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Bump and Run: Which team has stood out?

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Three races in, what team has stood out to you?

Dustin Long: The speed that Jimmie Johnson has shown makes his team team the one stands out the most to me. Rarely was he even close to winning last year. Last weekend at Auto Club, his average running position was 3.6, which was better than every car but winner Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney. Johnson ranked sixth in average running position the week before at Las Vegas at 9.68.

Daniel McFadin: Despite the misfortune that’s struck him beyond his control, Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 team. There’s an alternate dimension where he’s finished in the top two in all three races this season. Despite Joey Logano‘s Las Vegas win, Blaney’s proven to be the strongest Penske car so far, which is a big deal for him in a contract year.

Jerry Bonkowski: Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson has had two strong runs in a row, Chase Elliott has been in contention for each of the first three races, Alex Bowman won Fontana and William Byron has also looked good at times. Given that this is Johnson’s last year in Cup, I think there’s an even greater concerted effort company-wide to not only send him out a winner, but if he falls short, one of his teammates will be ready to step up to the plate. I know it’s a long season, but honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see three or maybe all four HMS drivers in the Championship 4 round come mid-November.

Nate Ryan: Alex Bowman. Hendrick also suffices as an answer, but Bowman’s improvement seems quantum. A month ago, he would have been near the top of my list for drivers on the hot seat. Now he seems most likely to be re-signed first among this year’s large crop of free agents.

 

How much worry should there be with the Toyota camp after the first three races of the season?

Dustin Long: Obviously there’s some concern with Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson’s tweet after the race at Auto Club Speedway agreeing with Kyle Busch that there’s work to do. Let’s see what happens the next few weeks before going into a full panic.

Daniel McFadin: On a scale of 1-10, I’d place their level of worry at a 6. Denny Hamlin has a win and second top 10. Martin Truex Jr. has had winning speed but been the victim of pit road mishaps. It took until race No. 3 for Kyle Busch and Erik Jones to get top 10s. I’d be more worried if Toyota doesn’t have a say in the outcome of this weekend’s race in Phoenix.

Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch almost won at Fontana. Sure, we’d like to see more consistency from Busch or Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones, but again, the season is still very young. Let’s revisit this in about six weeks – when we’re about one-fourth of the way through the season – and then we’ll see if folks will still be crying wolf like some have done already. It’s far too premature to write off the Toyota camp.

Nate Ryan: Not a lot, given that only one race (Las Vegas) is truly indicative of what’s to come the rest of the season. If the Camrys are totally out to lunch at Phoenix, then the warning flag should be raised. But otherwise, the “struggles” of Joe Gibbs Racing are purely relative to the virtually unmatchable success the team posted last year, while also a reminder that NASCAR competition always is cyclical. It still would be a stunner if JGR doesn’t have four playoff cars.

 

Is Hendrick Motorsports back?

Dustin Long: It’s nice start but it’s only two races. This is a long season. There are still many types of tracks and surfaces the series has yet to race on, so let’s not make declarative statements just yet.

Daniel McFadin: I’m cautiously going to say yes. It’s won four out of six stages so far, won one points race and one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson has finished in the top 10 in each stage (plus he finished second in his 500 qualifying race). Take out his DNF in the 500 for a wreck and he’s on fire. Because asking if Hendrick Motorsports is back is the same as asking if Johnson is. And I think the definitive answer to that will come in Phoenix with the lower downforce package.

Jerry Bonkowski: Maybe not totally back, but certainly well on its way. And as I said in the prior question, if what we’ve seen from the four HMS drivers already continues or gets even better, this will be an organization that will have to be reckoned with. It’s rare that a four-car team can have all its teams be totally outstanding in the same season, but HMS is making its competitors stand up and take notice. 

Nate Ryan: It’s early, but the team seems as good as it’s been in five years, and the decision to double down on improving the Camaro (a major spend with a limited ROI) should be viewed as a win for Hendrick and General Motors.

JGR puts three cars in top 10 at Auto Club but work remains

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A week after it failed to place a car higher than 15th at Las Vegas, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota put three cars in the top 10, with Kyle Busch leading the way with a runner-up finish in the Auto Club 400.

