Leonard Wood

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

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The record books list Jimmie Johnson as a seven-time Cup champion.

But they are wrong.

They credit him with 83 Cup victories.

Again, they are wrong.

Truth is, Johnson has never won in Cup.

Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.

Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.

Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.

When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.

Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.

During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.

But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.

He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.

“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.

2. More of the same in 2020?

With the industry’s focus on the Next Gen car in 2021, one of the concessions is that there won’t be as many rule changes for next season.

In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.

So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?

Yes, Chevrolet has an updated car and there are some wind-tunnel testing restrictions, but will it be enough to top Toyota and Gibbs? Or will next year be more of the same?

“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.  

“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.

“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”

3. A new tire isn’t that simple

As NASCAR looks at the racing, particularly at short tracks, one idea from fans is that Goodyear should change the tire so that it wears more.

But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.

“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.

“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.

“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”

4. Who will be the fourth?

Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace at Darlington Raceway in 2015. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.

Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.

Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.

Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.

Or is it someone else?

5. Moving on

Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”

Marks, who came from a road racing background, made 79 starts throughout his NASCAR career among Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He had 38 Truck starts and 35 Xfinity starts.

His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.

Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.

“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.

“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”

While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”

As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.

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Paul Menard to retire from NASCAR; Matt DiBenedetto will drive No. 21 in 2020

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Wood Brothers Racing announced Tuesday that Paul Menard will retire from full-time NASCAR competition after 2019 and Matt DiBenedetto will take over the historic No. 21 Ford next season.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will retire after 13 full-time seasons in the Cup Series. The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be his 471st start.

This year was his second season driving for Wood Brothers Racing. Menard, 39, joins David Ragan in being the second long-term veteran to announce their retirement from full-time racing after this season.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment of my career racing in the NASCAR Cup Series and I’m so thankful for all the great memories and friendships I’ve made through this sport,” Menard said in a press release. “But I’m looking forward to spending more time at home with my wife Jennifer and our two young children while moving forward with the next chapter of my life.

“I want to thank everyone at Wood Brothers Racing, along with Team Penske, and our partners at Menards, Motorcraft, Quick Lane Tire & Auto Centers and Ford. It’s been a privilege to work with them and some of the true legends of our sport, including Andy Petree, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robert Yates, Richard Petty, Richard Childress, Roger Penske and Glen and Leonard Wood. I’m excited for what the future holds and I’m looking forward to sharing the plans for 2020 and beyond in the coming weeks.”

Said DiBenedetto in a statement: “I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020. The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team’s tradition of success in NASCAR. I want to thank Eddie and Len Wood, Kim Wood Hall, Menards, Edsel Ford and Ford Motor Company for this opportunity.”

The news about DiBenedetto’s new ride comes after he was informed by Leavine Family Racing last month he wouldn’t return to the No. 95 Toyota next season.

DiBenedetto, 28, is in his fifth season of Cup competition. Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was his 166th start. He has six top-10 finishes, including three top fives this season. All of those have come in the last 11 races. One of his top fives was a runner-up finish in the Bristol night race, where he led a race-high 93 laps but lost to Denny Hamlin.

DiBenedetto will be a guest on NASCAR America MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.

“We want to thank Paul Menard for his dedication to the team over the last two seasons,” said team President and co-owner Eddie Wood in a statement. “We’re looking forward to a strong finish to 2019 and we wish him nothing but the best for the future. All of us at Wood Brothers Racing are excited to welcome Matt DiBenedetto to the team beginning next season. Matt has shown a lot of promise on track and everyone has seen it in his results this season, especially over the past several months. We want to continue to build on that success together as we gear up for 2020 and the future of Wood Brothers Racing.”

Later in a press conference, Menard said he expected Menards to remain as a full sponsor on the No. 21 and Ryan Blaney‘s No. 12 car.

Why Sunday’s Southern 500 means so much to Wood Brothers Racing

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For all the success Wood Brothers Racing has enjoyed in NASCAR, including five Daytona 500 victories and triumphs elsewhere, the family run team would enjoy perhaps its greatest win in Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The reasons are many:

* It would be the 100th career Cup win for the team, which began racing in NASCAR in 1950, making Wood Brothers Racing the longest-active team in the sport.

* It would be the organization’s ninth victory at Darlington.

* But perhaps most importantly, and as part of Darlington’s annual throwback weekend, driver Paul Menard will be piloting the No. 21 Ford with a retro paint scheme that will honor team founder and NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood, who passed away in January at the age of 93.

The scheme Menard’s car will carry will reflect the same look that graced Glen Wood’s Ford in the one and only time he raced as a driver at Darlington in 1957.

“It just seemed fitting,” Glen’s oldest son and team co-owner Eddie Wood told NBC Sports. “We were looking for a car to honor him and it just seemed like the right one. It was an important time for him and that makes it important for us to be able to run that paint scheme. It was one of dad’s favorite cars.”

But it isn’t just the car and the paint scheme. It’s also the track Too Tough To Tame.

“We’ve had a lot of success at Darlington and it’s just one of those special places,” Eddie Wood said. “Len and I went to the old Yankee Stadium before they tore it down, as well as Wrigley Field. Going to Darlington, to me, is kind of like going to those old ballparks. Darlington was NASCAR’s first big race track, first superspeedway. You go back through history and how many cars that started that first race (75 cars in 1950).

