Junior Johnson

Friday 5: With pressure on, time for Denny Hamlin to perform

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For all that Denny Hamlin has accomplished, what he does this weekend at ISM Raceway could alter the narrative for one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers without a Cup championship.

Among the favorites to win the title when the playoffs began in September, Hamlin is in danger of seeing his championship hopes end with Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hamlin trails rival Joey Logano, a driver he’s feuded with in these playoffs and over the years, by 20 points for the final spot in the Championship 4 field despite a stellar season that ranks among the best in Hamlin’s 14 seasons in Cup.

Hamlin is in this position after a crash last weekend at Texas dropped him from a transfer spot. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way into the championship race at ISM Raceway, winning that event in 2014 and then claiming the title a week later.

While the pressure is on now, Hamlin professed before the playoffs began “pressure doesn’t get to me, nothing like it probably did 10, 12 years ago.”

Hamlin’s best chance for a title before this season came in 2010 when he led the points going into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway but had to make an extra pit stop for fuel late. That allowed Jimmie Johnson and Harvick to close the points gap.

Miami weekend started with the press conference for the title contenders. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin. Harvick said of Hamlin: “He definitely seems like the most nervous.”

While Hamlin still led going into Miami, he had a poor qualifying effort and an incident early in the race that doomed his title hopes, allowing Johnson to win his fifth consecutive title in a row.

That late-season collapse will always be a part of Hamlin’s history. He made the championship race in 2014 but hasn’t been back since.

If he doesn’t advance this year, it does not diminish the two Daytona 500 wins, two Southern 500 victories and 36 career Cup victories, but it leaves a gap for a driver who likely is Hall of Fame bound (just maybe not as soon as others without a championship). Only Junior Johnson (50 Cup wins) and Mark Martin (40) have more Cup wins than Hamlin and also not a title.

“I’ve seen it all,” Hamlin told NBC Sports before the playoffs of his postseason disappointments. “Any way I can get taken out of a championship battle, I’ve had happen.

“But I know as long as I prepare each week, the way I’ve been doing, as long as I do the work during practices, give the right feedback like I’ve been doing, we’re going to be fine. That makes me rest easier than anything.”

Those experiences help Hamlin, who will turn 39 the day after the title race. While it’s easy to wonder what might have been, Hamlin says he’s moved past that in regards to 2010.

“It probably took a year to get over that,” Hamlin said earlier this week at Toyota’s national headquarters in Plano, Texas. “After that, you’re so week-to-week, you can’t let stuff linger, and if you do, you’re not doing your job 100 percent.”

Few thought Hamlin would be in this position based on his season and his playoffs. His five wins trail only teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the most this season. Hamlin has finished third or better in 10 of the season’s 34 races. In the playoffs, Hamlin has a win and five top-five finishes in eight races. Yet, that might not be good enough after finishing 28th at Texas.

Hamlin, the NBA fan, can look to LeBron James and the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers for inspiration this weekend.

Hamlin says his favorite moment in sports came in the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that year. Golden State led the best-of-seven series three games to one before Cleveland rallied to force a seventh game.

Late in that series-deciding contest came the play that Hamlin says “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“(Andre) Igoudala fast break at the end of the game, and LeBron chasing him down,” Hamlin said. “If (Igoudala) makes that basket, it’s over. LeBron chases him down, beats it off the backboard, and they (later) go down and score and change the whole game.

“Anyone down 3-1, they always talk about the odds and statistics of how impossible it is to come back, but that was the moment that someone just wanted it more.”

Such is the position Hamlin is in. Can he provide a memorable moment Sunday?

2. A NEW APPROACH

Austin Dillon’s 13th-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface, but it was significant in other ways.

Dillon’s result marked one of his team’s better finishes on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

“I feel like we need to try to find a baseline that we can kind of go to, and we haven’t had that this year,” Dillon said before the race. “We have had some fast cars but haven’t been able to race very well with them. We’re trying to kind of tune our cars to more a race-style setup. (At Texas) and Homestead we’re going to try to develop a little more of that baseline.”

The Richard Childress Racing cars were set up with less downforce easier in the season, giving them more speed in qualifying, but when they fell into the pack during a race, the cars were more unstable and harder to drive.

Dillon qualified in the top 10 in eight of the nine 1.5-mile races before Texas, including a pole at Chicago, but never finished better than 10th in any of those races. He showed that speed also at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in March, winning the pole but failing to score any stage points despite the favorable track position and pit stall.

