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SMI pushes back on Nashville Fair commissioner’s comments

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Speedway Motorsports’ Marcus Smith and Jerry Caldwell each pushed back Tuesday on critical comments made by a Nashville Fair Board Commissioner alleging SMI has “failed to engage” with it regarding plans to bring NASCAR to the historic Fairgrounds Speedway.

The comments by Commissioner Jason Bergeron, reported by The Tennessean, were made at Nashville’s monthly Fair Board meeting and revolved around the dispute over a $335 million Major League Soccer stadium that has been approved by the city and, pending approval by the mayor, would be built next to the speedway.

“We need to decouple any notion of racing from this right now,” Bergeron said. “That process hasn’t even started because (Speedway Motorsports) has failed to engage.”

Smith, the CEO and president of SMI, responded on Twitter by calling Bergeron’s accusation “just not true.”

Bristol Motor Speedway, which has spearheaded the attempt to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, released the following statement from Caldwell, the track’s vice president and general manager:

We’ve presented the city – Mayor Cooper and the Fair Board – with a plan to restore the historic speedway and give it an economically viable future. In meetings with Mayor Cooper, his team and other city officials during the past several weeks, we’ve been asked to evaluate different operating scenarios and have provided information to the city as requested. We’ve done everything we have been asked to do and have met with everyone we have been asked to meet with. We will continue to provide any assistance necessary as the city considers what’s best for the future of the Fairgrounds.

Because the Fair Board has a Metro Charter-obligation to maintain the speedway, we have been and continue to be optimistic that the commissioners and the mayor will be supportive of a partnership with BMS to modernize and financially sustain the speedway.

Our team has long believed in the future of the historic speedway and the Fairgrounds. We became even more excited about that future when Nashville was awarded an MLS franchise and committed to build a new soccer stadium. It is within the city’s reach to have a thriving multi-use sports and entertainment complex to create a true landmark for the city

SMI seeks an agreement with Nashville to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to the city 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 published an opinion column on Sunday expressing his desire to reach an agreement that works for both the soccer and racing communities.

“One historical use is auto racing, which is mandated by our Metro Charter,” Cooper wrote. “I’m working to find a path for racing’s success, and in these negotiations, I’ve secured additional space to allow for necessary speedway improvements. Higher-level auto racing will attract more visitors and ensure the long-term sustainability of the fairgrounds.”

Last month, Smith told NBC Sports that he was still “very optimistic” about NASCAR racing returning to Nashville, which is the new host of the Cup Series’ awards banquet.

“Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace,” Smith said. “I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation.”

There is a push for Nashville to potentially be part of the NASCAR schedule in 2021. The schedule is expected to be announced in early April.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said last month: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

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.

Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark to retire in 2020

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Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark will retire following next year’s Cup Series race at the track, Speedway Motorsports Inc. announced Monday.

Clark, 64, is the second-longest tenured employee at SMI, trailing only Bruton Smith, the company founder. Clark joined Speedway Motorsports in 1981 as a member of the public relations department at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He rose through the ranks before being named president of Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1995.

“Growing up on a tobacco farm in Virginia, I never dreamed as a boy that I’d have the opportunity to work in this sport for 44 seasons,” Clark said in a press release.  “I have been privileged to work with and for many amazing people and I will be forever grateful for how they allowed me to follow and live my dream. It’s been a true blessing and a wonderful journey.”

“We are beyond grateful for Ed’s service to our company and to the entire NASCAR community,” said SMI CEO and President Marcus Smith in a press release. “We’re also blessed that Ed will continue to lead Atlanta Motor Speedway through the March 15 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, so that the fans, drivers and sponsors can join us to say ‘thank you’ to a man whose countless contributions and dedication to our sport will be remembered for years to come.”

Mario Andretti named honorary pace car driver for Roval Cup race

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Racing legend Mario Andretti has been announced as the honorary pace car driver for the Cup Series race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Sept. 29.

The Indy 500 and Daytona 500 champion will pilot a Toyota Camry XSE pace car around the 17-turn, 2.28-mile road course and lead the field to the green flag for the second Cup race on the circuit.

Andretti was part of the development of the track before its debut last year.

He visited Charlotte Motor Speedway in March 2017 for a test drive around the Roval.

