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Jimmie Johnson hopes for ‘more crossover’ between auto racing stars

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For one day last November, Jimmie Johnson was the envy of the NASCAR community.

A week after the end of the Cup season, the seven-time Cup champion swapped rides with Formula One star Fernando Alonso and piloted a F1 car around the Bahrain International Circuit.

It was the third such swap between NASCAR and F1 drivers following the Jeff Gordon-Juan Pablo Montoya switch in 2003 at Indianapolis and the Tony Stewart-Lewis Hamilton swap in 2011 at Watkins Glen.

On Tuesday, Johnson expressed a desire to see “more crossover” between auto racing’s elite in competitive circumstances and to see stars moonlighting to support smaller series.

“I just think that in motorsports in general, we need guys to cross over from a local level,” Johnson said during Hendrick Motorsports’ media day after being asked about NASCAR’s influence in the Chili Bowl Nationals. “Although the Chili Bowl is huge, but they’re Midgets and more people typically get their starts (at that level).

“Our stars come back down and run and put on such a great show. That helps them and I think it helps us. It also helps that community and there are a lot of young drivers that are trying to find their way up.”

The Chili Bowl, held last week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was won by Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell for the third straight year. He had to battle Cup driver Kyle Larson in the final feature, with the outcome being decided with a last-lap pass.

Johnson then turned to the major racing series and the lack of crossover between them in recent years.

“Hopefully we can get more crossover going, even between IndyCar and NASCAR or NASCAR and Formula 1 or whatever it might be,” Johnson said. “I feel like we had a lot of heroes that we looked up to and those guys would race anything and everything.

“And in the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve focused more on championships than we have marquee events. And I completely understand why, but it’s really nice to see people trying to move around and race other things. Hopefully we’ll have somebody trying the double again at Indy and Charlotte. There is a lot of good that comes from those opportunities.”

Kurt Busch was the last driver to attempt “The Double” of competing in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 2014.

The prospect of Larson, who competes for Chip Ganassi Racing, making the attempt has been brought up on a somewhat regular basis in recent years with Larson saying in July 2017 that violent IndyCar wrecks at IMS have kept him from committing to it.

Kyle Busch said in July 2017 he had committed to make an attempt at The Double before it was shut down by Joe Gibbs.

In 2016, Brad Keselowski teased everyone when he took a few laps around Road America in a Team Penske IndyCar during a test.

There were crossovers between IndyCar and NASCAR in 2018 with Danica Patrick competing in the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 and a Xfinity Series start by Conor Daly at Road America.

Other than that, the list of drivers who have expressed an interest in making the jump from open-wheel to stock cars without fulfilling it gets longer every year.

That goes both ways. In November, Johnson expressed a desire in giving IndyCar a try on road courses.

But Johnson said he doesn’t have any forays into other series planned right now.

“I have some great new friends at McLaren and they have lots of things getting involved with racing-wise,” Johnson said. “So, down the road there could be some opportunities there for me potentially. I’d love to go endurance racing with Fernando (Alonso).

“We joked about that some. Nothing has developed from that yet, but hopefully down the road we can send some more teasers out and have some more fun.”

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Jimmie Johnson intrigued with racing IndyCar, sports cars in the future

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After his “mind-blowing” experience driving a Formula One car, Jimmie Johnson said he would be interested in competing in IndyCar and sports car races when he’s done driving NASCAR.

Johnson’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires after the 2020 season and he could try other forms of racing then.

“I’ve been approached many times for the Indy 500,” Johnson said Monday after driving a Formula One car as part of a ride swap with Fernando Alonso. “I’m not overly excited about those fast ovals, but I think with my status and relationships, I could put together some road course races in IndyCar.

“I’d look at anything. I’ve done sports car racing in the past. I’ve finished second in the Rolex 24. Would love to get back to doing that. Anything is open. I’m far from done. I want to keep driving and hopefully I can find some good opportunities.”

The 43-year-old Johnson knows age will slow him at some point but he says not yet. 