At Texas last weekend, Dillon qualified 21st, his worst starting spot at a 1.5-mile track this year. He joked ahead of qualifying that if they were any better than 15th to 20th, “we will have tricked ourselves.”

The point being is the team put more downforce in the car to make it more stable in traffic, knowing it would hurt the qualifying speed.

“It’s been pretty obvious where our cars are and what they’ve had,” Dillon said of the setup. “There’s a happy medium in there. You see some of the guys that make it work and the other teams that don’t even try to run that concept. The Chevys that are fast don’t seem to be doing what we were doing.”

Another change is that crew chief Danny Stockman will give way to Justin Alexander after this season. Alexander was at Texas and will be with at the track the final two races to assess the team.

3. LOOKING AHEAD

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishes the season with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s looking ahead to 2020 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

Stenhouse joins JTG in a virtual swap that sees Chris Buescher taking over Stenhouse’s ride in the No. 17 next year.

Stenhouse says he’s begun preparing for his ride by talking to Ernie Cope, competition director at JTG Daugherty Racing, and team owner Tad Geschickter after races.

Stenhouse says he’s discussed with Cope and Geschickter “the things that they fought through (with the car) in the weekend, kind of compare that to what I’m feeling and then also just looking at the potential that they have.

“I thought both their cars had really good short-run speed at Martinsville. We had better long run speed. Going over there it’s like, ‘Alright, how do we get that long-run better and keep that short-run speed?’ I look at Kansas … we raced around (Buescher) a lot and felt like in the end they were probably a little bit better overall.

“I’m interested to see how Phoenix goes. We ran decent there in their spring, but (JTG Daugherty Racing’s) short track stuff, I feel like, seems better than what we have right now and that’s an area that I feel like needs to get better.”

Until Stenhouse finished last after a crash last weekend at Texas, he had placed in the top 20 in six consecutive races, his longest stretch since 2017 when he won two races and made the playoffs.

“I am focused on making sure we finish the job here,” Stenhouse said of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. “We’ve had some solid runs. We haven’t had any stellar runs, but we’ve had solid runs since the announcement came out in Charlotte. Just looking to continue that … and end on a decent note.”

4. BETTER HELP

One of the issues with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, is that its pointed nose made it more challenging to push as compared to the Fords and Toyotas, which each had flatter noses.

While Chevrolet won at Daytona (Justin Haley in July) and at Talladega (Chase Elliott in the spring), the nose on the Camaro ZL1 1LE that Chevy teams will use in 2020 should prove beneficial at those tracks.

“It was definitely a challenge for us being able to push like some of our competitors were doing,” Elliott said. “I think all the drivers wanted (a flatter nose). We’re just lucky that Chevrolet saw it and wanted to make an effort and try to make it a little better. I think they did. We’ll see when we get to Daytona how it affects things, but I certainly think with all the pushing and how aggressive restarts are … hopefully that helps us.”

Cars pushing one another could become more important at those tracks in 2020. The Talladega playoff race showed more cars could form a two-car tandem and pull away briefly from the pack. With the rules stable for next season, teams will have more time to maximize that, and the tandem could play greater role in those races next year.

5. LAST CHANCE

Chevrolet will need a big day Sunday from Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott to avoid missing the Cup championship race for a third year in a row.

Chevrolet last had a team racing for the Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh series crown.

In 2017, the Chevy teams of Elliott and Johnson were eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway. Last year, Elliott was eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway.

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Jeff Hammond to receive Smokey Yunick Award

Charlotte Motor Speedway
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Two-time NASCAR championship crew chief Jeff Hammond has been named winner of the Smokey Yunick Award, which has been presented annually since 1997 by Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Hammond will receive the award prior to Sunday’s Cup playoff race on CMS’s Roval.

The award honors Henry “Smokey” Yunick, one of the most legendary innovators and mechanics in NASCAR history.

This is a total shock and honor,” Hammond said in a media release. “Smokey Yunick was a hero of mine. I always admired him and could never believe all of the accomplishments he had throughout his career and how he helped grow the sport.

To be given this award and see people before me who’ve won it, like Ray Evernham, Dale Inman and Waddell Wilson – all friends of mine – it means a lot. This is right up there with winning championships in my book.”

Hammond, 63, began his lengthy career in NASCAR as a tire changer and jackman before becoming crew chief for Darrell Waltrip and team owner Junior Johnson in 1982. Over nearly the next two decades, Hammond earned 43 Cup wins and two Cup championships as a crew chief for Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Kurt Busch.

