Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Kligerman: Why the essence of Jimmie Johnson is ‘They won’t outwork me’

Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. – Recently, I had the opportunity to test a Monster Energy Cup car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was the first time I’ve had the chance to wheel a car at the top level of NASCAR in just more than four years.

A lot has changed in that time but in my case, the most important was the car itself.

Setup styles, digital dashes, vastly lower downforce levels and lower horsepower.  It’s almost a different car.

This test was for the Coca-Cola 600. Thankfully, the person I leaned on for advice in my first taste of Cup racing at the end of 2013 is still there for advice.

Except he has two more championships to his name. (During the same time, I’ve been yapping into cameras and occasionally racing.)

That person is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2013, I was lucky enough to be able to use Jimmie’s spotter, Earl Barban. So when my Cup debut was upon me, Earl gave me Jimmie’s number, and he was gracious enough to not only text me back but take time to talk to me as he fought for a championship.

To this day, it’s one of the highlights of my career. Per his advice, I earned the team its best qualifying position of the year and best finish on a 1.5-mile track.

Preparing for my first Cup start since April 2014, I wasn’t expecting to have the same chance to talk to Jimmie this time around. Mostly because I would be too shy to reach out.

Yet call it fate: It happened on the day of this manufacturer test for wheel force cars (which are outfitted with million-dollar telemetry equipment to validate and assess tires for their simulation programs).

“Jimmie is driving the wheel force car,” Drew Herring, Toyota’s simulation and wheel force driver, said to me. “Can you believe that?”

“I’m not surprised,” I replied.

Drew was shocked.

Wheel force testing is usually reserved for the drivers who draw the short straw or a talented young driver such as Drew who is happy to have the work.

It’s the closest that driving a race car will seem like a chore. It is monotonous, systematic and doesn’t require you to always go as fast as you can but instead hit certain parameters the engineers need to gather data.

But the job doesn’t end there. The wheel force driver is also required to turn laps in the manufacturer simulator, so the engineers can validate the data. It is a multi-day commitment to working on racecars as if they are a new line of code in an app.

After speaking to Drew, I walked by the Chevy pit area to get to my team’s pit area. Jimmie didn’t look too busy, so I seized the opportunity to strike up a conversation and get his advice on what I was struggling with in my Cup car.

I started by asking the simple question, “What are you doing here?”

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “They won’t outwork me.”

It was this answer as to why I am not surprised he was there.

Earlier, Drew also suggested to me that someone asked Johnson to do the test. But Jimmie’s answer all but confirmed he wanted to be there.

Jimmie and I talked about current Cup cars and how they drive. Just as in 2013, he was very gracious with his time and knowledge to help guide me in the right direction with my own driving (much of what I won’t go into as that is driver-to-driver talk).

As we talked, I’m sure he noticed that I couldn’t stop my eyes from being drawn to the Monster Energy Cup Series logo on his suit. A “Champion 7x” patch is stitched directly below.

That assures him a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In my eyes, he is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. The sheer sight of that simple patch is intimidating, to say the least.

Yet the conversation I was having with the person behind the patch was as if we were two buds hanging out.

At one point, he thought the lap times they were doing were 29.3 seconds, and he then asked an engineer if he was right. “Nah, we are not that fast. More like 29.6s”

It didn’t matter. They weren’t there to set blistering lap times. It’s all about gathering data in an effort to stop the bleeding.

He is in the midst of the longest losing streak of his career – 35 races (if he comes up short in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the drought will be as long as a full Cup season). Last Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, the No. 48 team radio underscored the tension building as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus hunt for performance.

His race team, Hendrick Motorsports, is struggling to build the speed into their new Chevy Camaros that he needs to win.

He went into the facets of what he is struggling with handling-wise and the ways he was trying to adjust his driving style to fix them.

And all the while going through these issues, his face appeared to light up, and a smile came across as he said, “This is fun!”

I joked that it would be boring to just be winning every week. He chuckled and said, “Not exactly!”

As our conversation continued, his eyes filled with the enthusiasm and vibrancy of a young kid getting his first shot by doing the grunt work. Not a seven-time champion who many keep asking how many years he has left.

After a couple minutes, it was time for us both to get back in our cars and do our jobs. In his case, it was working with the multitude of Chevy engineers to make sure the data they were gathering was useful to improve their chances in the battle against the pointy end of the Cup field.

And in my case, it was to lament that I didn’t take notes.

As I was working with a small team that has only a handful of starts, Jimmie’s advice was once again invaluable to me. When we take the green flag at the Coca-Cola 600, it will be my team’s seventh start – the same number as Jimmie has championships.

The thing is, often in my other job, I am asked what makes Jimmie Johnson so good. People want to know what makes one driver better than another.

Usually, I’ll name a couple of his attributes and his incredibly unassuming nature. But on this fateful day at Charlotte, I finally saw the answer.