“Certainly age is a number and at some point it will start to fade on you, but I think most drivers deeper in their career, the workload that goes with it is what they don’t enjoy,” Johnson said. “For whatever reason, I like to work. From training and suffering, the longer the ride, the longer the run, the better I perform. I just really enjoy working. I don’t subscribe to that you get to a certain age and you can’t do it. I think you get to a certain age and it’s hard to stay motivated to put in the time and I don’t feel like I’m there yet.”

Three of the top four drivers in points in IndyCar last year were age 37 or older, led by 38-year-old series champion Scott Dixon. Tony Kanaan, who turns 44 on Dec. 31, will return to A.J. Foyt Racing for his 21st season of open-wheel racing in the U.S.

Johnson’s focus Monday was on driving a 2013 Formula One car around Bahrain International Circuit. Alonso drove one of Johnson’s Cup cars.

“The sensation of speed, clearly the speed is so high,” the seven-time Cup champion said. “The simulator was a really nice experience, great visual aid but to have the wind moving by and your sensation of speed and G-forces, it takes a little while to kind of absorb that and have the newness of that go away and focus on what you’re doing. I felt like every time I went out, my surroundings went slower and it was easier to piece together my braking points.

“Literally my first outing, my helmet was trying to leave my head, and I was staring at the microphone because my helmet was so high. I got my helmet under control and it was really my eyes trying to find their way far enough ahead and far enough around the turns. At the end, I really quit focusing on the braking markers themselves and was able to look at the apex (of the turns) and had an idea of when to hit the brakes and was able to put together some good laps. It was fun.”

Johnson said the experience could help him when NASCAR races on its road course events.

“Just the philosophy of how the use the car under brakes will be really good for me in the road course racing we will do,” he said. “I will start trying to get more out of the car on the straight line and then get off the brakes … and roll the car through the apex.”

Johnson admits “at the end of the day I got a way better swap experience than (Alonso) did. If we could come for a day or two, get our gearing dialed in, do some suspension changes, the proper tire, the (stock car) could have been quite a bit faster. I rode in a car with him at Abu Dhabi on hot laps and then again today and he should be a dirt racer. He loves to be sideways and smoking the tires.”

Johnson said he encouraged Alonso to drive a stock car on a NASCAR track to get the true experience of the car.

“When you can put them on a banked track, they really have the chance to shine,” Johnson said. “Dover, Bristol, even some of the banked mile-and-a-halves, really impressive. We’ll put a little pressure on him to do it. The way he likes to drive things I don’t see why he would say no.”

Johnson was asked if Alonso would do well on NASCAR’s road courses.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson said. “When you look at Juan (Pablo Montoya), when Juan was able to jump in a Cup car, he was fantastic on those tracks. In talking to Dario (Franchitti), in talking to Juan and Danica (Patrick), they don’t drive a car often with oversteer, so I assume that would be something (Alonso) wouldn’t like, but every time I looked he was dead sideways. Maybe he’s the perfect open-wheel driver to go to a stock car.”

Alonso said his focus for the first part of 2019 will be on the select races he will do, including the Indianapolis 500.

Asked if he could imagine what it would be like to drive a stock car at Daytona International Speedway with 39 other cars, Alonso said: “I told Jimmie before, it’s hard to imagine for me now after the feelings I had today with the very low grip and a lot of problems with traction how this car would feel on oval racing because they are no more traction demanding. That I think is a very different way to drive the car.”

Will Alonso jump in a stock car again?

“For now, it’s OK,” he said. “I have now a couple of weeks off but then immediately at the beginning of the year I will be very busy. I don’t want to put any extra tests or thoughts because I really need to charge the battery.”

Jimmie Johnson, Fernando Alonso end ride swap with tandem doughnuts

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Jimmie Johnson and Fernando Alonso ended their play day with dueling doughnuts Monday at Bahrain International Circuit.

Johnson piloted a 2013 Formula One car, while Alonso drove one of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet Cup cars on the road circuit – just the third time NASCAR and Formula One drivers have swapped rides. Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya traded rides in 2003 at Indianapolis and Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton switched rides in 2011 at Watkins Glen.