“When (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus Smith was creating the Roval, he invited me to check out the improvements to the infield road course,” Andretti said in a press release. “It was such a fun course to drive and the more I drove it the more I got into a rhythm, but I knew it would be challenging to the NASCAR competitors with the elevation change and transition from road course to oval.

“After last year’s successful playoff debut for the course, I’m honored that Marcus would ask me to return to lead the field to green for this year’s Bank of America Roval 400.”

After the test, Andretti suggested adding chicanes on the frontstretch and backstretch to slow the cars down and create additional passing zones.

“I liked the higher speeds so I was hesitant, but after hearing it from someone of his caliber and expertise, it made even more sense to create chicanes on our straightaways,” Smith said in a press release. “Mario’s forward thinking and his unparalleled vision for creating a spectacle contributed to the incredible finish we had last year with Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.”

Andretti made one start at Charlotte in his racing career, competing in the fall 1967 race on the 1.5-mile oval. He finished 27th.

Friday 5: Chase Elliott too busy looking ahead to relish Watkins Glen win

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott is relaxed and comfortable. About an hour after he sat in a Blackhawk helicopter and toured the city from a few thousand feet above, he’s in a Chevrolet Camaro at Fairgrounds Speedway.

It’s not the No. 9 car that took NASCAR’s most popular driver to his first Cup victory a year ago at Watkins Glen International and it won’t go as fast as that car, but this is still his comfort zone. In the fast-moving world that racing is, he slows down as he circles the .596-mile track, which could see NASCAR’s premier series return some day if Speedway Motorsports Inc. and city officials can complete a deal to upgrade the facility.

Elliott tours the banked track at an easy 50 mph — he’ll go about twice as fast later — but it gives him time to reflect upon the journey that leads him back to Watkins Glen for Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). And take him back to when he was known more as Bill Elliott’s son than by his name. Back when he toured the country’s short tracks.

Chase Elliott looks out at Nashville, Tennessee, from a Blackhawk helicopter during a trip to promote Bristol’s night race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I feel like it’s been really everything to me,” Elliott tells NBC Sports of racing at short tracks early in his career, including Fairgrounds Speedway. “I think when anybody gets started in something, you’re going to build habits and you’re going to have tendencies and you’re going to do things from those days forward. … When you’re coming along and learning, you’re going to take that and you’re going to carry that on forever.

“I think that short track racing really made me be the driver that I am. I wish I could do more fo it. I feel that is home for me in a lot of ways. Love to go back and do some more of it somewhere down the road.”

Elliott is the only driver to win the Snowball Derby, the Winchester 400, World Crown 300 and the All American 400, the race held at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Those successes led him on a path that includes the 2014 Xfinity championship and 2016 Cup rookie of the year honors. His April victory at Talladega qualified him for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. But he enters this weekend at Watkins Glen in a drought.

He has failed to score a top-10 finish in his last seven starts. An engine failure ended his race early at Sonoma, crashes at Daytona and Pocono sidelined him and a mechanical issue proved too much to overcome at New Hampshire. A flat tire hindered him at Kentucky and poor pit stops led to a meager showing at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I can’t say I’m hung up on any of them,” Elliott said this week at an appearance promoting the Aug. 17 Bristol Motor Speedway night race. “Time goes on. The good news is you’re in the middle of the season so we’re not to the fall yet, which is when it really matters. I’d rather have a bad stretch now than come October.”

Elliott has been strong in the playoffs each of the past two years. He scored a top-five finish in 45% of the last 20 playoffs races and placed in the top 10 in 70% of those races. Elliott has the same number of top-five finishes (nine) in the past two playoffs combined as Kyle Busch. Elliott has one more top 10 than Busch (13) during that same time. A key difference, though, is that Busch has won five playoff races. Elliott has two wins in those playoff events.

Chase Elliott scored his first Cup career victory last year at Watkins Glen International. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Despite his recent struggles, Elliott will be viewed as among the key drivers this weekend after withstanding Martin Truex Jr.’s charge on the final lap last year at Watkins Glen before Truex ran out of fuel. The victory came after Elliott had finished runner-up eight times in Cup.

Amid the celebrating, he remembers what some told him that day about what would come next.

“Everybody is like the rest of them get easier,” said Elliott, who scored his first career Cup victory in his 99th start. “I really don’t believe that. I know we were able to win a couple more (in 2018), but I really don’t feel like they came any easier. Watkins Glen was definitely a relief. It was nice to get a win. We had been close so many times.”

