The Short List: Jimmie Johnson finalizing NASCAR legacy

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In some distant reckoning, Jimmie Johnson will get the legacy he deserves. He will get lasting acclaim for winning seven NASCAR season titles, which only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., had done before him; and for winning five consecutive titles, which no one else had done, or has done since. He will get praise for winning 83 races (tied for the sixth-most in history), including two Daytona 500s. Fans will endlessly debate his place on some imprecise ranking of the best ever, but rest assured: There is a short list, and he’s on it forever.

Less tangibly, he will be lastingly regarded as a supremely skilled driver on the track and a pioneer off it, a California boy who took Jeff Gordon’s expansion of the NASCAR base audience and expanded it further. “NASCAR vacations were thought of as hunting and fishing,’’ says Gordon. “Jimmie and I went to Aspen and the South of France. A little fashion, a little flair. I like to think I took the sport to a new set of fans, and Jimmie just took that to the next level.’’ All of this will come to Johnson in its time. His story will be an essential chapter in the story of his sport. Period.

In the present, it’s been much more complicated. In less than two weeks, Johnson will head to Phoenix for his last race as a full-time NASCAR driver, in effect, his retirement race. But he will go there not as the dominant driver of the late 2000s, or even as the driver who took down one last title just four years ago. Entering this week’s race at Phoenix, he is on a 129-race winless streak, dating back to Dover, on the first weekend in June of 2017, and he’s twice missed the title-deciding playoffs. And obviously, there is much more: His final season has been robbed of appropriate ceremony by a pandemic that reached inside his home and turned NASCAR into a semi-bubbled shell of itself, with sparse attendance a virtual wall separating drivers from fans. His wife and two daughters will be with him this weekend, for the first time since Fontana, more than seven months ago.

“I’m in a good place with my decision to step away,’’ said Johnson, when I interviewed him last month. “And I realize very few athletes get to make that decision on their own. So I’m lucky, but 2020 has been such an unusual year, and in the way I thought I would experience my final year with my team and fans, and most of all my family. … The reality has been far from the vision. And then you mix in the performance part of it, which has not been the success that I hoped for. So yeah, I have mixed feelings on 2020.’’

But here it’s important to step back and absorb a longer view. Sports traffic heavily in recency, in the now. In that world, Johnson is a barely faded legend, dominant not long ago, cool as a rule, fast and famous. Lost in that narrative is the reality that Johnson rose atypically, from the American West, not its South, on dirt bikes and off road cars. His first start in the Lowe’s No. 48 came about three weeks after his 26th birthday, in 2001, his first win a year later. “My younger years, before NASCAR, were not explosive,’’ says Johnson. “I was not an easy pick to do what I’ve done. My journey took a lot longer than some others, but once I had my chance I was ready to perform.’’

He was ready in part because he had failed. That is true of all drivers – and honestly, all athletes – but Johnson’s climb is a story best told by three crashes, separated by 17 years, nearly 3,000 miles of U.S. geography and something close to 80 miles an hour in land speed. One was minor, two were not; Johnson walked away from all three, largely unharmed, but in some way changed, and ever wiser. That is what crashes do – they teach through failure. Sometimes they teach fear, which can live on stubbornly. Sometimes they teach courage, which is invaluable, but best kept elastic. In Johnson’s case, the first crash taught him trust, the second taught him caution, and the third a form of invulnerability that can only be fully understood inside the cockpit, but which can be a powerful tool. Three crashes. Three rungs on a ladder to greatness, long before greatness was manifest. Three rungs also that helped a kid grow into a man and better manage the disruptions of the present.

The first was in the summer of 1983, when Johnson was an 8-year-old dirt biker in his native Southern California. He was racing that day at Barona Hills, a park in Lakeside, California with a moto course. He got beat in the first race of the day and afterward a guy named Ricky Johnson, a racer 10 years older and not related to Jimmie, got in his ear. There was a big double jump on the course, and Jimmie had pulled back on it, losing ground. This is what Ricky told him: “If you get to those jumps, and you just hold it wide open in third gear, you’re going to clear them and you’re going to beat that kid. But if you hesitate, you’re going to crash really bad and you’re going to get hurt.’’

Ricky looked into Jimmie’s eyes. “Do you feel confident to do it?’’

Jimmie looked back: “Yeah.’’