What makes Jimmie tick is a challenge. He loves, relishes and searches for a challenge. And right in front of him is maybe the largest he has ever faced.

But I’m not betting against him.

As he said, “They won’t outwork me.”

Kyle Larson posts fastest lap on final day of Las Vegas test

Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for NASCAR
Leave a comment

Kyle Larson led the way again on the second and final day of the Cup organizational test Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, posting a lap of 191.259 mph.

Brad Keselowski won the pole last spring at Las Vegas with a lap of 193.68 mph.

Chevrolets posted the two spots overall Thursday with Larson and Ryan Newman (190.027 mph). Chevrolet cars had the top three speeds overall in Wednesday’s session. The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is making its debut this season.

“I feel good about it, and it’s been good to get back in a stock car after a couple months,” Larson said. “It felt like we had good speed, especially on that last long run we made. I feel like it was a good test, and it’s nice to know we still have a lot of speed in our cars with all the changes to the new Camaro.”

Sixteen drivers took part in the test.

“I feel like we got a good start with the new Camaro ZL1,” Newman said. “We’ll go through our notes and see how good we can do on our homework. The guys definitely want loads of data with the new car, and we definitely collected that.”

The only other driver to top 190 mph Thursday was Erik Jones, whose Toyota went 190.007 mph. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was next with a lap of 189.827 mph, the fastest lap for a Ford in this test.

THE DAY’S FASTEST SPEEDS FROM BOTH SESSIONS COMBINED:

191.259 — Kyle Larson (Chevrolet), afternoon session

190.027 — Ryan Newman (Chevrolet), afternoon session

190.007 — Erik Jones (Toyota), afternoon session

189.827 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Ford), afternoon session

189.281 — William Byron (Chevrolet), morning session

189.009 — Kasey Kahne (Chevrolet), afternoon session

188.745 — Brad Keselowski (Ford), morning session

187.754 — Kurt Busch (Ford), morning session

187.500 — Paul Menard (Ford), morning session

187.500 — Ty Dillon (Chevrolet), morning session

187.318 — Chris Buescher (Chevrolet), afternoon session

187.298 — Darrell Wallace Jr. (Chevrolet), afternoon session

186.761 — Cole Custer (Ford), afternoon session

184.319 — Drew Herring (Toyota), morning session

183.824 — Justin Allgaier (Chevrolet), morning session

180.542 — David Ragan (Ford), morning session

NOTE: Herring, Allgaier and Ragan were driving wheel force cars for their respective manufacturers. Custer was in the No. 32 Go Fas Racing car.

TOP SPEEDS IN AFTERNOON SESSION

191.259 — Kyle Larson (Chevrolet)

190.027 — Ryan Newman (Chevrolet)

190.007 — Erik Jones (Toyota)

189.827 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Ford)

189.009 — Kasey Kahne (Chevrolet)

TOP SPEEDS IN MORNING SESSION

189.281 — William Byron (Chevrolet)

189.129 — Kyle Larson (Chevrolet)

188.745 — Brad Keselowski (Ford)

188.686 — Ryan Newman (Chevrolet)

187.754 — Kurt Busch (Ford)

 and on Facebook

Kyle Larson posts fastest lap in opening day of Las Vegas test

Photo: Chevrolet
Leave a comment

Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Wednesday’s organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The test, which featured 16 Cup drivers, concludes Thursday.

Larson led the way with a lap of 188.403 mph in the afternoon session. Brad Keselowski won the pole last spring at Las Vegas with a lap of 193.68 mph.

Rookie William Byron was next on the speed chart Wednesday with a lap of 188.298 mph, a time he set in the morning session. Ryan Newman was third at 188.186 mph, also set in the morning session.

The top three were all in Chevrolets. Wednesday marked the first time for many Chevrolet teams to be on track with the new Camaro.

“It seems fine,’’ Larson said of the new car. “It doesn’t seem too much different than the other car. Maybe it will be different once we get in traffic and stuff, but at a test you don’t really get to simulate that. It seemed to have good speed.”

Drivers expressed caution in reading too much into the day’s testing results.

“You never know who is tuned up to try to raise morale within their own team and who is legit,’’ Keselowski said. “I think usually the bigger teams are fairly legit at these tests, but then again from a production standpoint sometimes teams don’t bring their best cars.

“I know that Penske is notorious for that. We kind of always bring a car that is a generation or two behind just for production reasons, not because we’re trying to hide anything. We’re trying to make sure that all of our people are working on the race car not the test car.

“So you can never really tell for certain. That doesn’t mean you still can’t work on things. What we really put stock into is can we find something, can we identify the things that really make a difference in our race car and tune those and perhaps have a better understanding for when we come back to this track or one of similar nature.’’

Kurt Busch, who was fourth on the speed chart with a lap of 187.846 mph, said he was pleased with his car during the test.