The memories from last year’s victory are nice but they are just history to Elliott now.

“Obviously it was a special day,” he said, “and everybody likes to talk about that this year because of that and that’s a good thing but really just looking forward.”

The moment to reminisce is over. It’s time to go fast again.

2. Are chances dimming on NASCAR racing in Nashville in 2021?

With NASCAR targeting an April release date for its 2021 schedules and no agreement yet between Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Nashville city officials on a deal to upgrade Fairgrounds Speedway, any NASCAR race there could be a few years off.

Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., acknowledged the challenge but said “we’re always up for moving quickly” if a deal is completed. Smith said he feels as the two sides are having “fine conversations.”

Construction continues near Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway has spearheaded SMI’s work with Nashville’s civic leaders, including Nashville’s Fair Commissioners Board, which oversees the track.

“I continue to be very encouraged,” Caldwell told NBC Sports. “We had that great conversation with the Fair Board back in May that has continued. We’ve had subsequent conversations that are very positive and cooperative. It’s a big process.”

A Major League Soccer stadium and mixed-use development are being built near the track and putting all those pieces together also has complicated the process.

“There’s a lot going on on this property, Fairgrounds as a whole, that plays into this,” Caldwell said at the track this week. “I think what you have here (with the track) is a diamond in the rough.”

This has been a project Caldwell and SMI have invested more than a year on already. Why keep going?

“I believe it’s because of the potential,” Caldwell said. “I think Marcus and Bruton (Smith) see that. They remain very interested and understand that sometimes things can take a while especially when it’s a property owned by the public.”

3. It’s all in the attitude

Daniel Suarez didn’t like Bubba Wallace’s one-finger gesture late in last weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway and told Wallace as much afterward.

But Wallace tried to convince Suarez not to be offended by it.

“We got into it in (Turn) 3 and I told him he was No. 1 for a whole lap,” Wallace said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Telling him that he’s No. 1. That’s good.

“I do it to the guys that I like and can race around. If it’s Kyle Busch or (Martin) Truex are coming up to lap us, I’ll give them the finger, hey come on by. It’s funny. We’ll talk about it and laugh at it later. Truex is starting to pick up on it. It’s funny. That’s all it was.”

4. Planning ahead

Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend’s race with Cliff Daniels making his debut as crew chief. With five races left in the regular season, Daniels’ job is to get Johnson into the playoffs. Johnson is 12 points out of the final playoff spot. While he’s been an engineer for Johnson in the past and was on Johnson’s 2016 championship team, Sunday will be Daniels’ first time making pit calls.

One of the strengths of Hendrick Motorsports, (Chase Elliott’s) team executed almost a flawless race last year,” Daniels said of Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen. “Not only did they have a fast car, they executed phenomenal strategy, Chase’s first Cup win. There are so many notes that we can pull from there that are such a big advantage to us.

“Jimmie’s style … he’s driven so many different types of cars and trucks growing up, he’s so willing and able to adapt to the different scenarios of a race depending on track position or strategically how we’re trying to call the race.

“We will absolutely have a plan that we will try to execute through the race. With that plan, you have to have contingencies of course. … We have so many factors that we can pull from to operate from a position of strength and it’s just going to be on us to go execute throughout the weekend.”

Since stage racing began in 2017, there has been one caution in the final stage in each of the last two races at Watkins Glen.

That likely will play a key role in how Daniels and other crew chiefs determine their pit strategy Sunday. Also, the last three Watkins Glen winners — Chase Elliott in 2018, Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 and Denny Hamlin in 2016 — each won by pitting only twice in the 90-lap race.

The second stage ends at Lap 40. Hamlin made his last stop at Lap 49 in 2016. Truex made his last stop at Lap 53 in 2017. Elliott made his last stop at Lap 55 last  year.

The last time a driver won the Cup race at Watkins Glen with a three-stop strategy was Joey Logano in 2015.

5. Nearly 5 wins in a row

Martin Truex Jr. could have nearly won each of the last five races on a road course or Roval. He won three of those races.

Truex won at Watkins Glen in 2017 and at Sonoma in 2018. He was second last year at Watkins Glen, running out of fuel on the last lap while pursuing Chase Elliott. Truex was in the lead when he was spun by Jimmie Johnson in the final chicane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Truex won at Sonoma in June.

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