Friday 5

Friday 5: Multiple changes have crew chiefs ‘starting over’ at Phoenix

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Although their drivers have combined to win three of the last four Cup races at Phoenix Raceway, crew chiefs Rodney Childers and Adam Stevens enter this weekend uncertain of what they’ll see.

NASCAR’s low-downforce package, which will be used at road courses and tracks less than 1 mile, debuts this weekend and is paired with a new tire that has the championship crew chiefs for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch aware that if their setups are off in Friday’s opening practice, it could make for a long weekend.

Add that Phoenix Raceway hosts the championship race in November — the first time in the playoff era that the title race will be a track that hosts more than one Cup race a season — and this will be a busy weekend for drivers, crew chiefs and teams.

“I think the biggest thing is just making sure that you get out of the first race what you need to and learn as much as you can,” Childers told NBC Sports about this weekend. “It’s going to be about taking probably the best notes that you’ve ever taken before (at the track). Just being really precise about the things you may need when you come back.”

Kevin Harvick celebrating his 2018 win at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

No one has been better at Phoenix since 2014 when Harvick and Childers joined Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick has won five of the 12 Phoenix Cup races since 2014. Harvick has never finished outside the top 10 at Phoenix with Childers as his crew chief.

Harvick’s most recent win there was in spring 2018 — with a package that is viewed as similar to the short track package NASCAR is using this season that creates less downforce with a significantly shorter spoiler than last year.

One driver who has challenged Harvick in recent years at Phoenix is Busch, who has won two of the last three races there, scoring victories in the 2018 fall race and last year’s spring race. He also has scored nine consecutive finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix.

Such success doesn’t comfort Stevens.

“Going into it there’s so much new that it’s almost like starting over or back to an older aero package that is not the same as 2018 but very close,” Stevens told NBC Sports about this weekend. “We’ve got a new tire combination with softer tread compounds so that the tires are going to wear out more throughout the run. Durability is a concern (at Phoenix in the past). You see a lot of right fronts giving up in the long run, so that might be more of a concern now.”

And the track will have PJ1 traction compound added again but lower in the corners than last fall’s race. Drivers generally felt that the PJ1 traction compound was too high on the track to be effective.

Crew chief Adam Stevens says of this weekend at Phoenix with so many unknowns: “It’s almost like starting over.” (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“There’s so much new going into it, everybody is going to be scratching their head a little bit,” Stevens said of this weekend. “So you’re going to see quite a bit of discrepancy in speed off the truck than you normally would. Some guys are going to be a little closer (to the right setup) than the others. Maybe that gap will close up as the weekend goes. There’s a lot of learning to do and only two 50-minute practices to do it.”

With such limited practice time, teams can’t afford to be far off on speed.

“You can’t just change all four springs and all the heights and all the bump stops and stuff like that and go out and try something,” Childers said. “There’s just not enough time (to make all the adjustments in those sessions). If you have something that is pretty close, you kind of have to work around it and make it the best you can.”

While teams can do much prep work through simulation, there remains the question of the tire and how it will react to a team’s setup. Stevens calls every tire change a “wildcard” because teams don’t do their own tire testing.

“If your understanding of the tire is just a little bit off, then all of your setups and sim results are wildly off,” Stevens said. “So you have to understand the tire completely to get good results out of the sim.”

Childers has another question entering this weekend.

“We’ve never raced the Mustang with a little spoiler on the back, so we have no idea what we’re getting into,” he said. “Obviously, the new Chevrolet body, they’ve never raced it with a small spoiler on the back either. We’ll have to see how that part goes.”

2. What to take of this weekend

One of phrases likely to be stated often this weekend is if a team is slow, they have eight months to get better before the series returns to Phoenix for the championship race.

Yes, that’s true … but there’s a catch.

Looking back at 2018 — since that season’s package is similar to what is being run this weekend — shows that many of the strongest cars at Phoenix in the spring were among the strongest eight months later.

Examining the best 10 consecutive lap averages in final Cup practice shows that five of the top seven in the spring also were among the top seven in that same category in the fall.

Harvick was the fastest in that category for both the spring and the fall. Harvick won the spring race and finished fifth in the fall. Busch was sixth on the chart in the spring and fourth in the fall. Busch finished second in the spring race and won that fall race that year.