But that didn’t keep David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, from noting that race winner Alex Bowman “schooled us.”

Bowman led 110 of 200 laps and won Stage 1 on the way to victory lane.

Meanwhile, Toyota cars led just once for a total of three laps. That was when Martin Truex Jr. – who started at the rear after failing pre-qualifying inspection three times – battled with Bowman in the middle of the final stage.

That’s after Truex led Toyota’s only lap last week at Las Vegas.

Busch only finished second after Ryan Blaney had to pit for a corded tire with three laps to go. After starting 17th, Busch placed 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2.

His runner-up finish is his first top 10 of the season.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch told Fox. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second-place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.”

Behind Busch were Denny Hamlin in sixth and Erik Jones in 10th.

Hamlin was running in fourth on Lap 140 when his No. 11 Toyota brushed the wall exiting Turn 2 and he dropped to seventh.

“We’re still slow,” Hamlin said. “Our cars handled okay. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.”

Jones’ top 10 is his best finish of the season after he placed 18th at Daytona and 23rd in Vegas.

He called the race “a step in the right direction.”

“I don’t think any of us really had race-winning speed,” Jones said. “I think Kyle (Busch) got some good track position on that restart and was able to maintain. We got shuffled back and kind of had to come back from 15th. I don’t know, I think we’re off. We didn’t have anything for the 88 (Alex Bowman) or anything like that.”

After making his way to the front, Truex’s status as a contender ended with a slow pit stop on Lap 160 when a tire changer’s hand cramped up. He finished 14th.

Meanwhile, the rookie campaign of Leavine Family Racing’s Christopher Bell remains stuck in neutral after three races.

After wrecking out of the Daytona 500 and placing 33rd in Vegas following a crash, Bell was the only driver who failed to finish the race Sunday. His day ended on Lap 80 when he went to the garage after a bolt from another car struck a hole in the oil cooler on his No. 95 Toyota.

Gaunt Brothers Racing and Daniel Suarez had their best outing of the season  after failing to make the Daytona 500 and suffering a mechanical issue coming to the green flag in Vegas.

Suarez had an uneventful day and placed 28th, two laps down.

Long: Will 500 be Great American demolition derby (again)?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Let’s be frank. Blocking will continue at Daytona and Talladega. It will happen in Thursday’s Cup qualifying races and it will take place in the Daytona 500.

And yes, there will be wrecks because of it.

“Product of what happens when you get out front because you know if you can keep the lead, nobody can pass, so you just try to do what you can with all the blocks,” Kyle Busch said after he was blocked by Joey Logano before they made contact and crashed in Sunday’s Busch Clash.

Blocking has become hairier since the larger rear spoiler was added to cars last year. That gives trailing cars an aerodynamic boost to close faster on to the back of the leading car.

The increased closing speed decreases the reaction time a driver has to block. Even if they defend the spot, they often force the car behind to slow quickly, creating an accordion affect that can lead to an incident deeper in the field.

Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski collide in Turn 4 during Sunday’s Busch Clash. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

“By the time the spotter sees (a trailing car making a move), keys the mic, says it … it’s too late,” two-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports after Sunday’s Clash. “Live to race another lap in my opinion, but, hey, if they want to keep crashing, I just hope I’m not in it.

“There’s no guarantee that the guy is going to clear you. Let them get beside you, who cares? You’ve got a chance to stay up there, but it’s when we chop each other’s nose and stuff like that, you just continue to see it with a lot of the same guys who do the same things and they’re not successful with it.”

Brad Keselowski was livid at Logano after Keselowski was collected in the incident between Logano and Busch.

“You would think these guys would be smarter than that,” Keselowski said. “We all cause wrecks. I get in wrecks all the time and I cause them. … It’s the same thing. Somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field and then goes ‘eh’. Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and take the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt and then we’ll stop driving like assholes.”

Busch acknowledges there is a benefit to blocking, which is why drivers will do it despite the risks.

“If you can get the block done enough times, then that bubble of air (between the cars) pushes you out … and that’s what (Logano) was trying to do, but I was too close,” Busch said. “I was on him. You’ve got to accept the repercussions in those situations when you throw that many (blocks).”