He has been a NASCAR personality on Fox Sports since 2001. He will receive the award at his favorite race track, where he won back-to-back Coca-Cola 600s in 1988 and 1989 with Waltrip.

Charlotte is my home race track,” Hammond said. “I grew up three or four miles away from the speedway. I remember hearing the cars racing before I was old enough to go to a race.

I first came in the pits here and I bought my first major race ticket here. To watch this speedway grow from its inception to what it is now is unbelievable. Bruton and Marcus Smith have always been trendsetters, much like Smokey Yunick.”

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood dies at 93

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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Wood Brothers Racing patriarch Glen Wood, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012, died Friday. He was 93.

The team announced his passing Friday morning on social media.

Wood was a link to NASCAR’s early years.

A former driver – he won four times at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. – Glen Wood founded the Wood Brothers Racing team with brothers Leonard and Delano. In Wood’s first win at Bowman Gray Stadium in April 1960, he beat a field that included former champions Richard Petty, Rex White, Ned Jarrett and Lee Petty. Wood’s history also includes seeing Tim Flock race with a monkey and having Ralph Earnhardt drive convertible and sportsman cars for the team.

His racing career nearly ended as soon as it started. Wood and a friend paid $50 for a 1938 Ford coupe to go racing. The Stuart, Virginia, native ran his first race at a track near Martinsville. During the heat race, his car was hit and bent the rear-end housing. After the race, Wood and his friend hooked the race car to the vehicle they were driving and headed home.

But on the trip, the axle eventually broke, and the damage caused spilling fuel to ignite. The fire engulfed the back of the race car.

“Every once in a while one of them (gas cans) would blow up, and we would be afraid to get close to it because of that,” Wood recalled in a 2011 interview. “Finally we got it unhooked and got the car away from (the one pulling it) and let it burn because we couldn’t do anything about it.”

They salvaged the engine and repaired the car. A few weeks later, Wood was back racing.

While Leonard is often credited as the father of the modern pit stop, Glen was equally as responsible. The two developed a communication and strategy plan that was one of the best in NASCAR for several decades.

Wood Brothers Racing, which has 99 Cup victories, remains the oldest continuous racing team in NASCAR. Among the drivers that have raced for the team are Hall of Famers David Pearson, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Fred Lorenzen, Cale Yarborough, Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott.

Born on July 18, 1925, Glen retired as a driver at the age of 39, assuming full-time duties as the team’s chief administrator, a role that he handled for nearly 30 years before relegating the role to sons Eddie and Len.

Through the years, Wood’s name mysteriously changed. His birth certificate lists his first name as Glenn, but somewhere along the way the last letter was dropped.

Wood received the colorful nickname of “Wood Chopper” early on for how he used to cut timber at a Virginia sawmill. But when Glen started racing, that nickname followed him and became somewhat of a calling card for his winning ways.

“When he pulled into a racetrack, and the announcer would say, ‘Here comes the Wood Chopper from Stuart, Virginia,’ you knew you had a challenger that night,” Ned Jarrett, a fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer, said of Glen Wood in a 2012 NASCAR Hall video of Glen Wood’s career. “Glen Wood, he was the master.”

Kyle Petty, who drove for the Wood Brothers during his career, was a Hall of Fame voter when the group discussed who to induct in the 2012 class. Behind the closed doors, Petty made an impassioned speech for the voters to select Wood for induction.

“I think people forget the breadth of somebody’s career sometimes when it spans as long as his,” Kyle Petty said that day in 2011.

In a statement, Edsel B. Ford II, member of the Board of Directors for Ford Motor Company, said of Wood’s passing:

“This is a difficult day for all of us at Ford Motor Company. Glen Wood was the founding patriarch of the oldest continuously operating NASCAR Cup Series team and we consider Wood Brothers Racing a part of our family, the Ford Family. The Wood Brothers race team, by any measure, has been one of the most successful racing operations in the history of NASCAR. Most importantly for our company, Glen and his family have remained loyal to Ford throughout their 69-year history.

“Glen was an innovator who, along with his family, changed the sport itself.  But, more importantly, he was a true Southern gentleman who was quick with a smile and a handshake and he was a man of his word.   I will cherish the memories of our chats in the NASCAR garage, at their race shop in Mooresville or the racing museum in Stuart.  My most memorable moment with Glen was with he and his family in the #21 pit box watching Trevor Bayne win the 2011 Daytona 500 and the celebration that followed in victory lane.”