The doughnuts ended a journey that began in January when Alonso and Johnson met during NASCAR Media Day in Charlotte, North Carolina. Johnson said Alonso suggested they switch rides at some point. They worked during the spring to find a venue and date that would match both their schedules. Eventually, they picked a date after the NASCAR and Formula One seasons ended.

“It’s the ultimate car,” Johnson said earlier this month of why he wanted to try a Formula One car. “To feel the downforce of one of those cars has always been in the back of my mind. I’ve always wanted to experience it.”

Here’s a look at the how the day went for Johnson and Alonso in their ride swap:

Friday 5: What Joey Logano has in common with other champions

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While Joey Logano might not have had the best season statistically, he left Miami as the Cup champion.

For those who question Logano’s merits as a champ because he didn’t win the most races, understand that it is common for the champion to not have the most wins in a season.

In the last 20 years, the champion has not had the most wins 65 percent of the time. That’s a stretch that includes when the championship was decided by season-long points total, when the Chase was created and when the elimination format debuted in 2014 that led to the one-race championship.

Logano admits that he didn’t think he was a title contender in the first third of the season.

“I thought, man, if we get to the Round of Eight, that’s pretty good this year for where we were at the time,” Logano said. “We were consistent, that’s what kept us up in the points all year long. We didn’t have many bad races throughout the season.

“But I guess just as the playoffs went, everyone rose to the occasion. You always talk about how you have to find another little bit inside of you to just maintain when the playoffs starts because everyone is able to get a little bit better, and then as we do that, we started running better, and we were running top five and winning stages.”

And becoming a champion.

Logano is in some good company among champions who didn’t win the most races in their title season.

In four of Jimmie Johnson’s seven championship years, he did not have the most wins those seasons. In two of Tony Stewart’s three championship years, he did not have the most wins those years.

Logano’s three wins this season are the fewest for a champion since Kurt Busch won three times in 2004. Matt Kenseth has the fewest wins for a champion in the last 20 years with one when he won the title in 2003 — the last championship determined by the season-long points total.

2. Changes coming?

While the idea of a spending limit for teams was discussed in the recent owners meeting a few days before the season finale in Miami, nothing is expected for next year.

“I think there’s two things when you start to consider financial stuff,” car owner Joe Gibbs told NBC Sports. “There’s cut and revenue. I think that’s where we are, trying to get those two to meet so you have healthy owners, healthy sport and you’re inviting new people to come in, all those things are a part of it.

“I think right now is a critical time. Maybe I look at every year that way, but right now is a big, big, critical time for our sport, where we’re going. I think there will be some big decisions within the next year.”

Gibbs said the owners and NASCAR also discussed how to get more fans to attend races.

“There’s all kinds of things that affect that, our racing on the track, what it takes to come to the race, our venue, where we go racing some places are obviously better than others,” Gibbs said. “All those kind of things are wrapped into it. The one thing I’m really thankful for is NASCAR and now Jim (France, interim Chairman) being involved the way he is, they’ve been pretty aggressive on not being afraid to go after stuff and change stuff, which I think is good.”

3. What a difference a year makes

After last year’s season finale in Miami, Brad Keselowski noted Toyota’s dominance and looked ahead to a 2018 that featured a new car for Chevrolet.

“As to what will happen for 2018, you know, I don’t know,” Keselowski said after the race a year ago. “I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see.”

This year featured the debut of the Optical Scanning Station, a camera-based inspection station that scrutinized the car in a way it hadn’t before. Ford teams hoped before the season that it would keep all three manufacturers close.

When the checkered flag waved in Miami last weekend, Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, won the race for Ford — the company’s 19th Cup victory in 36 points races. Logano’s championship marked the first time since 1999 that Ford won the driver and manufacturer’s title in Cup in the same year.

“I’m certain that the inspection process … that changes part of it because any time you go through a big change like that, it does affect how the teams prepare the cars and bring the cars to the track,” Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Performance said of what led to the manufacturer’s success this season.

“But I think the biggest part is the advanced tools that we’ve developed over the last couple years have really matured to the point that they were able to help us, especially in the area of CFD, where we use that advanced computational fluid dynamics tool, the same tool that we use on our road cars and road trucks to make them better. 