“I honestly think that the short tracks, I would call Phoenix one of them … the actual setup themselves haven’t evolved much,” Childers told NBC Sports. “I think if you found something that worked for you in 2015, it’s still going to work pretty good in 2020. The things that evolve the most are the cars and the aerodynamics and finding downforce.”

Stevens said teams are still learning and even if the results don’t show significant change over time, much has taken place.

“The thing you have to realize is everybody is developing and everybody is trying to get better,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to close that gap because … if you start behind, generally everybody is processing it and makes it tough to really close that gap. That gap isn’t just car potential, it’s in driver capability and certain drivers are better at certain tracks. Then there’s a certain group of drivers that are pretty at almost every track.”

3. What drivers say

Here is what some drivers say heading into Phoenix:

Brad Keselowski: “There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1. They are putting it down, will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there. That should be pretty interesting to see how it plays out. I think we would all like to believe that if you go out and win the Phoenix spring race that you will go out and win the fall race but a lot of things can change between now and then.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s definitely unique going to (the track that will host the championship) twice. I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal. …  I felt like since the repave (between races in 2011), it’s taken a little bit for us to get our arms around it. I feel like we’re getting better there and that’s a good thing. Some good runs there the last couple years.”

Joey Logano: “I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship. You need to really learn as much as possible. You want to have a strong run there and learn from your mistakes there more than anywhere and make sure you are clear about everything when you are done with the race. It is one of those tracks that you will spend more time afterwards dissecting every little piece of it.”

Kyle Busch: “I look forward to Phoenix, it’s always fun and a good place for us. Lately, we’ve been able to really pick up on some things that help us there that have made us better there the last few times and now this package is different. I think that will lend itself back into a couple years ago I guess. Felt like we were just kind of hitting on something there and was a bit racier through traffic and such. We’ll see how all that goes.”

4. Three in a row, but …

Kevin Harvick is the only Cup driver to score a top-10 finish in each of the first three races this season. Going back to last season, Harvick has scored eight consecutive top-10 results. He’s placed fifth in the Daytona 500, eighth at Las Vegas and ninth at Auto Club Speedway this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers looks at what could have been.

“I felt like Daytona we had the best we’ve had there probably ever,” he said. “We didn’t ride around up front and show a lot of speed, but I think in the duel we showed that we had a lot of speed. We got some damage in the 500 that hurt our speed late in the race. Overall, it was a good weekend and got a top five out of it.

“Vegas was kind of disappointing at the end after running so well all day. We had a short-run car, which is what we planned. … It just didn’t work out at the end. Maybe I should have stayed out (instead of pitting) and taken a shot at it. I would had never thought that many were going to stay out. Overall, not getting a top five out of that was disappointing.

“This past weekend (at Auto Club Speedway) was just kind of a dud I guess you could say. Kind of took the wrong car and the wrong build. Just fought and fought and fought all weekend to make something out of it. No matter what you did to it, it was just kind of a one-speed (car) and just couldn’t get through the corners as fast as we needed.”

5. Interesting request

Early in last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch asked his team if they could look at his throttle trace from last year’s race (which he won) to compare with his throttle trace to see where he was off.

With the telemetry available, all teams can look at such items and any other team’s telemetry.

“We haven’t had a conversation like that, so that was kind of interesting,” Stevens said. “We weren’t as good as we needed to be, and we were really good (there) last year. I think from the seat he was having a hard time figuring out where his weakness was. The easiest thing to do was to compare back to last year, which everybody had that data. Anybody in the field could have given him that answer.

“Normally we wouldn’t look back toward a race that was a year prior even though the rules were the same because of the track conditions are different, they did tweak the tire. … We were able to do that quickly.

“I think it just confirmed what he thought.”

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Friday 5: Matt Tifft on the road to recovery from December seizure

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Even on his honeymoon, Matt Tifft exercised as he prepared to race again this season. But about 30 minutes after his workout, Tifft began to feel “weird.”

The only way he can describe it now is that it felt like he stuck his finger into an electrical outlet.

He tried to tell his bride something was wrong, but he couldn’t speak. His tongue rolled back. And then eyes rolled back.

“I could see it,” Tifft told NBC Sports. “I could actually see my other eye. It was the freakiest thing out of a nightmare movie that you could ever imagine.”

As his body convulsed, he couldn’t breathe.