As instructed, Jimmie held the throttle wide open in third and sailed over the jumps into first place. But then he crashed on the side of the course. Not a hard fall, just tipped over, nothing damaged. Jimmie’s father, Gary, tore into Ricky. (They would all later become close friends.) “You’re trying to kill my kid!,’’ said Gary. Jimmie got back on his bike and finished the race. Ricky found him afterward and asked why he crashed after clearing the double jump. “Because I had my eyes closed,’’ said little Jimmie. “I was scared to death.’’

Ricky asked Jimmie why, if he was so frightened, had he committed to the jump. Jimmie’s answer: “Because you told me I could.’’

More than 37 years later, Ricky Johnson recalled the moment as foundational. “You know in the move Days Of Thunder, when Harry (Robert Duvall) tells Cole (Tom Cruise) to go on the high side? Cole knew he could do it, he just needed that encouragement from Harry, because he trusted Harry. That was always Jimmie. He crashed that day, but he is that guy. Over the years, he trusted his shock engineers, he trusted his motor guys, he trusted everybody. And then he goes 100 percent.’’

The second crash came 12 years later in the Baja 1000 off-road endurance race on the Baja California Peninsula. Johnson, by this time 19 years old, and his teammate, were 20 hours into a 26-hour race, when Johnson fell asleep at the wheel, went off the road, flipped over and rolled down an embankment. “The roll cage was smashed down on me,’’ says Johnson. “Probably took me five minutes to climb out of the car. Longer for my co-rider, because he was banged up pretty bad.’’ Johnson’s chase vehicle got into an accident of its own and also had to support another team car. Johnson spent 12 hours waiting to be picked up, which was humbling in the extreme. “We built a little shade out of some raincoat we had in the car,’’ says Johnson. “We had a little food, a little water, fortunately. Then we just waited on this rock pile in the desert.’’

This incident was transcendent for Johnson. He had spent the season crashing in off-road races, and his sponsors were beginning to question their support. “I had a day out there in the desert to think about everything,’’ says Johnson. “That’s a lot of time. There’s a term in off-road racing: How often do you get upside down? I had been getting upside down a lot. That incident changed me as a driver. I never got upside down again. I went from being this guy who was fast for a little while to somebody that all of a sudden knew how to race for championships and collect points. Like, really, no kidding, that crash completely changed me.’’

There would be another one that changed him further, in a very different way. It occurred on June 25, 2000, on the legendary serpentine road course in Watkins Glen, New York. Johnson was driving the No. 92 Chevrolet in a 200-mile Xfinity Series race. On the 46th of 82 laps, Johnson lost his brakes – a dangerous fluke, and obviously not his fault — and hurtled across an expanse of grass, went briefly airborne, and then bore down on a white wall at the outside boundary. “I assumed the wall was concrete,’’ says Johnson. “There are very few times I’ve been in a race car, thinking I’m not going to survive. Remember, this was before we had all the safety precautions we have today, with soft walls and head-and-neck devices. So this was one of those times.’’ [Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would die eight months later, after crashing head-on into the concrete wall at Daytona; a tragedy that spurred sweeping safety innovations].

On this cloudy afternoon in Central New York, Johnson bore down on the wall after exiting a course where the average speed would be just over 90 miles an hour. Five seconds passed before impact. “First of all, when anything goes wrong in the car, time goes by so slowly. And this one, it was a long time from when I lost brakes until I hit that wall. And it felt like an eternity, with nothing but fear running through my veins. I mean, real fear, because I was running through the likely outcomes in my mind and I thought it was over. Like, holy sh–. So I just went limp in the car and put my chin on my chest.’’

The wall was made of foam, and behind the foam, tires and an Armco barrier (fundamentally, a guardrail). “This huge soft wall system that saved me,’’ says Johnson. “I was totally fine.’’ In video of the crash, the foam wall disintegrates on impact, chunks flying skyward like a blizzard. Seconds later, Johnson emerges and stands on the roof, fists raised in temporary triumph over mortality. And in a sense, that was the lesson learned. A year later at the Glen, Johnson’s crew feared he might spend the day flinching, but instead he ran solidly, led four laps and finished 21st, running. “I think, for me, the crash was one of those situations where I felt like, Oooo, I survived that one, and if I survived that one, I can survive anything,’’ says Johnson. “I never felt, wow, I could have died, I never want to be in that position again. I guess I wound up looking at risk a little differently after that.’’

The assembled pieces of those crashes helped build Johnson into a race car driver.

