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

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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.

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Entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Texas

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The pressure builds for Xfinity and Cup playoff drivers as they each enter the middle race of the Round of 8 this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

Martin Truex Jr.‘s win last weekend at Martinsville moved him into the Championship 4 race in Miami, leaving three spots left for the Cup title battle.

Since a playoff driver didn’t win at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago in the Xfinity Series, two of the Championship 4 spots will be based on points.

Here are the preliminary entry list for both series:

Cup – AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

Forty cars are entered.

John Hunter Nemechek makes his Cup debut, driving the No. 36 Ford for Front Row Motorsports with Matt Tifft out the rest of the season after suffering a seizure last weekend at Martinsville.

He will get the chance to compete against his father, Joe Nemechek, who is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman is in the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Brothers Racing for his 14th start of the season.

Quin Houff is back in the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports for the first time since Richmond in September. This will be his 17th start of the season.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – O’Reilly Auto Pats 300 (8:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Harrison Burton, who will drive full time in the Xfinity Series in 2020, will make his eighth start of the season in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota.

Bobby Earnhardt will make his second start of the season. He’ll be in the No. 66 Toyota for the Motorsports Business Management team.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega: Start time, lineup and more

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One of the first things Kyle Larson said after winning last weekend at Dover was that “everybody in this playoff field is going to be stressing at Talladega … except me.”

Talladega is here and it’s time for many drivers to stress. Except Larson, of course.

The playoff standings could be jumbled by the time the 500-mile journey at Talladega Superspeedway ends. Who will be collected in a crash? Who will get through the carnage and contend for the win?

Here is all the info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Edward Graham, assistant VP of Operation Christmas Child for Samaritan’s Purse, will give the command to start engines at 1:48 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:03 p.m.

PRERACE: The Cup garage opens at 10 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at noon. Driver introductions are at 1:15 p.m. The invocation will be given at 1:41 p.m. by Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. The National Anthem will be performed at 1:42 p.m. by the 313th United States Army Band out of Birmingham, Alabama.

DISTANCE: The race is 188 laps (500.08 miles) around the 2.66-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 55. Stage 2 ends on Lap 110.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race at 2 p.m. Coverage begins with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

STREAMING ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts mostly cloudy conditions with a temperature of 68 degrees and a 0% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Chase Elliott led a 1-2-3 Chevrolet sweep in late April, finishing ahead of Alex Bowman and Ryan Preece. Aric Almirola won this playoff race a year ago, giving Ford a 1-2-3 sweep with Clint Bowyer second and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. third. 

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Friday 5: Manufacturer teamwork at ‘Dega fraught with questions

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Toyota devised the blueprint. Ford enhanced it. And Chevrolet took lessons from both to win the past two races at Talladega and Daytona by having its teams work together.

I feel like Chevy has kind of taken that to the next level recently to where we all have to figure out a way to beat that,” Joey Logano said.

For fans who long for the good ol’ days of manufacturer battles, Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) will provide that type of action. But it does create some thorny issues with this being a playoff race. Such as:

  • How long should drivers within the same manufacturer work together?
  • What if a non-playoff driver is racing a playoff driver from the same manufacturer for the win?
  • How can Toyota, which has fewer cars than Chevrolet and Ford, compete?

There’s much at stake this weekend, particularly for Chevrolet, which has not had a driver race for the championship in Miami since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title. Kyle Larson is set for the next round via last week’s win at Dover, but Chevy’s other three remaining playoff drivers are not in a secure spot.

Alex Bowman is seventh in the standings 17 points ahead of Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot. William Byron holds that final transfer spot via a tiebreaker with Logano. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega in May, is seven points behind Byron.

Toyota started the trend of teams within a manufacturer working together in 2016, leading to Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win and a 1-2-3 Toyota finish. Ford used its strengths in numbers and won seven consecutive races at Daytona and Talladega before Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win in 2018. 

The more cars working together, the more that group can dictate the race.

It wasn’t until after Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) worked together in this year’s Daytona 500 to counter the Fords that Chevrolet executives ordered their teams to work together starting at Talladega in late April.

“The benefit of working together is too great versus the penalty of not working together,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told NBC Sports in April.

Chevrolet drivers followed orders, running nose-to-tail with near-military precision throughout the Talladega race this season. It didn’t matter if it was the bottom lane or top lane, many Chevrolets ran together. When it came time to pit, many stopped together.