“The history around Darlington is just fascinating to me and to do a throwback weekend with cars and paint schemes every year is a brilliant, brilliant idea. It’s the right place for it. It’s almost like a reunion for everybody, a family reunion of racers, whether you raced in the 50s or 60s or raced last week. Everybody just seems to be invited.

Eddie’s brother and team co-owner Len Wood agreed.

“Darlington as well as Daytona and Charlotte, those are the big races that we kind of grew up around, the Daytona 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500. That was the ultimate,” Len Wood said. “Fortunately with David Pearson, we won all three of those in 1976. To us, they’re very important races.

“To honor our dad, it was very special to us (to have the retro scheme). With Daddy passing away, it just all came together to do a paint scheme for him.”

Eddie Wood grew emotional when asked if the passing of his father eight months ago is getting easier with each track the team goes back to, given how most of those played such a vital role in the Wood Brothers’ racing legacy.

“It really doesn’t get any easier, but I’m sure that’s the way it is for everybody,” Eddie Wood said. “You go along and you run into something like this and then the emotions come back. But they’re good emotions. You’re honoring him and everybody is noticing and feeling everybody is honoring him and that makes you feel good.”

It will also be the first time Wood Brothers Racing has raced at Darlington since David Pearson, who won a track-record 10 times there, passed away Nov. 12, 2018.

Len Wood admits he’ll also likely grow emotional when Menard brings the No. 21 to the green flag to start Sunday’s race.

“When that comes by, it’s going to put a lump in my throat,” he said.

The only thing that could make this weekend even more special is if Menard can take the No. 21 to victory lane.

“Darlington has done a really nice job the past few years with their throwback theme for the Southern 500,” Menard said in a statement. “As the driver for perhaps the most iconic and longest running NASCAR team of all time, I’m completely honored to represent the man that started it all, Mr. Glen Wood, with our Wood Brothers Racing #21 scheme for this year.”

Added Eddie Wood, “If Paul were to win this weekend, boy, that would be over the top. Winning the race would be the 100th win for us and that’s a huge milestone for us if and when we can get there. If it happened at Darlington, there couldn’t be a better place.”

“Winning at Darlington would be quite special,” Len Wood said. “I just know Daddy would be looking down on us and would be very proud of us if we did.”

NOTE: NBCSN will debut a documentary on Wood Brothers Racing at 6 p.m. ET on Friday (and again at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, just before that evening’s main event race). The documentary traces the family’s history in racing, including its start, how it revolutionized pit stops, winning the Indianapolis 500 and multiple Daytona 500s, competing with David Pearson and beyond.

“Sixty-nine years,” Leonard Wood, younger brother of Glen Wood and also a NASCAR Hall of Famer, says in the documentary. “That’s a long time being racing. You know going in you might not win. Don’t say poor me. Take it in stride and go for the next one.”

Added Len Wood, “I think everybody will be pleased with the documentary. It kind of shows a different side of (the company’s legacy) than what most people have seen. I hope it goes over well.”

 

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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

Look back at 2018 season through photos

Photo: Dustin Long
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With the completion of the season, I often go back and look at the photos I’ve taken on my phone and reflect upon the special pictures.

Here are 10 photos I took that stood out to me as I looked back upon the 2018 season.

 

For those who question if Paul Menard smiles. He does. Here he is doing an interview with NBC Sports during media day in January

 

Clint Bowyer with son Cash in the media center after Bowyer ended a 190-race winless streak by winning that event in March.

 

This is among my favorite pictures just for the girl’s reaction at getting Kyle Busch‘s autograph as he headed to the drivers meeting at Bristol in April. Busch would go on to win that race.

 

Michael Riggs, shock specialist for Bubba Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports team, sets the scales for the team at Bristol in August. Another one of my favorites in how it shows the work of a crew member that most people don’t see.

 

NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood sits on the pit wall during the Southern 500 as William Byron races by in a Jeff Gordon Rainbow Warriors paint scheme. So much history in this picture.

 

Garrett Smithley hugs Ross Chastain in Victory Lane after Chastain won the Las Vegas Xfinity race in September for Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

Jimmie Johnson played a joke on Martin Truex Jr.’s team at Dover, a week after Johnson’s contact spun Truex in the final chicane and cost Truex the win at the Charlotte Roval.

Johnson was allowed in the Dover garage after it closed and put about a dozen children’s bikes on the lift gate of Furniture Row Racing’s hauler.

“Cole (Pearn) made a comment to me at the end of last weekend when we were leaving the track all in good fun,” Johnson said at Dover. “I saw some of his crew guys when I came back from a bike ride on Friday, and one of them grabbed my bike and said, ‘Oh, hey, is this my nice, new bike that Cole was talking about?’ ”

“So, as I shared that story with my team, the ideas started flowing, and we … sent my bus driver off to Walmart where they had some pre-assembled bikes and had some fun with it.”

 

Aric Almirola after he failed to win the Dover playoff race in October. Not much else needs to be said.

 

David Gilliland, who won the pole for the Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway in October, holds a puppy his family adopted earlier that week.

 

Ray Gallahan, fueler for Joey Logano‘s team, watches the team spray each other with champagne after Logano won the championship. It was Gallahan’s last race going over the wall. He sat back to take it all in and to avoid be “sticky” from the champagne.