John Cooper

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.”

Friday 5: Examining the most intriguing storyline of the Cup playoffs

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LAS VEGAS — They could be viewed as NASCAR’s odd couple, a blend of youth and experience, of past and present. No other driver/crew chief combination in the Cup playoffs has as wide of an age gap as Chad Knaus and William Byron at 27 years.

And no other combination in the playoffs has as many championships. Of course, Knaus won seven titles with Jimmie Johnson and Byron makes his Cup playoff debut Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

While Joe Gibbs Racing (just pick a driver) is the favorite to win the title, Kevin Harvick is the hottest driver and Joey Logano seeks a second consecutive championship, one of the most intriguing storylines of the postseason could be Knaus and Byron.

They’ve spent their first season together learning and adjusting to each other. The result has been significant gains at times.

“I feel like the first 10 races were kind of that newness and awkward stage of a relationship in trying to figure out how not to step on each other’s toes,” Byron said Thursday during playoff media day at South Point Hotel Casino. “And there were some heated moments, to be honest. We had some things that we didn’t execute as well as we wanted to. And then we got to the meat of the season in the summer, and we just started to really click.”

As that relationship progressed, Byron also hit a key milestone in the All-Star Race in May. He raced his way into the All-Star Race with an aggressive style.

“It was, at least for me, a turning point because it gave me the confidence that I could do it,” Byron said.

But Byron doesn’t mean aggressive in the sense of knocking people out of the way. Instead, he was aggressive in how he contemplated his next move on the track.

You’re kind of anticipating what moves to make,” Byron said. “You’re taking advantage of situations more than you are defending situations, and I think that was a big difference. Coming to a restart and thinking about how can I take advantage of this person or this person or get the best start that I can. That’s what changed for me in that race.”

While Byron has continued to learn, he’s also made an impact on Knaus in at least one way.

“As far as me shaping him, I think the only thing is just staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron said. “I don’t seem to do well with like negative energy.”

How did he get his point across?

“I think situations have played out on the track to where it’s kind of been understood that we’ve got to do things a different way,” Byron said. “We both have our way of doing things. I’ve really accepted the way he does things, and he’s accepted the way I do things. Any good working relationship is kind of that compromise.”

He admits one key learning point came at Watkins Glen when Knaus all but ordered Byron to hit Kyle Busch’s car in retaliation for earlier contact. Busch slammed his brakes and that created a greater impact when Byron ran into the back of Busch’s car. The result was Byron damaged his car more than Busch’s was hurt.

“I think it was a turning point for us because I realized I’m the guy driving the car and ultimately the decisions that I make affect what I do,” Byron said. “Obviously, that trickles down to my team and all the work they’re putting in.”

2. Way in the past

It is nearing 10 years since Denny Hamlin was in position to win the championship only to see mistakes and misfortune rob him of that opportunity.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver still seeks his first Cup crown.

Hamlin, who won this year’s Daytona 500, is confident entering the playoffs after a season with four victories, including two in the last six races.

But until he wins a championship, that 2010 title race will remain something he’s asked about. He entered that season finale in Miami with a slim points lead after he gave away several points by pitting for fuel late in the season’s penultimate race in Phoenix. In Miami, Hamlin faltered during the weekend and Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive title.

I just got too excited in the moment,” Hamlin said Thursday. “I remember when it all started on qualifying day. Watching a couple guys run up high in qualifying and be fast, I’m like, ‘I didn’t practice up there (but) I need to run up there.’ I got in the wall and started in the rear and caught up in a three-wide wreck early (in the race). That was on the driver, not anyone else in 2010.”

But he admits it took some time before he could move on from that experience.

“I came off an eight-win season in 2010 and in 2011 I won one race and just kind of ran crappy,” Hamlin said. “It was definitely a hangover, letdown year from 2010. Then we kind of bounced back in 2012 (with five wins). … We had a good season and at that point I kind of let 2010 go.”

As for now, Hamlin is eager for the playoffs to begin. He won at Pocono in late July and followed that with a third-place finish at Watkins Glen, a runner-up result at Michigan, a win at Bristol, a 29th-place finish at Darlington after he was collected in a crash, and a sixth-place finish in a backup car last weekend at Indianapolis.

“We are not searching for speed, we are not searching for anything right now,” Hamlin said. “As long as we execute, we contend for wins every week and that is something that only a handful or less can say every week.”

Hamlin also likes that the series is heading back to several tracks for a second time this season. He notes that in the second time to tracks this season, he has finished first at Pocono, second at Michigan and first at Bristol.

3. Higher expectations

Ryan Blaney is in the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but he enters still seeking his first victory of the season, while teammates Brad Keselowski (three) and Joey Logano (two) each have multiple wins this year.

“I’d like to be doing better,” said Blaney, who has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. “You want to be winning races with your teammates, right? I mean, your teammates winning races, you want to win races and you know, it sucks that we haven’t won a race yet this year. There’s a handful of them I wish we got back, but you just try to move forward and move on and try to do the best you can.

“Indy stunk how it kind of played out and ended there. But you definitely want to be doing better. Do I think that I’ve done the best job throughout this year and before this? No, I could do a lot better. So that’s kind of an ‘on me’ thing. So you just try to keep learning, keep getting better.

“You see your teammates winning and you want to be there just to prove that. You want to be part of the  show. You want to be in that group. You want to be in that winning group, and hopefully we can figure things out.”

Blaney says when he compares himself to Keselowski and Logano, “I feel like I don’t meet expectations. So that part stinks.

“I think Brad and Joey are two of the best guys out here, smartest guys, really great race car drivers and do a great job of figuring it out. And you just try to compare yourself to those guys. It’s hard compared to them because they’re so good and past champions. But I think if you try to meet that bar, and you kind of push yourself to be there, hopefully one day you do achieve that goal and get to where those guys are at.”

4. How many wins could Kyle Busch have?

Asked if he is better with handling frustration, regular-season champion Kyle Busch answered by alluding to this season and the four wins he has.

“No, I’m definitely not very good with frustrating moments,” said Busch, winless in his last 12 races. “It’s hard. You pour your life and soul into this and this is what you do and what you want to do and be successful at, and you want to go out here and prove and show people what they all hype up and talk about that, yes it’s true that I can be one of the best here and it’s frustrating when I’m not able to come out of races or seasons with the goals that you anticipate or the goals that you think you can achieve.

“It’s quite frustrating in that regard. This year for example, we’ve had four wins. We’ve been really good, we led the points …  you look back on it and we should have eight or nine wins.”

5. New mayor for Nashville

John Cooper defeated Mayor David Briley by more than a two-to-one margin Thursday to become the new mayor of Nashville, Tennessee.

Here is why that matters to NASCAR fans:

Once Cooper takes office (at a date to be determined) one of the many issues he’ll be tasked with is the effort by officials from Bristol Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc. to renovate Fairgrounds Speedway in hopes of attracting a NASCAR race.

With NASCAR seeking to announce the 2021 schedule around April 1, 2020, it leaves a little more than six months for Bristol officials to have an agreement with the mayor, get approval from the metro council and get approval from the fair board to begin construction on what has been billed as a $60 million project.

It would seem ambitious to think everything could be put into place for Nashville to be on the 2021 NASCAR schedule. If so, that could mean that the earliest NASCAR might race there would be 2022.

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