The results were impressive.

Chevrolet drivers won both stages, the race and took five of the top six spots at Talladega. Chevrolet drivers won the second stage, the race and took the top four spots at Daytona in July.

Elliott said that Sunday’s race is “going to look real similar to what it did at Talladega in the spring and Daytona in the summer. We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together. It worked at Talladega. A lot of us crashed, but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona. Hopefully it works out.

“That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.”

2. How long should drivers work together?

This is the one of the biggest issues. When can a driver make a move that is best for them even if it hurts a teammate in the same manufacturer camp?

Joey Logano was not pleased that fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell chose to push Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the last lap of this year’s Daytona 500 instead of Logano’s Ford.

“Typically you kind of expect manufacturers to work together,” Logano said after the race.

McDowell’s reply?

“Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”

It’s an issue all drivers running at the finish will have to ponder.

You are kind of almost in a box because sometimes what is good for the group is not the best for yourself and you feel like you are compromising sometimes,” said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. “It might not help you out. That part makes it a little bit tough. At the end of the day, Chevy made it work at the first Talladega so hopefully we can make it work. It is hard to plan and orchestrate stuff like that when everything in the race is going. It has turned into that though.

“You can’t blame the manufacturer for wanting to do that. They put a lot of support behind the teams and they find those spots to say that if we have strength in numbers that we should be able to win the race.”

Until strategies change.

“I feel like we see that a lot at the plate tracks,” Brad Keselowski said of changing strategies. “It goes through evolutions every three or four years, and this is the next evolution.”

3. What if a non-playoff driver is racing for the win?

With all the teamwork within a manufacturer, there could be an issue if non-playoff drivers are among those racing at the front late.

Six of the top 10 finishers at Talladega in May were drivers who are not in the playoffs entering this weekend. Ryan Preece finished third in that race, placing behind Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

So how does a non-playoff driver handle racing playoff drivers?

Ty Dillon‘s best Cup career finish came at Daytona in July when he placed fourth. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I think early on in the race, it’s still the same racing that we’ve done all year,” Ty Dillon said. “I think when you get to the end of the race, you have  … to be aware that it’s hard to help someone that’s fighting for a championship. Sometimes at places like Talladega and Daytona, if you try to help somebody, you might end up causing the crash letting somebody in or something like that. I think that’s truly known throughout the series as drivers.

“Everywhere else, I race with the mentality that during the first half of the race, we’re all racing together. If you get down to the end of the race and one of those guys is on your tail and you’re holding them up, I would expect to give those guys a little bit of a leeway. They are racing for something bigger right now and it’s with the hopes that the respect will be returned one day in your favor.

“I expect to be racing for championships at some point in my career. I would like that kind of respect back. For me, I’m racing for 22nd or 23rd in points. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but those guys have a lot more on the line for one position. … I think you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to be the guy that screws up the guy going for the (championship) because you want to be in that position where somebody gives you the benefit of a doubt when you need it.”

4. What about Toyota teams?

Toyotas are at a disadvantage with having the fewest cars in the field. It’s why Joe Gibbs Racing partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the Daytona 500. Seven of the 40 cars entered this weekend are Toyotas. Ford has 15 entries and Chevrolet has 18.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Denny Hamlin said. “We are outnumbered, We know that. Ultimately they can’t decide what line you choose to run in. So, from my standpoint … if I’m around a bunch of Fords and they’re staying in line, I’m staying in line. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer I’m with, I’m just going to do whatever is best for me. I think that has been the thing that has made us successful over the years is having that mentality.

“You look at the teamwork from the Fords and Chevys at the last few years. In the end, you still have a bunch of guys in there that haven’t won a race. They still have to be selfish even with their own teammates. That’s when you try to take advantage.”

Another key issue with the Toyotas having fewer entries is if Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch – the top three in points – would be better off running at the back for at least part of the race. Truex can’t fall out of the top eight in points regardless of how poor he finishes Sunday. Hamlin and Busch are each 48 points ahead of Logano in the standings.

Asked on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America MotorMouths if his strategy would be to run up front, run at the back or just go for the win. Busch said: “Yes. All three.

“I’m sure at some point we’re going to be running at the back at somewhere or another, we might even qualify there. Past that … you want to get up within the top 10 to get those stage points.”

