Cale Yarborough

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to friend

Leave a comment

The record books list Jimmie Johnson as a seven-time Cup champion.

But they are wrong.

They credit him with 83 Cup victories.

Again, they are wrong.

Truth is, Johnson has never won in Cup.

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.

2. More of the same in 2020?

With the industry’s focus on the Next Gen car in 2021, one of the concessions is that there won’t be as many rule changes for next season.

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?

Yes, Chevrolet has an updated car and there are some wind-tunnel testing restrictions, but will it be enough to top Toyota and Gibbs? Or will next year be more of the same?

“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.”

3. A new tire isn’t that simple

As NASCAR looks at the racing, particularly at short tracks, one idea from fans is that Goodyear should change the tire so that it wears more.

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.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace at Darlington Raceway in 2015. (Photo: Dustin Long)

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.”

Marks, who came from a road racing background, made 79 starts throughout his NASCAR career among Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He had 38 Truck starts and 35 Xfinity starts.

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.

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.

 and on Facebook

Jimmie Johnson announces that 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season

9 Comments

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, considered one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, announced Wednesday that the 2020 season will be his final full-time Cup season.

“I know what this team is capable of, and I hope that 2020 is the best yet,” the future NASCAR Hall of Famer said in a video on Twitter.

Johnson’s contract expires after the 2020 season. Sponsor Ally extended its sponsorship of the No. 48 car in October through 2023. That led to questions of if Johnson would continue beyond next season. Johnson’s announcement comes three days after the Cup season ended. 

Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most series titles. Some would argue that Johnson is NASCAR’s greatest driver, noting his record five consecutive championships (2006-10) and success in what is viewed as the sport’s most competitive era. Johnson’s titles also came with different types of cars and with various playoff systems.

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France issued a statement praising Johnson’s career:

“NASCAR history will always hold Jimmie Johnson in the highest regard, for his hard-charging success on the racetrack and the way he conducted himself as a champion off the track,” France stated. “This remarkable seven-time champion – through his competitive spirit, immense talent and sportsmanship – has made NASCAR a better sport. On behalf of my family and the entire NASCAR community, I thank Jimmie for his dedication to NASCAR and, along with his legions of fans, wish him all the best in his final season. I look forward to watching him race for wins and an eighth NASCAR Cup Championship in 2020.”

Johnson has 83 career Cup wins, which is tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time victory list, but has not won since Dover in June 2017. Johnson will enter the 2020 season with a 95-race winless streak. The 2020 season will be his 19th full-time campaign in Cup.

The 2019 season marked Johnson’s first without crew chief Chad Knaus. Kevin Meendering started the year as Johnson’s crew chief but was replaced by engineer Cliff Daniels in July before the race at Watkins Glen as the team struggled to make the playoffs.

Even with the move, Johnson failed to make the playoffs. It marked the first time since NASCAR’s postseason format debuted in 2004 that he was not a part of it. In his 15 races with Daniels this season, Johnson had four top-10 finishes with a best of eighth in the Dover playoff race.

Johnson has two Daytona 500 wins, four Brickyard 400 victories, four Coca-Cola 600 triumphs and two Southern 500 wins.

Career timeline: Jimmie Johnson through the years

Johnson will meet with the media Thursday afternoon to explain his decision.

While Johnson will not race a full schedule after 2020, he has said repeatedly that he plans to continue to race. He has expressed an interest in road racing and competing in an IndyCar race on a road course.

The timing of the announcement allows Johnson to celebrate one final season in Cup and gives Hendrick Motorsports time to find his successor with a move that could lead to significant changes in driver lineups for multiple teams for the 2021 season.

Johnson’s announcement sent shock waves through the sport.

Friday 5: Did driver quit NASCAR race to watch man walk on moon?

Leave a comment

As the celebration of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon 50 years ago takes place Saturday, the event puts a spotlight on NASCAR folklore.

And an independent driver named Henley Gray.

The story goes that Gray pulled off the track and quit the Bristol race so he could return to his Rome, Georgia, home and watch man walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Here’s what is known: NASCAR raced that day at Bristol. The Volunteer 500 began at 1:30 p.m. ET. with a field that included Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker among the 32 drivers.

Pearson won. Runner-up Bobby Isaac finished three laps down. Gray placed 15th, completing 206 of 500 laps. The reason he did not finish is listed as “quit.”

The race ended just after 4:30 p.m. ET. The Eagle lunar module with Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 p.m. ET. Armstrong didn’t step on to the moon until 10:56 p.m. ET.