Eleven weeks later, Tifft describes the Dec. 12 seizure — his second last year — in a way he admits he could not have done so a month ago. But understanding what likely led to both seizures and using a cannabidiol (CBD) product help his anxiety, Tifft says he feels much better and looks forward to two weeks before his 24th birthday when he can return to driving a street car. As for racing again? He hopes to do so but knows there’s no guarantee.

Matt Tifft says the use of a CBD product has helped him in the last month. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Tifft, a Cup rookie last year, suffered his first seizure shortly shortly before practice Oct. 26 in the Front Row Motorsports’ hauler at Martinsville Speedway. After the Dec. 12 seizure, there was one common theme: Tifft had been off his keto diet both times. He suffered food poisoning that led to what he said was an “extreme stomach infection” about a week before the seizure at Martinsville.

While off his diet during his honeymoon, the combination of eating foods he hadn’t — and forcing his body to process carbs and sugars it had not in some time — along with his body reacting to his workout “spiked me into the danger zone.”

But it took time for that cause to be found. Tifft, who had brain surgery in July 2016 to remove a slow-growing tumor, worried about what was happening to him and panicked about being in public.

“My battle with this anxiety and panic attacks have gotten a lot better … (with) CBD,” Tifft said of cannabidiol, a naturally occurring compound found in the resinous flower of cannabis. “It has actually been, I would say a life-changing thing for me to go from being terrified of leaving my house (to) being able to go in public when I started taking that. It’s made such a huge difference that I can function socially and go to places and do things.

“I find it interesting still that that’s illegal in our sport because I know so many times after intense races or you go to Dover or Bristol and your body is all twisted up and it feels terrible and you just have to take ibuprofen or Tylenol because that is what is legal. If we could take something like (CBD), I think it’s a much more natural and efficient way of helping our bodies.”

The NASCAR Rule Book addresses CBD products in its Substance Abuse Policy in a section titled: Dietary and CBD Supplements.

Section 19.3.4.a states “Dietary and CBD supplements may contain (either purposefully or through contamination) a prohibited substance under this Policy.”

Section 19.3.4.b states: “Any product sold with a warning advising non-use if the purchaser is subject to a drug testing program should be avoided even though such products may be available without a prescription.”

Sports leagues are split on CBD. The World Anti-Doping Agency announced in 2018 that CBD had been removed from its list of banned substances making this year’s Olympics the first in which athletes can legally use CBD.

MORE: Questions and answers about CBD from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency

The Pain Management Committee of the NFL and NFL Players Association held a fact-finding forum in January with manufacturers of products that use CBD in sports medicine. The NFL’s drug policy includes a ban on THC, a substance found in marijuana and some CBD products. Mike Bass, NBA executive vice president of communications, told NBC Sports Philadelphia that “we have regular discussions with the players’ association about a variety of matters, including … CBD. Those conversations are ongoing.”

Tifft said he began using a CBD product in January and felt better about 20 minutes later.

Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (right) celebrates after Kurt Busch won the 2017 Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I think the thing that initially brought me to it was athletes like Rob Gronkowski, guys who have been advocates of it afterward from their healing and recovery,” Tifft told NBC Sports. “Someone like me, who has dealt with brain issues, it’s known as a neuro protective, so for someone like me, I’ve always been interested from the outside of it and studied the results of it and effects of it.”

Should Tifft get a chance to race again in NASCAR, he knows he could be at a crossroads with CBD.

“If it came down to and I was cleared to race again and that was kind of the choice, I’d have to weigh out, if I go off of this can I feel I feel OK and be fine,” he said. “If that’s the case, I’d be fine with doing that. I think an optimal sense if we can have something that can benefit folks but also be able to come back to racing, that’s the ideal scenario.

“It depends on the time where right now I’m excited to get my normal’s drivers license June 12 because it’s a six-month process (after the last seizure). For me, right now, honestly, driving anything other than iRacing is just far-fetched.”

2. On target for 250

Last March, Kyle Busch collected his 200th career victory among NASCAR’s top three national series — Cup, Xfinity and Trucks — and the idea was posed that he could be on his way to 250 or more career series wins before he retires.

Busch remains on target heading to Auto Club Speedway this weekend with 209 career NASCAR victories, including his Truck win last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch has won 209 career NASCAR races across the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

His success in the Truck series — he’s won his past seven starts — led Kevin Harvick and then Marcus Lemonis to tweet that they would give a total of $100,000 to a Cup driver who could beat Busch in the Truck Series. Busch has four Truck races remaining this season. Both Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson will take that challenge

Since 2015, Busch has averaged 13.4 victories a year in those three series combined. He turns 35 in May, giving him plenty of years to reach 250 career wins, but his efforts will be slowed in the future. Busch has stated that once he hits 100 career Xfinity victories (he has 96) he would stop racing in that series except for if car owner Joe Gibbs requested him to drive in particular races.