Busch ultimately said: “I think you just have to go out there and race and race as hard as you can.”

5. Kevin Harvick pit crew member returns

Daniel Smith. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Daniel Smith returns this weekend as the rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team after missing the past eight races because of a surgery needed as part of his treatment for testicular cancer.

Smith missed the final 13 races of last season after the cancer was discovered. He returned at Daytona in February.

He had not missed a race this season until the surgery, which was originally planned for in the spring but moved to August.

Smith joined Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way on to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 postseason and helped Harvick win the title.

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Clint Bowyer survives day of ‘high anxiety’ at The Brickyard

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INDIANAPOLIS – Clint Bowyer’s quest to get into the Cup Series playoffs was not as precarious as Ryan Newman’s, but he was a long way from being locked into the 15th position in the 16-driver playoff lineup entering Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

He still needed to finish ahead of the other drivers in contention for the playoffs including Newman, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson, who entered the race still eligible to get in on points, but realistically needed to win the race to clinch.

Bowyer improved his chances of making the playoffs dramatically by qualifying third fastest in Sunday morning’s Brickyard 400 qualifications.

The race, however, had more than its share of moments of “high anxiety” for the Stewart Haas Racing driver.

“You’re damn right I did,” Bowyer told NBC Sports on pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “You knew it going in, you knew it was going to be high anxiety and it was going to be crazy like that.

“You don’t know where it’s going to be coming from. About the time we qualified good, I walked away from that car and knew the worst was yet to happen. The caution could come out at Lap 10 and present an opportunity for somebody and a mishap for somebody else.”

That happened throughout the race for Bowyer, who kept track of his competitors throughout the race and tried to manage his day.

In the closing stages of the contest, Bubba Wallace was in contention to sneak into the playoffs with a victory. He was running third, briefly made it up to second, before he was passed by Joey Logano for that position with the laps winding down.

The last thing Bowyer or Newman needed was a driver like Wallace to completely change the dynamic of the playoffs with an upset victory.

“I didn’t want to be anywhere around Bubba today,” Bowyer said. “I knew what he was racing for and what I was racing for and those two things didn’t match up today.

“I’m happy for Bubba, though. It was a great finish at a great race track for him. That’s a great finish for him and his team.”

Wallace would finish third, behind race winner Kevin Harvick and second place Logano. William Bryon finished fourth and Bowyer’s fifth-place finish was more than enough to lock him into the playoffs.

He became the third driver in the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing team to make the 16-driver lineup for the playoffs. Daniel Suarez was still in competition, entering the race tied in points with Newman, but his 11th-place finish combined with Newman’s eighth place eliminated the driver from Mexico.

“It was super close to getting all four in,” Bowyer said. “We’ve got to keep building, man. We’re working hard and digging and trying to get better.

“We aren’t the fastest group. We know that. But we looked pretty damn fast today.”

Bowyer’s road to that top-five finish was eventful to say the least.

“It was going to be chaotic, I said that before the race, it was going to be an emotional roller-coaster,” Bowyer said. “The 6 car (Newman) was able to stay out there and capitalize on that and get those five points on us.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I didn’t need that.’

“But we got it back in the second stage. It was identical. I finished fifth and he finished 11th in that stage and he handed it right back to us.

“We were faster than we ran. I think we were a top-five car, but we were just trying to survive. We needed to survive this thing and it was going to be a war of attrition and we survived.”

Making the playoffs is important, but it doesn’t beat winning, according to Bowyer.

“Winning is everything,” Bowyer said. “That’s why we get up in the morning, to go win. There is nothing better than winning. I’m looking forward to some of those tracks. I should have won at Richmond earlier this year.

“I still think about that race and how easy our season would have been if I had won it earlier.”

Now, it’s off to the playoffs and Bowyer is excited his team’s recent surge. Since finishing 37th at Michigan in August, Bowyer has finished seventh at Bristol, sixth at Darlington and fifth at Indianapolis.

“We’ve got 10 races in the playoffs and the last three races have been single-digit finishes for us,” Bowyer said. “That will get you around. It also builds confidence and momentum with our race team. That is what it takes.

“We are finally doing the right things, putting ourselves in the right situations to capitalize on other people’s mishaps rather than being the one to make the mishap and having someone capitalize on us.”