Based solely on the timeline, the story is possible that Gray quit to watch man walk on the moon.

But there’s a problem.

“That didn’t happen,” Gray told NBC Sports this week. “I don’t know how that got started.”

Gray is 86 “I’ll be 86 and a half next month,“ he said. “Halves count when you get my age.” — and ran 374 Cup races from 1964-77. He never won.

His best finish was fourth at Nashville on July 30, 1966. Petty won the 400-lap race, leading every lap. Petty was followed by Buck Baker (five laps down), Allison (six laps down) and Gray (17 laps down) in a field of 28 cars. Henley went on to finish a career-high fourth in the points that season. It was the only season he placed in the top 10.

Since he wasn’t a “hot dog” as he called the factory-backed drivers of that era, Henley admits he quit some races. As an independent, he had to be wise with his money. Sometimes it wasn’t worth running 100 more laps in hopes of earning another $100 when the wear and tear on the car would be greater. So he packed up and headed to the next race.

“I was having a ball,” Gray said of his career. “I wasn’t making any money, but I was having a ball.”

After a crash at Michigan ended his driving career, Gray remained in the sport as an owner.

Dale Earnhardt drove for Gray in October 1977 at Charlotte. It was Earnhardt’s fourth career Cup start. He finished 38th after a rear end failure 25 laps into the race. Baker drove for Gray at Martinsville in April 1982, finishing 28th. Benny Parsons finished 28th at Daytona in July 1982 in Gray’s car.

Gray goes from one story to the next, recalling his career, laughing at the stories and times with drivers who have since passed.

But he is adamant. He didn’t leave Bristol early to watch man on the moon.

Now, there is one story that is true about Gray looking up to the heavens.

“(One) time, there were three of us on our way from Charlotte going down to Rockingham, an eclipse was going to happen at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “We pulled over on the side of the road and stood there for a while and watched all the eclipse and got back in the trucks and went on to the race.”

2. NASCAR is watching

Alex Bowman on the roof of his car after winning at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Twice in the last three weeks, victory celebrations featured drivers standing on the roof of their car. Alex Bowman did it after he scored his first Cup win three weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway. Kurt Busch did it last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

In the early 2000s, NASCAR frowned upon drivers standing on the car’s roof after a victory. NASCAR penalized a team after its roof was found to be too low. It so happened that the team’s driver jumped on the roof after winning. That celebration went away.  

Kurt Busch celebrates his Kentucky win atop his car’s roof. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

What Bowman and Busch did evokes the spontaneity some suggest has been lost because of corporate sponsorship and the need for drivers to thank sponsors before relishing a victory.

Last week also saw five crew members ride on Kurt Busch’s winning car from the start/finish line after his celebration there. The moment was lauded on social media for how it resembled such celebrations decades ago. 

It’s a wonderful image. So is a driver standing on the roof of a car after winning. But both present potential problems for NASCAR.

In an era where a failure in post-race inspection can lead to a disqualification of any car, including the winner, NASCAR has to be mindful of ensuring the vehicle’s integrity while permitting celebrations that fans enjoy. 

On the recent celebrations by Bowman and Busch, a NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports: “Our inspectors are very good at their jobs, so it hasn’t been an issue thus far. We will continue to remind the teams about celebrating responsibly.

We will not hesitate to make a stand if celebrations turn nefarious, but the very recent trends of drivers being human and showing emotion over something they’ve worked so hard for isn’t hurting the integrity of the sport in our opinion.”

3. A new strategy

Since lightning stopped the Daytona race a couple of weeks ago and rain later finished it, some teams are taking a closer look at how they monitor weather.

Previously, many watched radars for when rain would arrive at the track. Now, teams have to be aware of NASCAR’s policy that any lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of the track will stop the action.

While there’s no way to predict when and where lightning will strike, if an approaching storm features lightning, teams will have to be aware of that.

Kurt Busch gave up the lead at Daytona under caution to pit when NASCAR announced that the restart would be on the next lap. Shortly after pitting, lightning struck 6.3 miles from the track and the race was stopped with Justin Haley in the lead. The race never resumed and Haley won.

“I asked NASCAR about their policy and how they handle things and what they look at so we are now making sure we copy everything the same,” Kurt Busch said. “That will help us gauge how to call a better race.”

Said Kyle Busch: “That’s certainly something that we all have to got to look at and think about now.”

Lightning won’t be an issue this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, drivers will have to deal with the heat. Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s this weekend.