What Busch is doing is something that won’t be seen again in NASCAR unless series officials relax the rule that limits veteran Cup drivers to no more than five Truck and five Xfinity races a season.

So just as Richard Petty’s record of 200 Cup wins is viewed as one that will not be broken — because the number of races was cut from more than 60 to 36 — Busch’s ever-increasing total also will be one that will never be touched. The next closest active driver to Busch is Harvick, who has 110 combined wins in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. The active driver after Harvick is Jimmie Johnson with 84 wins (83 in Cup and one in Xfinity).

3. Aggressive driving

Xfinity rookie Harrison Burton had an interesting take on aggressive driving when asked about it earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track” show. This is what he said:

“I think that aggression is becoming more and more acceptable in our sport,” Burton said. “From my perspective last year in the Truck Series, Ross Chastain came in and was the most aggressive guy, right? Everyone was like mad at him for like two weeks. After that, it was like ‘OK, why don’t we all race like that?’ and then it just turned up the wick of the flame and everyone kind of rose to that level and it made the racing a lot tougher, a lot more challenging, a lot more fun and it was good for the overall racing in Truck Series.

“I think that has kind of happened everywhere, not necessarily because of Ross, but the packages and the way things have been changing in the sport. It’s super aggressive now, which is super fun. That’s becoming a little bit more acceptable, but you also have to still use your head and respect the guys that have been there for years and years before you and try to find a balance there.”

4. Where’s the tax benefits?

Eddie Gossage, president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, raised questions this week during TMS’ media day about the need for a better infrastructure near the track with the development that has taken place.

“Our local, state and federal officials have collected our tax money and spent it somewhere else apparently because they’re not building us roads,” Gossage said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram“We desperately need roads improved yesterday.”

Gossage went on to say:

“It’s just inappropriate for the elected officials and the bureaucrats to have that kind of development without building the proper infrastructure to support it. I call on all of them to get out here today to start building those roads because it doesn’t matter if you’re a business or a resident, there’s too little concrete out here to get where you need to get going.”

5. Testing

William Byron will stay in California longer after Sunday’s race to test the Next Gen car on Monday and Tuesday.

He’ll become the fourth driver to test the car. Austin Dillon drove it at Richmond in October, Joey Logano tested it at Phoenix in December, and Erik Jones drove it at Homestead in January.

NASCAR’s next test after the Auto Club test is scheduled to take place March 16-17 at Atlanta.

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Friday 5: Key storylines entering Daytona Speedweeks

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Eighty-three days after Kyle Busch celebrated his second Cup championship, the garage opens today at Daytona International Speedway.

And with it will be the sense of renewal and unbridled optimism that often pervades during the offseason and Daytona Speedweeks.

Such feelings are evident in drivers who think this is their year to win the Daytona 500 and with smaller teams that count on the race’s big payday to help fund their operations for the coming weeks. Hope also will be strong with those among the many driver and crew chief changes made since last year.

With all the good feelings entering Daytona Speedweeks, here are five storylines to watch:

1. When will Kyle Busch’s Daytona 500 drought end?

While Kyle Busch has won a summer Cup race at Daytona, three qualifying races, a Busch Clash, a summer Xfinity race, a Truck race, and an ARCA race, he’s never won the Daytona 500 in 14 previous attempts.

The closest Busch has come to winning the season-opening race was last year when he placed second to Denny Hamlin as part of a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing that included Erik Jones finishing third.

David Pearson celebrates winning the 1976 Daytona 500 after a last-lap crash with Richard Petty.(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

If it is any solace for Busch and his fans, Hall of Famer David Pearson didn’t win his lone Daytona 500 until his 15th attempt.

Others who needed more years before winning their first Daytona 500 were: Kurt Busch (in his 16th start), Darrell Waltrip (17th start), Buddy Baker (18th start) and Dale Earnhardt (20th start).

Of course, some Hall of Fame drivers never won a Daytona 500. Mark Martin failed to win the race in 29 starts. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in 23 starts. Tony Stewart, inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend in a class that included Baker, did not win the Daytona 500 in 17 starts.

