Jimmie Johnson

Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Daniel Hemric fastest in first Coca-Cola 600 practice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Daniel Hemric was fastest in the first Cup Series practice session for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

Hemric posted a top speed of 182.791 mph around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He was followed by Chase Elliott (182.340 mph), William Byron (182.211), Kyle Busch (182.168) and Jimmie Johnson (182.008).

Alex Bowman was seventh to put all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top 10.

Austin Dillon in eighth gave Chevrolet six cars in the top 10.

Landon Cassill recorded the most laps in the session with 37. He was 32nd on the speed chart.

Click here for the speed chart.

Gallery: Coca-Cola 600 patriotic paint schemes

Photos by Daniel McFadin
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With Memorial Day weekend here, many NASCAR teams will be racing patriotic paint schemes in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Here’s a look at the unique schemes that will compete in NASCAR’s longest race.

All photos by Daniel McFadin.

Landon Cassill – No. 00 Chevrolet

Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford

Ryan Newman – No. 6 Ford

Aric Almirola – No. 10 Ford

Ty Dillon – No. 13 Chevrolet

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – No. 17 Ford

Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Toyota

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet

Corey LaJoie – No. 32 Ford

 

Michael McDowell – No. 34 Ford

Matt Tifft – No. 36 Ford

David Ragan – No. 36 Ford

Ryan Preece – No. 47 Chevrolet

Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet

Cody Ware – No. 51 Ford

Bayley Currey – No. 52 Ford

BJ McLeod – No. 53 Chevrolet

Alex Bowman – No. 88 Chevrolet

Xfinity Series

Michael Annett – No. 1 Chevrolet

Jefferey Earnhardt – No. 18 Toyota

Ryan Sieg – No. 39 Chevrolet

Mike Harmon – No. 74 Chevrolet

Bump and Run: Which IndyCar, NASCAR drivers should try other series?

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Who is an IndyCar driver you’d like to see try NASCAR and a NASCAR driver you’d like to see try IndyCar?

Nate Ryan: Alexander Rossi in NASCAR (watch his restarts in the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and imagine what he could bring to NASCAR’s double-file lineups on a regular basis). Larson or Kyle Busch in IndyCar because of their raw talent and desire to race the event.

Dustin Long: Colton Herta in NASCAR. The 19-year-old was on the team that won the GT Le Mans class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January and set the race’s fastest lap in his class. He followed that by becoming the youngest driver to win an IndyCar race when he took the checkered flag first in March at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. As for a NASCAR driver in IndyCar. It would be fun to see what Kyle Busch could do in those cars.

Daniel McFadin: James Hinchcliffe is my easy pick to go from IndyCar to NASCAR. His personality in the NASCAR garage would be welcome and a ton of fun. On the flip side, throwing the often abrasive Kyle Busch into the IndyCar swimming pool would be a treat, both to see his driving ability showcased and to see his personality clash with others.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d like to see either Josef Newgarden or Will Power try NASCAR. Newgarden because he’s from NASCAR country (Tennessee native) and Power because he said recently he’d be open for the challenge. I’d like to see Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch try IndyCar.

 

Who needed the result more in the All-Star Race: Winner Kyle Larson or fifth-placer finisher Bubba Wallace?

Nate Ryan: Bubba Wallace. This was one of the best days of his NASCAR career, ranking just behind the first truck win at Martinsville and last year’s runner-up showing at the Daytona 500. It was a morale booster for Larson and the No. 42 team, but they still need a points win for full validation.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson needed it more. No doubt the result was big for Bubba Wallace, who has had his struggles recently. For Larson and his team it shows they can win. It’s one thing to think you can and another to do it in a season that has been dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. Could this help build momentum for Larson and his team to carry through the upcoming races?

Daniel McFadin: Bubba Wallace for sure. Kyle Larson’s racing future is secure. Wallace’s is much more uncertain and with Richard Petty Motorsports’ struggles to find sponsorship, that brief moment in the spotlight could prove to be valuable. But on a personal level, Wallace needed it more as a reminder he’s kind of good at this whole racing deal.

Jerry Bonkowski: While Larson certainly needed a win, it came in a non-points paying race, so it has no impact upon him going forward in the regular Cup standings and/or playoff contention. I believe the finish for Bubba was needed more because of the difficult season he’s had to date both performance-wise and personally. Both drivers have struggled, but Bubba needed this showing more.

 

NASCAR does not plan to penalize either Clint Bowyer or Ryan Newman for what happened during and after the All-Star Race between those two. Good call?

Nate Ryan: Yes. Legislating behavior must be avoided except for extreme circumstances because NASCAR needs more emotion like this, not less.

Dustin Long: Yes. NASCAR is being consistent. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano were not penalized for their fight on pit road after the Las Vegas race in March 2017. No need to penalize Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman after talking with both on Saturday night.

Daniel McFadin: I was in the grandstands on Saturday night and the crowd roared when the shot of Bowyer going after Newman was flashed on backstretch video board. No one was hurt and it added even more electricity to the race’s narrative. Why fine someone for something you’re going to use to promote the event for as long as you continue to hold it?

Jerry Bonkowski: Bad call. While I understand the heat of the moment and Bowyer’s anger at Newman, his post-race fists of fury actions warranted some kind of penalty. If this had been a points-paying race, something like that would have merited at least a one-race suspension.

 

The two non-points races this year were won by Jimmie Johnson (Clash at Daytona) and Kyle Larson (All-Star Race). Johnson is winless in 71 points races. Larson is winless in his 58 points races. Will either have a win before the playoffs start?

Nate Ryan: Yes, they both win in the regular season.

Dustin Long: Yes. Would put Kyle Larson down for the Bristol night race, if not sooner. I’ll put Jimmie Johnson down for Michigan in August.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson is more than likely to have a win between now and September. While Johnson has shown flashes of improvement over the last four months, based on what we’ve seen lately, I don’t have a lot of confidence that the No. 48 team will find what they need to be in victory lane anytime soon outside stealing a win at Daytona

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, both drivers will win before the playoffs start. If one or both fails to do so, the only way they would make the playoffs is on points. And that’s always an iffy proposition. To use a well-worn phrase, they have to win to get in. Both will do so.

Kyle Busch remains hopeful of competing in Indy 500 some day

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. – Will Kyle Busch be the next NASCAR driver to run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day?

Busch said he remains hopeful of he can join his brother, Kurt, as among the few drivers to do so.

“The window is probably closing but, honestly if I continue to work out and try to get in shape or stay in shape or get in better shape, then I can continue to keep that door open for longer,” Busch said Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I’ve been doing all those things. Whether or not the opportunity is ever presented, we’ll see what happens. As of right now I don’t have any plans.”

Kurt Busch in the 2014 Indianapolis 500. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

John Andretti was the first driver to compete in both races on the same day in 1994. Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch also have competed in both races on the same day.

Stewart had the best result, finishing sixth in the 2001 Indianapolis 500 and placing third at Charlotte that night.

Kurt Busch was the last driver to compete the double, doing so in 2014. He finished sixth in the Indianapolis 500 and was the rookie of the year. A blown engine ended his Charlotte race early that night.

No driver has attempted the double since.

Jimmie Johnson will attend the start of the Indianapolis 500 before returning to Charlotte to compete in the 600. Johnson was as Indy for practice Thursday.

As for what he’s looking forward to seeing at Indianapolis, Johnson said: “I want to go up and see that place packed full of people and feel the energy that I’ve heard about so many times.”

As for running in the Indy 500,  which will be broadcast by NBC this year,Johnson said he has no plans.