A year after his Watkins Glen wreck came that NASCAR Cup Series debut and the year after that, in 2002, his first victory, at Fontana on the last weekend in April. Five weeks later, the first of his record 11 wins at Dover. In 2006, he won his first season Cup title and the first of five consecutive, followed by two more, in 2013 and ’16. It was a remarkable run for Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus. It ended abruptly – Johnson finished 10th in 2017, 14th in ’18 and 18th last season, missing the playoffs, after separating from Knaus. Johnson also missed the playoffs this season, and sits 18th entering Martinsville. His three Hendrick teammates – Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman, average age: 24.3 years – all made the playoffs. Torch-passing.

There’s been no shortage of speculation among NASCAR fans and insiders as to why Johnson fell from the top. Ricky Johnson says it comes down to tech changes that have universally tightened race cars, where Johnson always had an edge in a looser ride. “Mentally, physically, he’s sharp as a tack,’’ says Ricky. “Race cars are not designed to drive loose now, and Jimmie really excels when things are a little bit out of control. He’s comfortable at 101%, and sliding, but cars are not designed to slide anymore.’’

Jimmie cites another factor that relates to his place on his own team, in his own garage.  “One thing: You’re not going to get me to say I’ve slipped, physically or mentally. I have not slipped. I’ll say this: You look at a guy like Martin Truex, where he was not in the best equipment for the longest time, and now he is. That’s kind of the opposite of what I had, where I walked into the best equipment and things have faded as time went. Now, I want to be careful how I say best equipment and all that. Let’s just say it comes down to timing. That’s probably a better way to put it.’’

Gordon, meanwhile, is more sanguine. “If you stay in the sport long enough, rules are going to change, and change the balance of the car and the way you drive it. When Jimmie had it going, Chad’s setup really complemented Jimmie’s strengths. But look, the older you get, the harder it is.’’

The year 2020 was harder for Johnson in ways that went far beyond mediocre finishes or chasing evolution. In early July, more than three months into the pandemic, Johnson became the first NASCAR driver to test positive for COVID-19. His wife, Chani, also tested positive. That’s where it got more challenging. After Johnson’s initial positive test, he missed one race (Indianapolis), but then tested negative twice and was reinstated. “I’m still very confused as to whether I had it or not,’’ says Johnson. Chani repeatedly tested positive. “She was locked in our master bedroom,’’ says Johnson. “We would slide food up to the door, mask on, and then step away. It was an interesting position to be in, from a family perspective. Chani was asymptomatic, but you know how deadly it can be, so there was a lot of fear and concern, and just a lot of emotion.’’

As the virus withdrew from his home (although certainly not from his world), and as the end of the season has drawn nearer, Johnson has allowed himself moments of reflection and gratitude. “I had no idea I would be here,’’ he says. “I’ve been so lucky, with Chad, with Hendrick Motorsports. All I ever wanted to do was compete and drive race cars. Simple as that. Maybe win three or four races. Seven championships? No way.’’

Johnson is not done. He will shift to IndyCars, primarily on road and street courses, where his feathery touch on the throttle should be a balancing factor against drivers with far more experience. He will probably drive the occasional NASCAR race. Off the track, there’s a bucket list: The New York City Marathon (he’s already run Boston in a very respectable three hours, nine minutes, in 2019) the Leadville 100-mile mountain bike race, heli-skiing in the Alaskan mountains. “Some of those things are time-sensitive,’’ says Johnson. “But I’d also like to bring a little more work-life balance to my world.’’

For now, there is one race left to run, one more set of left turns, one last ride in the forty-eight. Some cheers, some hugs, some memories.

Then he belongs to the ages.

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great originations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”

NASCAR Awards: Scene on the red carpet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community gathered at the Music City Center to commemorate the 2022 season and celebrate Joey Logano‘s second Cup title.

The event can be seen at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Here is a look at the scene on the red carpet before Thursday night’s NASCAR Awards:

Joey Logano and Brittany Logano (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ryan Blaney and Gianna Tulio (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle and Samantha Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Elliott (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Alex Bowman and Crystal Marsh (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Tyler Reddick and Alexa De Leon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Denny Hamlin and Jordan Fish (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Daniel Suarez and Julia Piquet (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Briscoe and Marissa Briscoe (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Christopher Bell and Morgan Bell (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Dillon and Whitney Dillon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle Larson (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

William Byron and Erin Blaney (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kevin Harvick (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ross Chastain and Erika Turner (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Cindric (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kurt Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Harrison Burton and Jenna Petty(Photo: Dustin Long)
Mario Andretti (Photo: Dustin Long)