With Toyota the presumptive favorite again this season — based on few rule changes and Toyota’s 19 wins in 36 points races last year — will this be the year that Busch wins the Daytona 500?

2. Putting the puzzle together

Car owner Roger Penske shocked many by jumbling his driver/crew chief lineup after his organization won six races and placed all three drivers in the top eight in points.

But as Brad Keselowski recently said: “We want to be great. We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Todd Gordon (left) will serve as Ryan Blaney‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daytona marks the debut of the new combinations. Keselowski is paired with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Joey Logano is teamed with crew chief Paul Wolfe, who led Keselowski to a championship in 2012. Ryan Blaney is working with Todd Gordon, who guided Logano to the Cup title in 2018.

Other new pairings to watch include Martin Truex Jr. and James Small, who takes over with Cole Pearn leaving the sport, and Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert, who both come to Roush Fenway Racing from other teams.

Crew chief strategy often is limited at Daytona because of the need for cars within the same manufacturer to work together (i.e. pit at the same time), but Speedweeks can be valuable for new driver/crew chief pairings with communication. After Daytona, Cup teams race seven consecutive weekends before the Easter break in April. If the communication falters, the results may not be as good.

3. Will the chaos continue?

Last year’s Daytona 500 saw 36 of the 40 cars involved in a crash, according to NASCAR’s race report (Racing Insights, which supplies statistics to NBC Sports, had 37 cars involved in accidents).

“It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps,” Jamie McMurray said after last year’s race, his final Cup start.

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said after last year’s race. “That’s all it is.”

Just a portion of the chaos in last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

There were three cautions, including two red flags totaling nearly 40 minutes, in the last 17 laps. Those incidents collected 29 cars and forced the race to go seven laps beyond the scheduled distance.

Such destruction has become a trend. The past three Daytona 500s have seen an average of 32 cars involved in accidents. 

Last year’s Daytona Speedweeks was especially tough on Cup car owners. A total of 60 cars were involved in accidents in practices, qualifying races, the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500. That was an increase of 16.7% from the previous Daytona Speedweeks.

As another Speedweeks begins, key questions are how many cars will be damaged, how will that impact teams and who can emerge from the chaos to win?

4. Who steps up in this pivotal contract year?

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski are among the drivers in the final year of their contract this season.

Who will drive this car in 2021? (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

What better way to have some leverage at the bargaining table then to be the reigning Daytona 500 champ?

Silly season could be frenzied with several drivers, including Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer, among those in the last year of their contracts. A strong start could build momentum over the next several weeks and help drivers remain in their current spot or find a tantalizing ride elsewhere.

One thing is for certain, the No. 48 is open next year with Jimmie Johnson set to step away from full-time Cup racing after this season. 

5. Hailie Deegan’s Daytona debut

The 18-year-old makes her debut on Daytona International Speedway’s oval with today’s ARCA practice sessions. Of course, she was on track a couple of weeks ago in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race.

Hailie Deegan will compete in her first race on Daytona’s oval this weekend. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deegan left Toyota’s development program for Ford in the offseason and will drive full-time in the ARCA Series for DGR-Crosley. She won three races in what was called K&N Pro Series West over the past two years.

Deegan’s move to ARCA will be watched closely at Daytona and throughout the season. She has the best funding and resources among any female drivers in NASCAR.

Some may view her as the next Danica Patrick but Deegan and her family are wanting to take a more measured approach to moving up the NASCAR ladder.

Deegan understands what’s at stake. She said last month during sports car testing at Daytona that “this is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels.”

It all starts this weekend for her.

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Friday 5: New slogan spotlights Jimmie Johnson’s focus in 2020

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CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson is not chasing history. He seeks to enjoy it.

Johnson’s revelation this week that he has ditched #chasing8 for #One FinalTime as the slogan for his final Cup season is not a sign of surrender, he insists.

Instead, he wants to be more focused on the moment and hope that leads to greater goals.

“I’m not chasing anything,” the seven-time Cup champion said Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

Johnson used #6pack on his quest for a sixth title and #se7en in his bid for a seventh title. He had used #chasing8 while seeking an unprecedented eighth Cup title for a driver.

Jimmie Johnson on his final season: “I’ll lay it on the line and go.” (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Even without the slogan, Johnson says he remains focused on this coming season.

“I’m going to get in that car, I’m going to give it 100% as I always do … I’ll lay it on the line and go,” he said.