4. Beating the Big 3 in Xfinity 

Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick went 1-2-3 last weekend in the Kentucky Xfinity race, continuing their dominance this season. They’ve combined to win 10 of the last 11 races (Ross Chastain‘s win at Daytona was the exception). Twice, the trio took the top three spots in a race (Bristol and Kentucky). In seven of the last 11 races, the trio has taken at least two of the top three spots.

So, who can top them?

Michael Annett finished fourth at Kentucky and said that was a key performance for his JR Motorsports team.

“At least I’m able to be up there and see where they’re better,” said Annett, who won at Daytona and has 12 top 10s in 17 races this season. “I’m at least able to see that now in the race and just be able to put a whole weekend together. That’s what you’re going to have to do to beat those guys.”

Justin Allgaier, who has six top-three finishes this season, also sees the progress Annett, his teammate, sees.

“I felt (at Kentucky) we were way closer to them speed wise than we have been,” said Allgaier, who finished seventh. “We ran right there with (Custer and Bell) for quite a while.”

Allgaier admits that’s something he couldn’t say earlier in the season.

5. Sticky situation  

This marks the second of three consecutive weekends that a traction compound will be applied to a track surface. It was done last weekend at Kentucky, will be done this week at New Hampshire and also will be done at next week at Pocono.

Watkins Glen follows Pocono but the next oval after Pocono is Michigan. There are no plans at this time for Michigan to use the traction compound next month.

Friday 5: The impact Alex Bowman’s win had on a fellow competitor

1 Comment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Seven words transported Landon Cassill through time and space last weekend.

After Alex Bowman retreated from the roof of his car at Chicagoland Speedway, celebrating his first career Cup win, he said of the triumph: “It’s all I’ve wanted my whole life.”

Those words struck Cassill.

“I’ve said the same thing a lot,” Cassill said Thursday, walking from the Xfinity garage to the Cup garage as he competes in both events this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “If I could win just one race. I’ve thought that to myself.

“I think that hit me because I saw myself as (Bowman) winning that race. Then it kind of made me think about everything it takes from the time you are a little kid and everything that somebody like Alex Bowman or myself has had to do in his career.”

Landon Cassill says that Alex Bowman’s win provides ‘a tremendous amount of hope’ that a driver can climb up to a race-winning ride. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Every driver’s journey is different. Cassill was hired as a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports before he graduated high school in Iowa. He served as a test driver, helping the team develop the Car of Tomorrow. Cassill drove for JR Motorsports in 19 of 35 Xfinity races in 2008 but then ran only one Xfinity race the following season.

He moved to Cup in 2010. His 16 races were spread among three low-budget teams. Much of his career has been with such operations. Cassill, who turns 30 Sunday, has driven for four Cup teams that since have folded.

Still, he’s made 305 Cup starts but has never won. His best finish was fourth at Talladega on Oct. 19, 2014. Combined with Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Cassill has made 440 starts in NASCAR national series. He continues to seek his first win in any of those series.

So when Bowman — whose first 71 Cup starts were with an organization that since has folded — won last weekend, the significance wasn’t lost on Cassill.

He tweeted about how he’s seen Bowman’s journey up close and how “there’s a lot of racecar drivers that felt that win.”

Bowman gives those racers hope, showing that one can climb from the depths of the sport to reach Victory Lane.

“It’s a tremendous amount of hope,” Cassill said of Bowman’s feat. “It’s a reminder to me, you still need massive support to get there, but it was hope that you still need to fight for the kind of support.”

Bowman saw Cassill’s tweet and appreciated the comments.

“Him and I raced each other a lot in the back half of the garage over the years,” Bowman said. “He’s obviously super good and does a lot with a little. You look at guys like Ross Chastain that have kind of had a similar career path. I feel like the back half of the garage doesn’t get the credit they deserve sometimes.”

It’s challenging to move up from the back half of the field. After losing his ride, Bowman was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to be its simulator driver. There were no races with that deal, but it led to nine starts for JR Motorsports, then to substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after he missed the last half of the 2016 season because of a concussion. Bowman took over Earnhardt’s ride in 2018 after Earnhardt retired.

That Bowman’s victory happened just before Cassill’s 4-year-old son drove a go-kart for the first time also made Cassill pause.

“I was looking at a 4-year old,” he said, “and I’m like ‘Man, kid, there’s just no telling what it’s going to take to win just one race.’ ”

Bowman knows.

2. End of an era

This weekend marks the last time Daytona International Speedway is scheduled to host a Cup race on or near July 4. The track has held its race around that time every year but one since 1959. The exception was 1998 when wildfires forced the event to be rescheduled for October. Next year, Daytona will host the regular-season finale on Aug. 29.

