through its development program. Through the years, Toyota has lost Kyle Larson, William Byron, Noah Gragson and Hailie Deegan to other manufacturers.

Toyota’s pipeline remains stocked with Harrison Burton, Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones in the JGR Xfinity program. Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Truck team runs Chandler Smith, Christian Eckes and Raphael Lessard. Other Toyota drivers in the Truck Series include Derek Kraus with McAnally Hilgermann Racing and Austin Hill with Hattori Racing Enterprises.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, explained in 2018 the manufacturer’s interest in developing talent:

“If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that manufacturer’s don’t have any business developing drivers. You know you look at Kasey Kahne being brought up as a Ford driver and getting poached by Chevy or Jeff Gordon, kind of all of these examples – what we came to realize is one, why shouldn’t manufacturers have a role in driver development? From the competitive perspective you have two options, develop your own or steal them and you know Rick Hendrick and I have had a friendly you know jab about that because he’ll say ‘I’ll just steal them from you.’

“Arguably, he did already, but that’s okay because the second part of it is more altruistic I’d say and that’s that I think as a stakeholder in this sport, we have a responsibility to give back and we recognize – and the troubling part about it is Toyota doesn’t own racing teams. That’s not our role. The tough part about it is we’ll lose as many of these young kids as we’ll be able to keep just because you know the higher you climb the ladder, the fewer seats are available. That’s what keeps me up at night, frankly.”

3. A catwalk unlike any other

Among the many events postponed by the pandemic was the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Catwalk for a Cause.  The charity event held in May has raised more than $600,000 each of the past two years and highlighted pediatric cancer patients and survivors — heroes as they are called — in the fashion show.

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Last year’s event raised money for the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Children’s Emergency Department at Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center and the Sherry Strong Integrative Medicine Oncology Clinic at Novant Health Presbyterian Main.

Sherry Pollex, partner of Martin Truex Jr., told NBC Sports that COVID-19 and the economy are forcing foundations to examine how they raise funds.

“I think we’re going to have to come up with some ideas that are outside of the box, that we’ve probably never seen before because we need to honor these commitments to these hospitals and these children that we were going to fight for,” Pollex said.

An example is what the foundation looks to do with Catwalk for a Cause. 

“We’re hoping that we can still do something special,” Pollex said. “We’re trying to put all the pieces together right now. We’re not really sure what it’s going to look like. We want to obviously protect the kids and their health and their families and everybody that is going to come in, but we’re hoping it’s going to be kind of like a drive-in movie theater type atmosphere where you drive your car in and are tailgating from the back of it. We’ve got some great ideas for that and we’re hoping that goes off in September so we can get funding from that.”

Fundraising continues for the foundation, which has been selling a variety of T-shirts this summer. Truex said the key is to keep the “word out on what we’re doing. Simple things like selling T-shirts. Our fans and supporters have been excited about little things like that and that keeps the fire burning.”

Truex’s sponsor Auto-Owners Insurance combined with his foundation to sell 500 limited edition mini helmets signed by Truex and Pollex. The helmets sold out this week in less than three hours. Auto-Owners also matched employee donations to the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation. That and the sale of the helmets raised more than $80,000. To celebrate, the hood of Truex’s car this weekend at Michigan will have the names of 1,900-plus Auto-Owners associates who made donations to the MTJ Foundation.

4. Knows the feeling

Brad Keselowski, who got a one-year contract extension this week, can relate to the despair Bob Leavine felt in selling his Cup team. Keselowski shut down his Truck series team after the 2017 season. Keselowski said previously how his organization lost $1 million a season.

“Racing is tough,” Keselowski said in a media conference Thursday. “It’ll make you bitter. There ain’t no way around it. It’s competition in all forms. It’s competition from the driver level, the owner level, the crew chief level and it’s tough.There’s no way around it. 

Bob Leavine, center, at the 2018 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the ownership model being broken. I’m not so sure I believe that. Sometimes I think it is. Sometimes I think it isn’t. There’s a lot to be said for the very pure and true competitive and capitalist model that NASCAR team ownership has, so it’s got its positives and its negatives. 

“I don’t enjoy seeing guys like Bob Leavine or anyone else for that matter leave the sport in ownership. I take no pleasure in their pain, but then on the other side I do recognize that in competition there must always be winners and losers, and maybe some people lose that don’t deserve to lose. That probably happens from time to time, but it’s part of the story of our sport is that there are winners and losers. 

“We don’t have to like who the winner is, and we certainly don’t have to wish for someone to lose. We might not like who it is that loses. I think in this case, Bob seemed like a really great gentleman who has brought a lot to this sport in a very short period of time, but it’s a tough sport. It really is, and this is part of that unfortunate cycle of life for our sport as well.”

5. Kyle Larson’s future

Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, met with the media this week. One of the questions he was asked was if there had been any conversations about whether Kyle Larson could be in a Ford next year.

Larson is interested in returning to NASCAR. Chip Ganassi Racing fired him in April after he uttered a racial slug during an online race. He’s since returned to dirt track racing with tremendous success.

So, could Larson drive for Ford in NASCAR next year?

“We’re in the midst of silly season and what I can say is we’re looking at all of our options,” Rushbrook said. “A lot of our seats have long-term contracts and are solid. You saw the extension announced (Monday) for Brad (Keselowski). We certainly have some seats in play, so looking to see what the best options are. 

“We’re here to win races in the right way. We want to be competitive on track. We want to have our innovation and tech transfer, and we want the marketing out of it, so looking to see what we can do with any open seats for next year to fill them with the best driver.”

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Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.