But Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seventh Cup victory of his career, had additional weight for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Not long after the race, Elliott posted a picture on Instagram of him celebrating on the frontstretch. At the bottom of the picture was a drawing of a character saying “send it.”
A sticker of that figure, which is a walrus, is located on the front bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.
“Sent it, for Judd,” Elliott wrote in the Instagram post. “This ones for you brother, miss you my friend. That sticker will forever stay on the front of that 9 car, I promise y’all that.”
On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Elliott on NASCAR America at Home the meaning behind the sticker.
“Judd (Plott) was my best friend since I was a kid, he and I grew up together,” Elliott said. “His mom sang at my parent’s wedding and just my best friend since I can remember. Lost him last fall. That sticker is kind of remembrance of him. He had a tattoo on his leg of that little walrus and that was kind of his little logo.
“So I had a friend make up some stickers last fall after (Judd passed), and I just thought it’d be really cool to carry that moving forward. He was my best friend as long as I can remember and just always supportive and just felt like it’d be special to carry that for the rest of my career and always remember him and he was one of a kind and he was a genuinely good dude.”
Following Thursday’s race, the Cup Series competes Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Like the previous four races, it will be a one-day show. Elliott shared his thoughts on how a limited at-track schedule and condensed crew rosters are bringing the No. 9 team together.
“It’s brought an excitement back to it that I haven’t had in a little while, from the standpoint of I feel like I’m short-track racing again,” Elliott said. “I feel like it’s brought our team closer together because different guys on our team are having to do more jobs. Like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson is) having to come off the box and catch tires during the pitstop. And that’s brought him closer to our pit crew. I’m having a couple more items to do and keep up with than what I had before and I think all that is bringing us closer together. And for me, it’s just been a lot of fun kind of condensing the group and doing more racing and less sitting around.”
The one-day show at Bristol has an added element to it. Without any prior track activity before Sunday’s green flag, the traction compound added to the lower lanes in the turns will be more difficult for drivers to navigate.
Elliott thinks it’s been “overlooked a little bit.”
“(The traction compound) does not like to be run on until it gets run in and those are two things that don’t go good together, right?” Elliott said. “Because it doesn’t have grip and nobody wants to run on it. But we all want it at the same time because we want another option. What I’ve noticed is it seems like it takes the leaders catching lap cars and forcing cars into a position that they don’t want to be in to start to run that stuff in. Until it gets run in, it’s really hard. It’s really slick.
“And I think that’s probably the biggest thing is just, you know, marrying up all those things, right? Do we have the splitter height, right? How slick is that stuff going to be? How long is it going to take it to come in. And when it does come in how long until it wears out and the top becomes the advantage because it typically does by the end of a race.
“But we typically have a full weekend to practice and qualifying and a Xfinity race. And a lot of times we don’t see that top line become dominant until late in the Cup race on Sunday. So I’m really curious to see how all those things play out.”
Stewart-Haas trio remembers final Myrtle Beach Xfinity race
Fourteen years before they were paired on the No. 4 Cup car, they raced against each other in the final Xfinity (Busch) Series race on the .538-mile track.
Harvick was in the middle of his rookie year driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.
Childers, a veteran winner on the late model circuit, made his first and only Xfinity Series start. He did it in the No. 49 car owned by future Premium Motorsports owner Jay Robinson.
Tim Fedewa was making one of his 333 career Xfinity starts.
They barely knew each other.
“I did not know anything about Rodney Childers at that particular time,” Harvick said in a media release.
“I knew of Rodney, but I didn’t know him,” Fedewa said in the media release. “But I remember talking with him at Myrtle Beach that weekend. I think that was the first time I ever talked with him.”
“I knew who they were,” Childers recalled in the media release. “About that time, Kevin was going to be moving up to run some Cup races and they needed somebody to run the races he couldn’t run, and I was actually trying to talk to them about running those races.”
They each have varying recollections of the race weekend, but Childers said he remembers “everything about it.”
“I started driving for (Robinson) that year and we were racing in what is now called the CARS tour. We went to the first six races and won all of them.”
After being asked to leave the series due to their dominance, Robinson eyed the Busch Series and purchased a car at an auction.
Their team that showed up at Myrtle Beach team consisted of only three people.