But Johnson’s go has been slow in recent years. He is winless in 95 races, dating back to June 2017 at Dover International Speedway.

Since that victory, Johnson has six top-five finishes, 29 top 10s and led 216 laps. He has not finished better than third in a points race in that span.

Such struggles make it easy to discount a driver for championship contention — even one of only three seven-time champions in series history.

It’s not been just one thing, though, that has held the 44-year-old back. His struggles coincided with a decline in performance for Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 and ’18. Chevrolet’s Camaro had its issues. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus split after the 2018 season. Johnson went on to change crew chiefs again in 2019 when performance soured.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Johnson said of missing the playoffs last year for the first time in his career. “I was angry, embarrassed.”

He cites last year as a learning experience in racing without Knaus on his pit box. Without Knaus’ leadership, there was a vacuum and Johnson had to understand how to help fill it. As his performance waned, the team struggled. A late-summer crew chief change failed to get Johnson into the playoffs.

Johnson, considered among NASCAR’s greatest drivers, said that “winning races, making the playoffs would be a good season (this year). A great season is going (multiple) rounds (in the playoffs). The ultimate season is being in that championship four.”

First Johnson must be able to run at the front. And win again.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates his 2016 title with wife Chandra and daughters Lydia (held by Johnson) and Genevieve.(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

While his 83 career Cup victories are tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list, Johnson’s focus is to win again to show his daughters what he can do. Genevieve is 9 years old and Lydia is 6.

“I think deep down inside it would be very satisfying,” Johnson said of winning again. “In my heart of hearts I still now I’m doing my best work out there.

“I can also say from a family perspective, to have another moment or two this year with my family in that environment and winning at the top level would be very special for us.

“I guess, ultimately, my kids don’t remember going to victory lane. They don’t have any vivid memories of it. They have no filters. To come home and especially Lydia is like, ‘so Dad, we didn’t win, what happened?’ Evie is so polite about it: ‘Dad you tried hard, good job.’

“To have that moment with them and a moment they will hopefully remember … would be really special.”

2. Hope for Nashville for 2021?

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are not ready to publicly shut the door on a race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville for 2021, even though no deal has been announced between Nashville and SMI. NASCAR is expected to release the 2021 Cup schedule in April.

“We’re having great discussions with leadership in Nashville,” Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., told NBC Sports this week. “We think it’s a great opportunity for the city and for NASCAR and for Speedway Motorsports. … Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation. I’m very optimistic about NASCAR in Nashville.

“The timing is one of those things that once we get the agreement done, then we’ll have some planning and … the actual construction will take place. It’s a big project and one that when it’s done, the city of Nashville will be really proud of.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc. seeks an agreement with the city to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to Nashville but has not been able to work through financing and other issues. SMI proposed a $60 million renovation plan in May for the historic .596-mile track that would increase seating capacity from 15,000 to 30,000, among other projects.

A previous plan for $54 million in bond payments was rejected by then-Mayor David Briley. John Cooper defeated Bailey to become the city’s mayor in September.

The Tennessean reported in December that the mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that the administration received a new proposal from SMI and it was being reviewed.

Cooper told the Nashville Rotary Club on Monday, according to The Tennessean, that “racing needs to be a success, not just soccer (at the Fairgrounds property). It has to be a workable overall site plan.”

However, The Tennessean notes that that Cooper has not said if he supports a deal to bring NASCAR’s top-tier series to the Fairgrounds.

The Tennessean reported Thursday that Cooper had met with auto racing advocates this week.

Asked if Nashville was still a consideration for the 2021 schedule, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

3. Changes for 2020

Along with the changes to stage lengths this season — and how a race will be official once it hits the halfway mark (unless the end of the second stage occurs first) — NASCAR also revealed a few other changes for the coming season.

Last year, NASCAR typically took no more than one car to the R&D Center after a race. That was primarily to study trends in the sport and if NASCAR needed to adjust any rules. The point was to get away from issuing penalties days after the race.

This year, series officials said they would look at taking multiple cars back to the R&D Center after Cup races.

“We tried to do the best we could in response to the teams and try to curb development,” said Jay Fabian, NASCAR Cup director. “Part of that there is that there’s been a new set of rules as far as a parts freeze. Teams have to submit a significant amount of parts and they have to run those parts throughout the year. They have options of each part, they can mix and match as long as they are on that list.