In a statement, NASCAR’s Jim France said: “In every way, Glen Wood was an original. In building the famed Wood Brothers Racing at the very beginnings of our sport, Glen laid a foundation for NASCAR excellence that remains to this day. As both a driver and a team owner, he was, and always will be, the gold standard. But personally, even more significant than his exemplary on-track record, he was a true gentleman and a close confidant to my father, mother and brother. On behalf of the France family and all of NASCAR, I send my condolences to the entire Wood family for the loss of a NASCAR giant.”

In a statement, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles said: “Everyone at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is saddened by the passing of Glen Wood. The word ‘legendary’ sometimes is overused, but it absolutely fits Glen and the team that he and his brother, Leonard, founded and built into a powerhouse in NASCAR. Wood Brothers Racing has such a deep, rich connection to IMS through its multiple entries in the Brickyard 400 and by serving as the pit crew for the Lotus/Ford that Jim Clark drove to victory in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. Glen’s legacy as a fine driver and motorsports innovator will be matched only by his enduring status as one of racing’s true gentlemen and class acts.”

Jerry Bonkowski contributed to this report

Bump & Run: What drivers in NASCAR history would you like to see race each other?

Craig Jones /Allsport
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1. Over the sport’s history, what two drivers would you have liked to have seen race head-to-head?

Steve Letarte: I think the easy answer is you take all the seven-time champs and line them up. The other two that are a little off the wall that I’d love to see race each other is Kyle Busch and Cale Yarborough. I think they are both hard-nosed, no-nonsense, win-at-all-cost competitors, and I think that would have been a dang good race to watch. I think the big answer that the whole world would like to see but never will, of course, you want to line up all three seven-time champions. You want to take the late ‘60s/early ‘70s Richard Petty to go against the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Dale Earnhardt Sr. to go against the mid-2000’s Jimmie Johnson. That right there would be another great show.

Jeff Burton: Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty. I believe their driving styles are very similar. I would love to see two of the best in our sports’ history in a battle.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: My father and grandfather at a small short track. I’d never seen Ralph race obviously. So seeing him compete would be epic. I’ve always heard what an incredible short track racer Ralph was. I’d love to see these two duke it out on a bullring in equal cars. 

Kyle Petty: I was blessed to grow up in this sport. More blessed to have watched some of the greatest drivers in our sport race each other. Pearson, Petty, Allisons, Baker, Yarborough and Waltrip as I was growing up. Earnhardt, Davey Allison, Jarrett, Kulwicki, Wallace, Martin, Rudd, Richmond, Gant, Labonte as I started my career. Gordon, Burtons, Bobby Labonte, Stewart, Johnson, Harvick, Busch and others as my career was ending. To me three periods in time. Three periods in our sport. I heard stories from my grandfather about the early years (50s) and my father’s stories from the early 60s. I’ve come to believe you can’t take a driver from one era and insert him in another. Great drivers are great drivers no matter when, what or where they drove. I’ve been blessed to see a lot of the GREATEST go head-to-head at some point in my life. So I guess my answer should be … Been there, Done that.

Nate Ryan: Tim Richmond and Curtis Turner. The stories are legend and well told about who they were as personalities, but the display of their on-track talents unfortunately was limited because of careers cut short by death or labor disputes. It would be wonderful to see what made both of them so legendary behind the wheel.

Dustin Long: Tony Stewart vs. Bobby Allison. This would be an epic matchup of two talented racers who could compete in multiple vehicles, wouldn’t give an inch and also were known have a temper in and out of the car. Can you imagine these two racing for the win at a short track in the final laps?

Daniel McFadin: All of my memories of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. competing against each other are from the late 90s when Earnhardt was winning once or twice a year or not at all. I would love to see the Earnhardt from 1987 (11 wins) go head-to-head with the Gordon from 1998 (modern record of 13 wins) in an anything goes match race at Bristol.

Parker KligermanKyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt. I could only imagine what kind of fireworks this would have produced. I’m sure there would be great mutual respect but both had a disdain for second place.

2. What is one track you wish you could have gone to in person to have seen a NASCAR race (or go to one last time)?

Steve Letarte: The place that I have never been that I would have loved to have seen once in my day is Riverside. I’ve seen so many stories. While we go to road courses now, Riverside seems to have this aura about it. There are so many stories that come from it. The track that I could go back to one last time and race, without a doubt, is Martinsville. It’s my favorite race track.