“We went out for qualifying and there were (47 cars) there for the race,” Childers recalled. “Everybody had been picking up on their second lap, so I was going to take it easy on my first lap and get after it on my second lap. Well, my first lap, I was actually quick enough for 30th out of 57. My second lap, I buried it in the corner and got loose. Threw the lap away.”
It wasn’t far into the 250-lap race that Childers discovered his car wasn’t up to snuff.
“About Lap 10, I found out I didn’t have any brakes,” Childers said. “But we were just riding around there and Randy LaJoie and Jeff Purvis got together in Turn 1. Everyone was checking up and Blaise Alexander was in front of me and he turned down into my right front because someone turned into him. I jerked the wheel to the left, but got hit and the next thing I knew I was nosed into the inside wall in Turn 1.”
Childers would finish last in his only Xfinity start, but he doesn’t mind.
“To be able to make the race with that many cars was actually a huge accomplishment,” Childers said. “There were a lot of people back then that were missing Busch races.”
Not among those missing races were Fedewa and Harvick.
For Fedewa, he was competing in his eighth Myrtle Beach race.
“You forget the level of competition,” Fedewa said of the 2000 race. “I ran between 13th and 10th and I can’t believe how hard it was to even get to 10th.”
Fedewa was involved in two wrecks. The last, a one-car incident, took him out on Lap 197. He finished 38th.
“You probably had 45 good teams that were just racing in the Busch Series,” Fedewa said. “Maybe they didn’t run all of them, but they ran most of them. The short tracks, it was doable for a late model team to buy a car and compete. Because we didn’t have wind tunnel time, a short track team could buy a car or build a car, go to Myrtle Beach and make the show.”
As for Harvick, he started on the front row with Jeff Green and would lead the initial 25 laps in his first and only visit to the track.
“Going there for the first time, I didn’t have the right concept of what I was supposed to be doing with saving tires and stuff like that. I was hammer down all the time,” Harvick said.
The only other thing that Harvick remembers is “I jacked (Green) up at one point just trying the mess with him because that’s just what we did back in those days. Jeff and I went back and forth during the 2000 and 2001 time period. He was sort of the guy at that point, and I wanted to be the guy. I thought running into him was the best way to get the most attention. Obviously, in the today’s world, you realize that beating him would’ve been much better.”
Harvick finished second to Green, who claimed one of his six victories on the way to a championship.
Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to friend
Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.
Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.
Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.
When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.
Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.
During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.
But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.
He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.
“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.
In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.
So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?
“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.
“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”
Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.
“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”
But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.
“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.
“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.
“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”
4. Who will be the fourth?
Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.
It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.
Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.
Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.
Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.
Or is it someone else?
5. Moving on
Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”
His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.
After 20 years, 400+ professional starts, 20+ wins, and the experience of a lifetime, I’m hanging up the helmet. Deeply appreciative of the amazing friendships I’ve made. I have not deserved this journey. Onwards and upwards. Time to reinvent. pic.twitter.com/vpTybtt5Pz
Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.
“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.
“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”
While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”
As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.
Randy LaJoie is a man on a mission. He wants to keep race car drivers – particularly those in grassroots racing – as safe as possible.
For more than 20 years, the two-time Busch Series champion (1996-97) has dedicated his post-racing life to keeping drivers safe, with special emphasis on sportsman and amateur racers who oftentimes race with inferior safety equipment … if any at all.
Because of the cost involved, many grassroots tracks and local series don’t require some of the same equipment found in the higher levels of stock car racing, particularly in NASCAR.
That’s where LaJoie comes in.
Since forming his business, The Joie of Seating, in 1998, as well as forming a non-profit foundation, The Safer Racer Tour, in 2007, LaJoie has become one of the most prolific advocates of safety, particularly with the type of race car seats he builds and sells.
“Since I put the helmet on the shelf, I’ve been concentrating on keeping short track America safe,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “I go to race tracks, talk at the driver meetings, show videos. I’ll also inspect cars, look in the driver’s cockpit and besides that, trade shows, race tracks.
“By the end of this year, I’ll have visited 175 race tracks since 2006. We’ve been educating the short track world on seat safety.”
Since he began racing in his native Connecticut (he now resides in North Carolina) nearly 40 years ago, LaJoie has seen how important safety is in the dangerous world of racing. He’s seen a number of close friends, including the late Dale Earnhardt, killed in racing incidents.