“The car has speed,’’  he said. “It’s really similar on the balance for us with our Ford because we didn’t get a new body upgrade or anything over the offseason. Now it’s just a matter of settling in with my new crew chief, Billy Scott, and this group on the 41 car.’’

Here’s the day’s fastest laps from both sessions combined:

188.403 mph — Kyle Larson (Chevrolet), afternoon session

188.298 mph — William Byron (Chevrolet), morning session

188.186 mph — Ryan Newman (Chevrolet), morning session

187.846 mph — Kurt Busch (Ford), morning session

186.722 mph — Erik Jones (Toyota), afternoon session

186.574 mph — Brad Keselowski (Ford) afternoon session

186.245 mph — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Ford) morning session

186.200 mph — Kasey Kahne (Chevrolet), morning session

185.970 mph — Darrell Wallace Jr. (Chevrolet), morning session

185.701 mph — Paul Menard (Ford), afternoon session

185.631 mph — Chris Buescher (Chevrolet), morning session

185.052 mph — Ty Dillon (Chevrolet), morning session

184.887 mph — Drew Herring (Toyota), afternoon session

184.225 mph — Cole Custer (Ford), afternoon session

182.760 mph — Justin Allgaier (Chevrolet), morning session

181.971 mph — David Ragan (Ford), morning session

NOTE: Herring, Allgaier and Ragan were driving wheel force cars for their respective manufacturers. Custer was in the No. 32 Go Fas Racing car.

 

TOP LAPS IN MORNING SESSION

188.298 mph — William Byron (Chevrolet)

188.186 mph — Ryan Newman (Chevrolet)

187.846 mph — Kurt Busch (Ford)

187.643 mph — Kyle Larson (Chevrolet)

186.509 mph — Erik Jones (Toyota)

 

TOP LAPS IN AFTERNOON SESSION

188.403 mph — Kyle Larson (Chevrolet)

187.162 mph — Ryan Newman (Chevrolet)

187.091 mph — William Byron (Chevrolet)

187.838 mph — Kurt Busch (Ford)

186.722 mph — Erik Jones (Toyota)

 

Testing … 1 … 2 … 3 … Cup teams set for Las Vegas test

Photo by Maddie Meyer/NASCAR via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sixteen drivers, including former champions Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch, are scheduled to take part in an organizational test Wednesday and Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time for many teams to be on track for 2018. It marks the first time more than one Chevrolet Camaro – which is making its Cup debut this season – will be on track. Only Chase Elliott was on track with it earlier this month at a Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway. This week’s test comes about a month before the Cup Series returns to Las Vegas for the season’s third race of the year on March 4.

In an organizational test, each organization is allowed to have one team (and one driver) participate. Not all teams are participating. Furniture Row Racing, which won the championship last year with Martin Truex Jr., is not scheduled to take part in the test. He and the team took part in the Goodyear test at Texas.

Scheduled to test are:

Brad Keselowski (Team Penske)

Ty Dillon (Germain Racing)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing)

Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing)

Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing)

William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports)

Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing)

Cole Custer (Go Fas Racing)

Chris Buescher (JTG Daugherty)

Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing)

Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing)

Darrell Wallace Jr. (Richard Petty Motorsports)

Kasey Kahne (Leavine Family Racing)

Justin Allgaier (Chevrolet)

David Ragan (Ford)

Drew Herring (Toyota)

 and on Facebook

Kaz Grala joining JGL Racing full-time in Xfinity next season

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kaz Grala will make the move to the Xfinity Series in 2018 when he competes full-time in the No. 24 Ford for JGL Racing, the team announced Friday.

Grala, 18, makes the move after one season in the Camping World Truck Series with GMS Racing. Grala earned one win, in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. He is the youngest driver to win a national NASCAR race at Daytona.

Multiple drivers piloted the No. 24 this season, including Dylan Lupton, Corey LaJoie, Jeb Burton and Drew Herring. JGL Racing also fielded the No. 28 for Dakoda Armstrong, but the car hasn’t run since Kentucky due to a lack of sponsorship.

“I am beyond excited about the opportunity to drive for JGL Racing next year full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” Grala said in a press release. “I’ve been watching Xfinity races since I was a little kid, so to be able to compete at that high of a level is nothing short of a dream come true. I can’t thank James Whitener (owner of JGL Racing) and everyone at JGL enough for this opportunity.”

Grala has five top fives and an average finish of 14.1 in the No. 33 truck ahead of tonight’s season finale in the Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

JGL Racing’s move from Toyota to Ford coincides with the team entering a technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing.

“These are exciting times for the JGL Racing organization,” Whitener said in a press release.  “We appreciate the support we have received from Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing over the last few years. We felt that in order for our team to make the next step in our growth process that we needed a more robust technical alliance behind us – and this opportunity with Ford Performance and Roush Fenway Racing provided us that and made the most sense. We look forward to finishing out the season in our No. 24 car and then we will turn our attention to 2018 and getting all of the proper pieces into place.”