In 1949, NASCAR’s inaugural season, the series raced on the beach at Daytona on July 10. When the track opened in 1959, the July 4 date became a staple.

While some view this as a significant weekend because of the date change next year, Clint Bowyer doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s a race, man,” Bowyer said. “I hate to say it. I hope this doesn’t rub someone the wrong way and me saying this, but it’s almost like don’t claim Fourth of July. That’s not the Fourth of July Daytona race. It’s the Fourth of Damn July. Make no mistake about it.

Richard Petty’s 200th and final career Cup race came in the July Daytona race in 1984. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

“I don’t like having to be there practicing Thursday at Daytona. I feel like we’re asking our fans to be there as well. If we’re on the racetrack, that means you’re asking fans to be there. I don’t want it to take away from their Fourth of July.

“I got a family, I got kids. Everybody likes to come over to my house. And unfortunately, that’s going to be a Wednesday night show instead of on the Fourth. Still you could go down then and still put on a show. In my opinion, Daytona stands on its own two feet and it always will. It doesn’t need Fourth of July to be a part of that. Daytona is a celebration all of its own.”

Ryan Blaney said: “I always liked having the Daytona race that weekend, but at the end of the day, it is just a weekend and just a race, and you can move it to whatever date you want. As long as you are going there, you know you are going to a very special racetrack. I always enjoy it being on the weekend of the Fourth.”

But Daytona isn’t the only track to host a Cup race on July 4. Oswego, New York (1952), Spartanburg, South Carolina (1953), Weaverville, North Carolina (1954) and Raleigh, North Carolina (1956-58) also have held races with NASCAR’s top series on July 4.

David Pearson has the most Cup wins on July 4 with five. Tony Stewart and Cale Yarborough scored four wins each on or around July 4.

3. A new idea

Ty Dillon has expressed many ideas on ways the sport can engage fans. With NASCAR’s help, he had a link to a camera in his car at Sonoma that immersed fans in his world during the race.

“I just think the basis of that idea was to have live-streaming cameras in every single race car,” Dillon said. “We can afford that in this sport and whoever wants to do it can do it. That way, we can maybe live stream from each driver’s personal account, team’s account or it can vary week to week. This is to drive fan engagement to certain sponsors, teams and add value that way.”

Dillon wants to do more. He wants drivers to have the ability to respond to fans during a race. He’s willing to extend a stage break caution to do so.

“Drivers, owners, race teams, TV providers all have to understand the importance that we have to open our minds to the fact that between stages is just as important to the future of the sport to communicate to our fans as it is to get in the right call of information,” Dillon said. “Yes, you have to get the right information into our crew chief first, but we can maybe take an extra pace lap under caution for a social lap.”

It’s an interesting concept. Maybe there will come a day where competitors will take an extra lap of caution during stage breaks to answer questions from fans.

4. Not looking back

Justin Haley crossed the finish line first in this Xfinity race a year ago at Daytona International Speedway but was penalized for going below the double yellow lines at the bottom of the track to get by Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler to cross the finish line first.

As he returns for tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), he’s seeking to forget last year’s finish.

“I was more upset with myself and disappointed in myself,” Haley said of that finish. “I’ve never watched the race back. I’ve never seen the finish. I probably won’t watch the race still. It’s just a sore subject for myself. I’m upset that I let my team down and my family down more than anything.”

Even though he has not watched the end of that race, Haley showed Friday he had not forgotten what he calls his first Xfinity win, tweeting about the finish.

5. Tough trick

Only once since 1983 has a driver won both Daytona races in the same season. Jimmie Johnson performed the trick in 2013.

Why is it so much more difficult to sweep at Daytona and Talladega than other tracks?

Let Denny Hamlin, who is going for the sweep Saturday (7 p.m. ET Saturday) after winning the Daytona 500, explain.

“The reason it’s so hard is it’s not about a fast car,” Hamlin said. “It’s not like you can hit on a setup at a racetrack and sweep both races. You see that a lot in a season. Whoever wins the first race at say Pocono or Martinsville, or Richmond, they’ve won that race because they have hit on a setup and their car is fast. When they go back there, they use those notes and they are going to be fast again.

“At Daytona, it’s not setup driven. It is strategic that you really have to make yourself a great race-car driver here. It’s just putting yourself in the right position here at the right time and avoiding the wrecks. It’s hard enough to win one, let alone two, because of all of the variables. It’s so hard to do. The odds are stacked so far against you. That’s why you don’t see it happen very often.”

 and on Facebook

Friday 5: Is time running out for Cup playoff hopefuls?