One would think that safety, particularly given Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, would be on the forefront of every racer’s mind.
In the grassroots world, when it comes to deciding what to spend their limited funds on, drivers spend their money on tires, car parts, new race cars – but not safety equipment
“The safety business is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” LaJoie said. “Sometimes it just amazes me when I go out to these race tracks and talk to these people.
“It’s both very humbling but it’s also very aggravating. You can be told ‘no’ umpteen different ways and it’s simply amazing that some people say, ‘Oh, you just want to sell a seat.’ Yes, I do want to sell a seat, but I also tell them I don’t want to read about them in the obituaries. No race track wants to lose anybody. If the information is there, let’s just use it.”
To illustrate his dedication to safety, LaJoie estimates he’s invested more than $350,000 into his business. But to him, it’s money well spent.
“I’m very lucky I have the best aluminum seat in the marketplace and I’ve educated the aluminum seat builders,” he said.
He adds with a laugh, “Years ago, I used to call myself a crash-test dummy. But now, with today’s technology, my son (Cup driver Corey LaJoie) uses them and they say it’s rude if you call him a crash test dummy, so I call him a ‘data acquisition technologist.’”
But safety is no laughing matter to LaJoie. He admits he can be a pain to drivers and sanctioning bodies at times, but that’s because he doesn’t want to see any more drivers killed or suffer traumatic permanent injury from the sport they love.
“Safety has been on a back burner and I think I pushed it to the front of some people’s minds and some sanctioning bodies to have them look at it, because I’ve been a stickler for it,” LaJoie said.
The reason LaJoie has been a stickler is simple. Within 18 months, from May 2000 through October 2001, NASCAR lost five well-known drivers, guys LaJoie either was good friends with or had competed against in his career.
That list included Adam Petty (May 12, 2000), Kenny Irwin (July 7, 2000), Tony Roper (October 14, 2000), Dale Earnhardt (February 18, 2001) and Blaise Alexander (October 4, 2001 in an ARCA crash).
“I looked at them and I wrecked just like that and how come I’m still here and they’re not?” LaJoie said.
While there have not been any additional deaths in NASCAR’s three top series since Earnhardt was killed, there have been several fatalities in the grassroots racing ranks.
“I felt it was my call to duty to the short track world to give them all of the information I can on safety,” LaJoie said.
“A life’s a life and it doesn’t matter if they race on Sunday, Saturday or Friday night. These guys need to be taken care. With as much knowledge as we’ve learned in the last 15-plus years in terms of safety, these guys are still 15-plus years behind on short tracks.”
LaJoie’s mission has been quantified countless times over the 20-plus years he’s been in business.
“When you get a phone call from a mom or dad and they say, ‘My kid just flipped all the way down the backstretch last night and he’s okay, thank you,’ that’s like my new victory lane,” LaJoie said.
Safety is also important to LaJoie for a more personal reason: his sonCorey, is a full-time driver in the Cup Series (their other son, Casey, works as an announcer for MAV-TV and also as social media director at Kaulig Racing).
“Any time when there’s 40 guys on a Sunday in Cup racing, and your son is one of them, I’m so damn proud of him,” Randy said of Corey. “I’m glad he’s gotten the chance.”
LaJoie, 57, is also very proud of the seats he produces, not just for their design and ability to keep drivers safe behind the wheel, particularly when they’re involved in crashes, but also for their durability. His seats are all certified by the SFI Foundation Inc., the leading overseer of safety in motorsports.
“Some of my seats from 15 years ago are still in use,” LaJoie said, adding proudly, “that’s why my seats are better than everyone else’s. I built them the right way. I haven’t junked many of them.”
The foundation LaJoie established in 2007, the Safer Racer Tour, is a further extension of his dedication to safety in grassroots racing. That’s why he visits so many short tracks and tries to talk sense into drivers who have a “it’ll never happen to me” mindset.
“I’d say 99.7 percent of short track drivers don’t pay attention to safety,” LaJoie said. “But short track America still is much safer today mainly because of Dale Sr.
“Do you know how many lives that man saved? It’s sad that we lost him, but the industry needed to lose a hero so they could save other heroes.”