Understandably there’s some concern about blocking after what happened in the Clash and recent Daytona 500s. Thirty-six of the 40 cars in last year’s Daytona 500 were in accidents, according to the NASCAR race report. In the 2018 race, 27 of the 40 cars were listed as in accidents. In the 2017 race, 33 of the 40 cars were listed as in accidents.

Put another way, 80% of the cars in the last three Daytona 500s were involved in an accident.

The Great American Race has become a demolition derby.

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Overlooked in Erik Jones’ dramatic last-lap victory in the Busch Clash was how teammate Denny Hamlin pushed him for most of the final lap, a la tandem racing — which was prevalent at Daytona and Talladega a decade ago until NASCAR rules made it unfeasible to do.

Teams started experimenting with tandem drafting last year but could only do it for part of a lap. A few teams tried it in Cup practice last weekend and saw benefits.

Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin in a tandem draft on the final lap of the Busch Clash at Daytona. (AP Photo/Darryl Graham)

“I think it’s typically a straightaway or half a lap that it seems to work,” Byron said of the tandem draft before the Clash. “Based on the radius of the corners at Daytona, it’s kind of hard to carry it through off the corners, especially as fast as we’re going, but I think there’s definitely some pushing that will influence the race.

“That’s what it’s going to take for the race win, honestly. I think it’s going to be about blocking that run and forcing them to push you and hoping they push you out and you guys can race it out. I think it’s going to come down to pushing, looking at how guys are doing it in practice. It’s only going to get more aggressive in the race.”

Hamlin was a lap down in the Clash so his only motivation was to stay locked on the back of Jones’ car and push his teammate to the win in the exhibition race.

Jones said the tandem is starting to return because “the cars just punch such a big hole in the air, you can get all the way to people’s bumpers with pretty minimal effort from both drivers.  As long as the lead guy gives you a little bit of a brake drag, you lock on, you stay locked on for a long time.

“If you’re in a situation late with a restart, you could see some tandem racing.”

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Daytona International Speedway made the surprise announcement Monday that the 2021 Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 14.

NASCAR has not announced the 2021 schedule and is not expected to do so until April. But with Daytona already selling tickets for the 2021 Daytona 500, don’t expect the date to suddenly change.

That leads to a bigger question. What happens to the Busch Clash?

Easy, it’s the weekend before the Daytona 500. Yes, but the Super Bowl will be Feb. 7 in Tampa, which is about two hours from the track. Maybe it could work running the Clash in the day and finishing well before the Super Bowl begins.

Or, with the possibility of bold changes for the 2021 schedule, would it make sense to shorten Daytona Speedweeks and have the Clash on Wednesday night, four days before the 500? That leads into the qualifying races on Thursday, Truck race on Friday, Xfinity race on Saturday and the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Certainly, there could be other options. Shortening Speedweeks has been a topic discussed before. 

Another question, though, might be is the Clash still necessary? With NASCAR seeking to help owners save money, has the Clash outlived its usefulness?

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David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, was adamant in an interview Friday on “The Morning Drive” that his cars wouldn’t be a contender for the Daytona 500 pole.

“I wouldn’t put us at the top of the board for qualifying at Daytona,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s just not going to happen.

“I don’t know that many people appreciate what it takes to sit on the front row of the Daytona 500. I have an immense amount of respect for what the Hendrick camp does to that end and for what (Ford engine builder) Doug Yates does. It’s a massive effort just to sit there. We’ve been very intentional to focus our time and our resources and our energy on building cars that race well and that goes for the Daytona 500 and frankly goes for the rest of the season.”

The result last year was that Toyotas won 19 races and the championship but only four poles.

Even with such a strategy, what happened Sunday was interesting. Toyotas showed more speed. Toyotas were fifth (Denny Hamlin), sixth (Kyle Busch), ninth (Christopher Bell) and 10th (Erik Jones).

It was a marked significant improvement from last year. Only one Toyota was in the top 10 in qualifying at Daytona or Talladega last year.