“We will bring more cars back this year because that’s, quite honestly, a lot of work postrace. So we’re going to bring that back and make sure everybody is on the up and up.”

Fabian said if NASCAR found “a major, significant issue, we’d react to it” by issuing a penalty that week.

Erik Jones drives the Next Gen car in a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Jan. 2020. (Photo: NASCAR)

In regards to the Next Gen car, NASCAR’s next test will be March 2-3 at Auto Club Speedway. That’s expected to have only one car but NASCAR anticipates having two cars test by April. That would give officials more information on how a Next Gen car reacts behind another car. Teams are expected to take delivery of their first Next Gen car by July. Tests will be set up for August and beyond.

Five tests are expected to be held for teams before next season. How those tests will be done — whether only one car per organization is allowed or one car per team — will be determined later.

Also, NASCAR officials were scheduled to meet Wednesday with manufacturers in the sport and those that could join the sport about a new engine for 2023, among other issues.

4. Stress of rule change on teams

There have been many reasons discussed for Team Penske’s decision to change its entire driver/crew chief lineup for this season after winning six Cup races and placing all three drivers in the top 10 in points.

As Brad Keselowski acknowledged this week, that type of season was good but not good enough.

“We want to be great,” he said. “We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Brad Keselowski with crew chief Paul Wolfe last season. As part of Team Penske’s moves, Wolfe will be Joey Logano‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Keselowski, who will be teamed with crew chief Jermey Bullins this season, also expressed his belief on why the change was made at Team Penske.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think the rules package is as much a factor as anything else,” Keselowski said. “The rules changed when we went to the high downforce and the really small horsepower. That’s really hard to accept. It’s hard to accept for the drivers. It’s really hard to accept for the teams with respect some of the things that we consider telltales of the past that are not necessarily the telltales of today.

“Used to get into this car and you were a good racecar driver if you could run every lap within half a tenth to a tenth (of a second). With these rules, the lap time variance is very significant. You might run one lap, let’s say around (Charlotte Motor Speedway), a 30 (second) flat and the next lap you catch the draft wrong in all the wrong places and you run a 31 flat and the team sees that and they say ‘What the hell? What is this guy out here doing? Is he drunk? Is he not focused? What’s going on?’

“I think it’s part of the package. When you’re not winning, when you’re having the bad days you’re going to have in this sport … it really has put a lot of stress on the team relationships, driver relationships, that dynamic. I think that dynamic has caused a fair amount of rift and ripples across the whole sport and the easiest way for Team Penske to fix it was this change because it forces everyone to think a little bit more thoroughly and different about it.

“That’s one of many examples, it’s not the only reason. I do think the rules change has had a drastic impact on the drivers’ and teams’ abilities to communicate with each other and value the right things.”

5. An unforgettable ride

One of John Andretti’s greatest gifts was what he could give others. Sometimes it was his wit that left one laughing. Sometimes it was his smile and positive nature even through a battle with colon cancer that ended Thursday with his death at age 56.

Other times it was his drive.

Andretti, the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, won an IndyCar race, two Cup events, a Rolex 24 and even a USAC national midget race. He also competed in NHRA, reaching the semifinals once. 

Of all that, there was one drive that illustrates Andretti’s essence.

It came in his 1999 Cup win at Martinsville Speedway for Petty Enterprises. Andretti won the day after Petty Enterprises claimed the Martinsville Truck race, completing a weekend sweep for the famed organization that no longer exists.

But Andretti’s path was not easy that day. He fell a lap down less than 50 laps into the event after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton and spun. No Martinsville Cup winner in the previous decade had come back from a lap down to win.

MORE: Motorsports world mourns passing of John Andretti 

Andretti needed less than 100 laps to pass leader Jeff Gordon and get back on the lead lap. A two-tire pit stop with about 120 laps left played a key role and Andretti did the rest. He was third with 50 laps to go.

Andretti passed Gordon for second with about 12 laps to go as his car suffered a vibration.

“With 12 to go, I figure the heck with it,” Andretti said later that day. “Nobody is going to remember if you run third.”

Andretti challenged close friend Jeff Burton for the lead and drove past the Virginia driver with four laps to go as the crowd cheered.

After taking the checkered flag, Andretti took an extra victory lap. On his way to victory lane, he stopped to give car owner Richard Petty a ride.

The sight of Petty sitting on the driver’s window opening as Andretti drove the No. 43 to victory lane is a memory that won’t be forgotten.

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”