Jeff Burton: I would like for our sport’s biggest series to go to one of the historic NASCAR short tracks. I believe a once-a-year event would bring some new excitement and enthusiasm that all forms of auto racing would benefit from.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Asphalt Bristol was incredible. Nothing compared to it. Even concrete Bristol at its peak of popularity didn’t quite deliver like asphalt Bristol did. That track was unruly and it seemed to bring out the worst in drivers. You couldn’t keep up with the many feuds going on in one single night of racing.  

Kyle Petty: Lakewood Speedway, Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve heard about that place my whole life, from my father and grandfather. They spoke of it as if it was the greatest track they ever went to (until they built Daytona). Raymond Parks, Bill France, Red Byron so much of NASCAR’s early history came out of the Atlanta area. I would have liked to have seen a glimpse of that.

Nate Ryan: Ontario Motor Speedway (with nearby Riverside International Raceway a close second). Before California Speedway opened, I became very familiar with Ontario in researching its history — but all that I’ve seen of the track is a few dirt berms left on the property after it was razed. There were so many positive reviews (and some memorable races despite only a 10-year run) of the 2.5-mile track that was intended to be a replica of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’d love to have explored Brickyard West in its prime.

Dustin Long: I’ve heard so many stories about North Wilkesboro and what the fans were like there, throwing chicken bones at anybody that dared challenge or damage hometown hero Junior Johnson’s car. Would have enjoyed seeing that once.

Daniel McFadin: I would have liked to have seen a race at Darlington before they swapped the front and backstretch. The overhang on the frontstretch grandstand gave it an iconic look and it would have been cool to sit there for a race back in the day.

Parker Kligerman: Old Bristol. The energy must have been insane, and the train of cars was always a spectacle to me. I’ve always thought, it must have been a huge frustration for the drivers but an awesome show to see in person.

3. What’s one NASCAR race you would have liked to have seen in person?

Steve Letarte: I’ve heard the firsthand story from Tony Gibson so many times, I wish I could have been in Atlanta (1992). So much happened that day. It was the King’s last, Jeff Gordon’s first, Alan Kulwicki’s championship. The King has told me the story when I’ve been up at the Petty Museum and seen the wrecked race car. Jeff Gordon has explained what that day was like being a rookie. Tony Gibson was on Kulwicki’s crew. There are so many famous races, but that’s the one that I would think I would have loved to have seen that battle play out.

Jeff Burton: Hooters 500 in 1992. All of the events of that day were amazing. The battle for the championship, the King running his last race, and Jeff Gordon running his first race was one of the sports biggest days. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 1979 Daytona 500 would be an easy pick. But I’d also like to have seen my dad’s Daytona 500 win and visited him in Victory Lane that day. I was home injured from the Busch race the previous day. Either one of those races rank as the most important in our sports history, so seeing either would have to bring on some amazing emotions. 

Kyle Petty: Any race on the old Daytona Beach Course. Period! Where Men were Men and everyone else just a spectator.

Nate Ryan: The 1979 Daytona 500, to judge whether the atmosphere before, during and shortly after the race foretold that it would be remembered as such a watershed event.

Dustin Long: The 1972 Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro when Richard Petty and Bobby Allison traded the lead 10 times in the last 50 laps before Petty won with a last-lap maneuver. The Associated Press report on the race stated that the cars of Petty and Allison, “both immaculately clean and polished at the start … came out of the duel battered and broken, less than a car length apart at the finish.’’

Daniel McFadin: The 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona. To be in the crowd for that race and to experience all the pent-up emotions that were released when Dale Jr. won would just be incredible.

Parker Kligerman: 2003 Darlington; that must have been insane to witness in person.

NASCAR America: Comparing today’s drivers to drivers of yesteryear

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With Kevin Harvick‘s recent run of three consecutive wins, NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte used the opportunity debate which NASCAR legends they compare Harvick and other current drivers to.

Burton compared Harvick to three-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough.

“I think they remind me a lot of each other because they’re both very aggressive, they both got after it, good at every kind of race track,” Burton said.

Earnhardt sees some of 1983 Cup champion Bobby Allison in Harvick.

“Won a championship, won a lot of races, but wasn’t afraid to put his finger in another driver’s chest,” Earnhardt said.

When it comes to Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Earnhardt compared him and Denny Hamlin to the late Tim Richmond.

“Mainly in style,” Earnhardt said. “They’re the kind of guys that are a little flashy, a lot of flair outside the car. … Tim was that way. He wasn’t scared to flaunt it a little bit and he enjoyed life outside the race car as much as he did inside the race car.”

Watch the above video for more old school driver comparisons.