“I think it goes back to Talladega last fall,” said Chris Gayle, crew chief for Jones, about the increase in speed. “We didn’t feel like we had as good of cars as we needed as a group.”

Jones qualified 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year. No other Toyota was in the top 15 that day.

We kind of found something we thought we could tweak on in the off‑season and improve,” Gayle said. “The faster cars win, right? They may not always win, but the numbers are going to show they win. They’re going to be in better positions in the race to use runs and clear somebody when they’re faster.”

It will be worth watching the Toyota cars in the qualifying races Thursday. Handling remains key at Daytona. The question will be did Toyota sacrifice handling in race traffic for single-car speed? If not, then watch out for those cars this week.

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Hendrick Motorsports saw its streak of five consecutive Daytona 500 poles end Sunday but the engine shop’s streak continued.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (right) celebrates his Daytona 500 pole with fellow front-row starter Alex Bowman. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Hendrick Motorsports supplies engines to JTG Daugherty Racing. So when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. grabbed the pole for Daytona 500, he ended Hendrick’s streak of having its cars on the pole but not the engine shop’s streak.

“I want to see those guys do well but they did a little better,” Hendrick said, laughing before he finished his sentence.

“Being on the front row and having them all up there is a great job for our company. I’m real proud of those guys (at JTG). They work hard. They’re good friends. We’ve worked with them on chassis and motors.”

Hendrick Motorsports will still have one of its drivers on the front row for the 500, though. Alex Bowman will start alongside Stenhouse.

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After being let down in the search for sponsorship often, Bubba Wallace is less prone to get excited about possible deals as Richard Petty Motorsports looks to fill out space on the No. 43 car this year.

Asked how optimistic he was of those gaps being filled, Wallace said: “I don’t carry optimism anymore. I’m just a realistic person, so we’ll get though Daytona and go on to Vegas and see how it goes.”

As for why he’s a realist instead of an optimist in regards to sponsorship, Wallace said: “I’ve been let down so many times in my life with sponsorship efforts, so just realistic. I told everyone at RPM, you work your tails off in the office but don’t call me with updates, call me when it’s done.”

Bubba Wallace seeks to recapture the magic of his runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Wallace’s runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500 didn’t lead to the swell of sponsorships that some thought could happen. But Wallace has experienced that often.

“They told me winning a Truck race would get me sponsorship,” he said. “I’m still looking for a sponsor. That was (2013). You can carry optimism for that long, it will kill you.”

Wallace says his focus is on each day.

“It’s a new day every single day,” he said. “You try to give your 110% effort each and every day. Whatever happens, happens. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t meant to be.”

But Wallace does admit to having good vibes at Daytona. 

“I do get excited coming to the speedway stuff just because our program has been so solid,” he said. “For all the small teams, you get excited about these because anybody can win these races.”

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The World Series of Asphalt Racing at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida features nine nights of racing through Saturday, including seven nights of Super Late Models.

Fifteen-year-old Sammy Smith won opening night last Friday driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Super Late Model team. It was Smith’s first start with the team.

Busch will get to race with Smith next week at Las Vegas when Busch jumps into a Super Late Model and that will give a better chance to gauge Smith.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Busch said of the Super Late Model race in Las Vegas. “But what’s going to turn (Smith) and make him viable or successful to move on to the next level is going to be the same as it was with all the rest of the drivers. If they are running up front, if they are competitive and winning races, parts aren’t falling off the cars and cars are prepared well and they are fast, that will obviously show that they’ve got the opportunity to get to the next level.”

On Saturday night, the Super Late Model winner was Jesse Love, who, like Smith, is 15 years old and a Toyota Racing Development driver.

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Joe Gibbs Racing among serious bidders to build NextGen chassis

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When NASCAR initially set a 2021 deadline for launching its NextGen car, Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson was skeptical of the timeframe.

Nearly a year later, he believes NASCAR’s overhaul is on track for next season, but he still has reservations about the aggressive rollout of a project that he compares with one of the most ambitious undertakings of the 20th century.