“We have turned that and applied it into racing starting two years ago, and it took a little bit of time to adjust those tools, test those tools in this environment to make them even better, and now that is paying off on the performance on the track with the Fusion with what we’ve seen, hopefully contributing to the Mustang to come strong out of the box at Daytona next year.”

4. Gone but not forgotten

Overlooked Sunday was JJ Yeley’s 32nd-place finish with the team that once was BK Racing.

Days before the Daytona 500, BK Racing owner Ron Devine put his team in Chapter 11 bankruptcy to keep a bank that stated it was owed more than $8 million from taking the team’s charter.

So began numerous court hearings over the year that eventually led to a judge approving a Trustee to run the team instead of Devine and eventually the sale of the team in August. Front Row Motorsports purchased BK Racing for $2.08 million and kept the team intact.

During all that and after the sale, the team ran every race — as required by the charter it had.

It wasn’t pretty. The team finished 35th among the 36 charter teams in owner points, but the team made it to the end.

5. Something to ponder

Greg Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media, which owns, among other things, Formula One and the Atlanta Braves, gave a wide-ranging interview with NBC News this week.

Maffei was asked about NASCAR possibly being on the market.

“We like motor sports,” Maffei said. “If NASCAR were available, we’d certainly take a look.”

During an investor analysts call May 10, Maffei responded to a question about if NASCAR in light of the reports then that NASCAR could be for sale.

“I think it’s not as clear what the synergies are between the two assets (Formula One and NASCAR), and I would note the trends have not been perfect in NASCAR,” Maffei said. “Unless we had a good thesis on how and why we could fix them, it’s not an obvious to us.” 

Legislation could help Texas Motor Speedway to lure All-Star Race, season finale

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Texas Motor Speedway could become a player for the NASCAR All-Star Race or Cup season finale with legislation making the track eligible for money to help bring those events there.

H.B. 3294 was filed Monday without Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. It becomes effective Sept. 1.

The measure updates the law. It makes the track eligible for funding should it ever get the All-Star race or season-ending championship race. The money comes from the state’s Major Events Reimbursement Fund, which provided millions to help lure the 2017 Super Bowl.

An event has to be listed to be eligible for funding. Texas Motor Speedway previously had not been listed in the law.

“It’s just going to give us a tool, should we choose to use it, to give us an opportunity to pursue some events in a way that have probably never been pursued in NASCAR before,’’ Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “Don’t know that we’re ever going to use it, but at least it’s something we’ve got in our tool kit that I don’t know anybody else in motorsports has.’’

NASCAR awards its races to tracks. There isn’t a bidding process as there is for a Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four. The 2018 Cup schedule has been set with Charlotte Motor Speedway scheduled to host the All-Star Race for the 33rd time in 34 years. The 2018 schedule has Homestead-Miami Speedway hosting the season finale for what would be the 17th consecutive year.

NASCAR has five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks that go through 2020.

Gossage said that it was his understanding that its two Cup race weekends were not eligible for such funding from the state, so the track sought to have the All-Star Race and championship finale added as part of the legislation.

Events the measure lists as eligible for funding include all-star games for the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer, a national championship college football game, a World Cup soccer game or tournament and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals Rodeo, among others.

The Major Events Reimbursement Fund is controlled by the governor’s office. There is a formula that determines what each event is eligible to receive. The fund is supported by state and local sales taxes, auto rental tax, hotel and alcohol state taxes.

The Associated Press reported that the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston was eligible for $25 million and the 2016 U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race in Austin, Texas, was eligible for $26 million.

Gossage said the track has not had any discussions with NASCAR seeking the All-Star Race or season finale.

Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway are both owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., so moving the All-Star Race would have to be approved by Marcus Smith, president, chief executive officer of SMI.

“Ultimately, it’s Marcus’ decision as to whether to try to use it, and I honestly can’t tell you what he would say,’’ Gossage said. “He’s president of the company and that’s all eight speedways. He’s got to make decisions that are in the best interest for the company. That’s going to be tough particularly when the company is based in Charlotte and we’re talking that one of these events is a Charlotte event.’’

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