1 Comment

While the Cup playoff field won’t be set for another four months, there is a shrinking window for those not already in the top 16 in points as the series heads this weekend to Dover International Speedway.

Since 2017 — when stage racing and stage points were added — 84.3 percent of the drivers who were in a playoff spot after 10 races made the playoffs that year.

Take out those who already had wins to be playoff eligible at this point in the season and 81.8 percent of the remaining drivers in a playoff spot after 10 races made it to NASCAR’s postseason the previous two years.

That’s good news for the drivers in the top 16 in points now. Last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway was the 10th of the Cup season.

What’s also telling is that 13 of last year’s 16 playoff drivers are in the top 16 at this point in the season. That’s despite rule changes intended to make the racing tighter and possibly give more drivers chances for better finishes or wins.

The three drivers in a playoff spot this year who were not in that position at this time last year are Chase Elliott (seventh in points this season), Daniel Suarez (12th) and Austin Dillon (14th). They replace Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who were all in a playoff spot at this time last year.

So far, those who have earned a playoff spot with a win this season (provided they start every race) are Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott.

With NASCAR’s system of win and you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. A fuel-mileage race can create a surprise winner or a pit gamble can help someone score an unexpected victory. Maybe a rain-shortened race leads to a new winner.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Last season, no driver outside a playoff spot won any of the final 16 regular-season races.

In 2017, two drivers outside playoff spots won in the final 16 regular-season races to make the postseason. Dillon was 22nd in points entering the Coca-Cola 600 and won that race on a fuel-mileage gamble. Kasey Kahne was 22nd in points later that season entering the Brickyard 400. He won that race in the second overtime.

The question becomes how much will those not in a playoff spot now gamble to score a win and secure a spot instead of having to rely on points to make it? This will be worth watching in the coming weeks.

2. A year later

Talladega winner Chase Elliott has made the biggest jump in the standings compared to where he was after 10 races last year.

A year ago, Elliott was 18th. He is seventh this year, moving up 11 spots. Other big gainers among the top 30 from last year are: Daniel Suarez (up nine spots to 12th this year), Ty Dillon (up five spots to 22nd), Denny Hamlin (up four spots to third) and Austin Dillon (up three spots to 14th).

Those who have fallen the most this year from this point last season: Kyle Larson (dropped 11 spots to 21st), Clint Bowyer (down six spots to 10th this year), Bubba Wallace (down six spots to 28th this year), Erik Jones (down five spots to 18th this season) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (down five spots to 20th this season).

3. Familiar ground

It has been nearly two years since Jimmie Johnson last won a Cup race, but he’s back this weekend at Dover International Speedway, the site of his most recent victory.

Jimmie Johnson winning at Dover in 2017. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Johnson won his 83rd career Cup race June 4, 2017, at Dover to tie him with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the career victory list. That win was Johnson’s 11th at Dover, most of any driver.

In the 69 races since, Johnson has four top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes. He’s led 149 laps during that time. His best finish since that last win is third. He placed third at the fall Dover race in 2017 and third at the spring Bristol race last year. His best finish this season is fifth at Texas. He has four top-10 finishes in the first 10 races of this year.

“The first couple of downforce races we were not where we needed to be,” Johnson said of this season. “I think we’ve kind of rallied back and put some speed in our cars and are going the right way. Based on performance, I would say we are at a ‘C’ but I know the distance we’ve made up here recently.

“If there’s an effort score, I want to score my team really high because we’re working really hard to get there. But at the end of the day, the results are results and we know we’ve got to get better. I feel like we’re headed into ‘B’ territory right now.”

4. Tight rookie battle 

In the Xfinity Series, the rookie race features a tie for first. John Hunter Nemechek and Chase Briscoe are tied for first with 295 points each. Noah Gragson is third with 284 points. Justin Haley is next with 273 points. Brandon Brown completes the top five with 180 points.

5. All for some popcorn?

According to LehighValleyLive.com, two eighth graders have been accused of arson after lighting an abandoned building at Nazareth Speedway on fire last weekend.

Nazareth Speedway hosted what is now the Xfinity Series from 1988-2004 but has sat abandoned since. Martin Truex Jr. won the last NASCAR race there.

Police said that the boys, one age 14 and the other 15, showed up on Snapchat recorded by one of the boys at the scene as the fire burned. According to police, the story says that before the fire, one of the boys stole lighter fluid, a lighter and Jiffy Pop popcorn from a nearby supermarket. According to police, the boys attempted to heat the Jiffy Pop from the fire.

 and on Facebook