“We need another year, really,” Wilson told NBCSports.com last week about the release of the new car. “Because here’s my concern: We can’t afford to get this wrong. But the analogy is when NASA is doing a moon shot or rocket launch, that’s pretty well thought out, and they’re not afraid to pull the date back. What we’re doing in a relative sense feels like the same thing.

“There’s going to be more change in a year than this sport has seen in the past 60 years combined. Cumulative. It’s a revolutionary change. We as an industry need to get this right.”

During his annual address of the news media Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR president Steve Phelps reaffirmed multiple times that the Next Gen is on pace for a 2021 debut.

A prototype of the car recently made its debut at Richmond Raceway with Austin Dillon (whose Richard Childress Racing team worked with NASCAR to build the prototype), but Cup teams likely won’t take delivery on a real-world version to test until next July.

Using a Request For Proposal-type process, NASCAR is soliciting bids on suppliers for the various stock elements that the new car will have, principally the chassis (in a structure that will resemble how Dallara supplies IndyCar teams with a standard chassis).

“The car is on schedule,” Phelps said. “I have to give a shoutout to, again, really the entire industry because they’re working collaboratively.  NASCAR runs the process, but there are teams that are involved, (manufacturers) that are involved, and that’s how we’re going to be successful moving forward.”

Multiple people familiar with the Next Gen process but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly told NBCSports.com that there are at least three companies being considered seriously to build the chassis.

That list includes Joe Gibbs Racing, which is one of multiple Cup teams that inquired about bidding on the chassis.

It isn’t unusual for a Cup team to build chassis for others (such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and JGR) have counted rivals as clients. But it would be new to have a single team that builds chassis for the entire field.

Phelps mostly demurred when asked by NBCSports.com how NASCAR would handle that arrangement.

“With respect to those that are in the RFPs to build the car, I don’t want to get into specifics about where that is,” Phelps said. “There would obviously need to be a separation between that race team and whatever part or the vehicle itself that’s being put together.

“If there is a team that is interested in competing for what that’s going to be, it would have to be kind of removed from what that organization is.”

Wilson said TRD favors Cup teams getting involved in the business of building the new car because of their familiarity with the output.

“It’s kind of polarizing because of the perceived advantage for the team that’s supplying, but the reason I say that it works to our favor is because nobody understands like a team does what it means to make a quality part,” he said.

Goodyear’s move from a 15- to 18-inch wheel with the new car also will need to be factored into the timeline of the rollout. Goodyear’s Greg Stucker said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR’s The Morning Drive that it’ll be a “significant change,” but that the tire supplier is on schedule with NASCAR and teams.

Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook said nearly 10 months ago that he was optimistic about having the new car by 2021 and reiterated his enthusiasm in a Saturday news conference with manufacturer executives hosted by NASCAR.

“It’s a very exciting time for NASCAR,” Rushbrook said. “To see all the technology and architecture changes that are going into Next Gen, it’s had a very successful test already. I think the fans are going to be excited once they see the final versions of the car. And then leading beyond ’21 to further technology with hybrid I think is important for all of us as manufacturers.”

The commonality of the new car should eliminate the assembly lines that many teams have and result in cost savings (in part by trimming staff). That theoretically should lower the barrier of entry to NASCAR for new teams and manufacturers (NASCAR courted a prospective automaker two weeks ago in Phoenix, according to Phelps).

Ed Laukes, group vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor North America, said the cost reductions were “overdue and had to happen, so one way or another there needs to be new blood brought into the sport, new team ownership brought into the sport, and this is the way that it’s going to happen. I think the vision of (NASCAR chairman) Jim France and of NASCAR right now was very, very appropriate.”

The new car also will enhance showroom relevance with the addition of independent rear suspension.

“When you see the proportions of this car, it fits the production vehicle even better, particularly in the rear,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “It matches up to where the Camaro is, and we’re really quite excited about that. Finally, we’ve got symmetry between left‑ and right‑hand side. We needed that so it looks more like the street car.  We’ll have a wheel that really mirrors a little bit closer to what you see on the production side in terms of size.”

Phelps said NASCAR has another test of the new car in a few weeks, and Toyota had a Next Gen body in a wind tunnel last week for the second time.

“I handicapped the possibility of racing in ’21 (with the Next Gen car) as a very slim chance,” Wilson said. “I have to eat a little crow. It is on the calendar as they laid out. On paper, it certainly looks like ’21, and certainly Jim France has not given one inch to hedging that.

“I will say that everything has to go to that schedule. There’s no margin for slipping.”

Wilson also believes there needs to be more than one vendor available for some parts to safeguard against unforeseen emergencies and faulty manufacturing.

“I was talking to Steve O’Donnell and Jim France at Charlotte just kind of cautioning them relative to the slippery slope that you have with a single-source supplier,” Wilson said. “Anecdotally, we used to have one valve-spring supplier, and that bit us in the butt. Now we have two. The issue there is very pragmatic, in case say you have a fire that takes out your factory. But the other side is you have a bad batch of material or something that puts you in a tough spot, and you don’t have a backup.

“So just suggesting that they use some, not common sense per se, but that they think about contingencies relative to the supply of parts and pieces.”

Wilson also believes a backup is needed for keeping the 2020 cars in place just in case NASCAR is unable to hit the 2021 target.

But he added the financial straits that many teams are facing have made the ’21 deadline a necessary reality for the NASCAR industry.

“We all know there are teams on the precipice of failing. So there is a lot of pressure,” Wilson said. “We appreciate and respect that there are parts of our sport that are in trouble.

“The team ownership model is nuts. So it’s not that we shouldn’t be attempting (the Next Gen in ’21). But we just need to get it right. If we can’t — hand on heart — make that target in ’21, we need to be prepared with a contingency plan.”

Friday 5: Title race a reminder of how Jimmie Johnson looms over Cup

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Although Jimmie Johnson is not a part of the championship discussion this weekend, his shadow towers over the Cup Series and could play a role in how this generation’s drivers are judged.

The seven-time champion remains the only active driver with more than one Cup title heading into Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Should Denny Hamlin win the championship, Johnson will remain the only active multi-time champ. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, who also are in the Championship 4 race, each has one title.

All four drivers are members of the Johnson generation, a fraternity of talented racers who had the misfortune of competing during Johnson’s reign. Hamlin and Busch have each raced their entire Cup career against Johnson. Harvick started running Cup full-time in 2001, a year before Johnson.

In that time, they’ve seen Johnson win a record five consecutive titles from 2006-10 to go with crowns in 2013 and ’16. He’s also collected 83 series victories, which ranks sixth on the all-time wins list.

While Denny Hamlin (left) seeks his first Cup title, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch go for their second series crown Sunday. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Definitely behind in wins and championships,” said Kyle Busch, who has 55 career Cup victories. “Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at. If I end with one (championship), that’s going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever. 

“But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable. But when you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”

Johnson’s success won’t keep Harvick, Busch and Truex out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after their career ends. One Cup championship has been a gateway to immortality. Mark Martin, who never won a Cup title, showed that there’s still room in the Hall of Fame. Should Hamlin never win a series crown, he likely is headed to the Hall with his 37 career victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs.

While Johnson’s career is measured against Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, how should those who raced against Johnson be viewed since they have fewer titles?

One consideration is to look at the Championship 4 appearances by each driver.

This is Harvick’s fifth title race appearance in six years. Busch is making his fifth consecutive championship race appearance. Truex is racing for a title for a third consecutive year.

“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.

Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead.  Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend.”

Said Truex: “I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship). I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.”

2. Picking the right strategy

The strategy for Sunday’s race would seem easy for the Cup title contenders. Set the car up for a short run. Since the winner-take-all format in 2014, four of the five title races have had cautions in the last 15 laps, setting up a short run to the finish.

Last year, Joey Logano, whose car was set for the short run, passed Martin Truex Jr., whose car was set for a long run, with 12 laps left to win the race and the championship.

Kevin Harvick warns it’s not quite that simple with strategy, especially for a race that starts in the afternoon and ends at night under cooler track conditions.

“The only problem with short runs is you got to stay on the lead lap during the day,” Harvick said of when track conditions are warmer and more challenging to a car’s handling. “So you have to have some good balance and good adjustability built into your car. 

“The short run has definitely been what’s won this race over the past few years, but having … the proper track position to take advantage of that short‑run speed is still necessary in the first half of the day. I don’t think these cars are going to race like what we have raced here before.

“I just don’t see the characteristics being exactly how they have been in the past for the amount of laps and things that have happened when your car is good and when your car goes to falling off and things like that. I think that those numbers are going to change. I don’t know exactly what that number will be as far as the crossover and falloff, but we’ll just have to see.”

3. End of the road

This weekend marks not only the end of the season but the end of a journey for Ross Chastain.

He’ll race for a Ganders Outdoor Truck Series championship tonight and run in Sunday’s Cup season finale. When the weekend ends, he will have competed in 77 races across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That equals the number of races Kyle Busch ran in those series in 2006. Busch topped that total three times, including 2009 when he ran 86 races across those series.

“Yes, I’m tired,” said Chastain, who will compete in 23 Truck, 19 Xfinity and 35 Cup races this year. “The best part about it is that if I had a bad race, I had another one in a couple days, I would forget about it. … Now the bad part was when we had a good race, I didn’t have any time to celebrate.

I don’t know what the future will hold on that. I don’t know if we’ll hit this many races for years to come. There’s a reason nobody does it.”

Chastain will run the full Xfinity schedule next year for Kaulig Racing and is expected to also be back in Cup.

“I’m a big yes man,” said Chastain, who ran 74 races across all three series last season. “If any NASCAR team owner calls me, stops me at the track and says, ‘I want you to drive for me.’ I’m like, Of course. I’ve begged all these guys for years. Now that they say yes, I’m like, Of course, yes.”

Here’s a look at the most races run in a season in recent years (Note: Chastain’s stats are entering this weekend in Miami)

Season

Driver

Trucks

Xfinity

Cup  

Total

2009

Kyle Busch

15

35

36

86

2008

Kyle Busch

18

30

36

84

2010

Kyle Busch

16

29

36

81

2006

Kyle Busch

7

34

36

77

2019

Ross Chastain

22

19

34

75

2010

Brad Keselowski

4

35

36

75

2006

Clint Bowyer

3

35

36

74

2018

Ross Chastain

7

33

34

74

2013

Kyle Busch

11

26

36

73

2007

Carl Edwards

2

35

36

73

To end the season, Chastain will have a different type of motorhome for the weekend. He borrowed one from a friend and made the 3 1/2-hour drive from Ft. Myers, Florida to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Plugged in, got air‑conditioning, water, everything,” Chastain said. “Yeah, you go in and you turn and there’s a door and there’s a bathroom. Most campers and buses, there’s a bedroom. There’s no bedroom. The bedroom is the living room. It’s small. Yeah, it’s cool.”

4. Meaningful title

While the Cup driver and owner titles will be determined Sunday, the manufacturer’s crown was claimed last weekend at ISM Raceway by Toyota, which won the crown for the third time in the last four years. 

The manufacturer championship is overlooked by many but not those at Toyota.

“That championship I wish garnered more than it does,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “You can make no mistake, for Toyota that’s an important championship. That’s one that resonates all the way back to Japan.

“The culture of racing internationally is a little different than with NASCAR, which is a driver-centric sport and always has been and will be, and that’s great. But everywhere else we race, it’s manufacturer-centric. It’s Toyota against Porsche, Audi or somebody.”

5. A new view

Derek Kneeland, who has been Kyle Larson’s spotter, will be Tyler Reddick’s spotter next year in Reddick’s rookie Cup season.

“What brought it all into perspective for me is when I was running part‑time at Ganassi (in 2017), I would go up and sit or stand next to Derek during practice, the races, really get an understanding of his vantage point, what he sees, how he communicates, how well of a job he did,” said Reddick, who races Christoper Bell, Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier for the Xfinity title Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“That brought it all together for me when I was doing those races when I did have him, when I was in the racecar, it gave me a better understanding of how hard that job is and how good he was at it.

“It just came about that he wasn’t going to return (to work with Larson) next year. He was having a lot of fun working with me. Everyone at RCR really enjoyed how well of a job he did at Talladega to get our first win of the year, week in, week out.