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Kligerman: Why the essence of Jimmie Johnson is ‘They won’t outwork me’

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CONCORD, N.C. – Recently, I had the opportunity to test a Monster Energy Cup car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was the first time I’ve had the chance to wheel a car at the top level of NASCAR in just more than four years.

A lot has changed in that time but in my case, the most important was the car itself.

Setup styles, digital dashes, vastly lower downforce levels and lower horsepower.  It’s almost a different car.

This test was for the Coca-Cola 600. Thankfully, the person I leaned on for advice in my first taste of Cup racing at the end of 2013 is still there for advice.

Except he has two more championships to his name. (During the same time, I’ve been yapping into cameras and occasionally racing.)

That person is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2013, I was lucky enough to be able to use Jimmie’s spotter, Earl Barban. So when my Cup debut was upon me, Earl gave me Jimmie’s number, and he was gracious enough to not only text me back but take time to talk to me as he fought for a championship.

To this day, it’s one of the highlights of my career. Per his advice, I earned the team its best qualifying position of the year and best finish on a 1.5-mile track.

Preparing for my first Cup start since April 2014, I wasn’t expecting to have the same chance to talk to Jimmie this time around. Mostly because I would be too shy to reach out.

Yet call it fate: It happened on the day of this manufacturer test for wheel force cars (which are outfitted with million-dollar telemetry equipment to validate and assess tires for their simulation programs).

“Jimmie is driving the wheel force car,” Drew Herring, Toyota’s simulation and wheel force driver, said to me. “Can you believe that?”

“I’m not surprised,” I replied.

Drew was shocked.

Wheel force testing is usually reserved for the drivers who draw the short straw or a talented young driver such as Drew who is happy to have the work.

It’s the closest that driving a race car will seem like a chore. It is monotonous, systematic and doesn’t require you to always go as fast as you can but instead hit certain parameters the engineers need to gather data.

But the job doesn’t end there. The wheel force driver is also required to turn laps in the manufacturer simulator, so the engineers can validate the data. It is a multi-day commitment to working on racecars as if they are a new line of code in an app.

After speaking to Drew, I walked by the Chevy pit area to get to my team’s pit area. Jimmie didn’t look too busy, so I seized the opportunity to strike up a conversation and get his advice on what I was struggling with in my Cup car.

I started by asking the simple question, “What are you doing here?”

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “They won’t outwork me.”

It was this answer as to why I am not surprised he was there.

Earlier, Drew also suggested to me that someone asked Johnson to do the test. But Jimmie’s answer all but confirmed he wanted to be there.

Jimmie and I talked about current Cup cars and how they drive. Just as in 2013, he was very gracious with his time and knowledge to help guide me in the right direction with my own driving (much of what I won’t go into as that is driver-to-driver talk).

As we talked, I’m sure he noticed that I couldn’t stop my eyes from being drawn to the Monster Energy Cup Series logo on his suit. A “Champion 7x” patch is stitched directly below.

That assures him a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In my eyes, he is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. The sheer sight of that simple patch is intimidating, to say the least.

Yet the conversation I was having with the person behind the patch was as if we were two buds hanging out.

At one point, he thought the lap times they were doing were 29.3 seconds, and he then asked an engineer if he was right. “Nah, we are not that fast. More like 29.6s”

It didn’t matter. They weren’t there to set blistering lap times. It’s all about gathering data in an effort to stop the bleeding.

He is in the midst of the longest losing streak of his career – 35 races (if he comes up short in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the drought will be as long as a full Cup season). Last Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, the No. 48 team radio underscored the tension building as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus hunt for performance.

His race team, Hendrick Motorsports, is struggling to build the speed into their new Chevy Camaros that he needs to win.

He went into the facets of what he is struggling with handling-wise and the ways he was trying to adjust his driving style to fix them.

And all the while going through these issues, his face appeared to light up, and a smile came across as he said, “This is fun!”

I joked that it would be boring to just be winning every week. He chuckled and said, “Not exactly!”

As our conversation continued, his eyes filled with the enthusiasm and vibrancy of a young kid getting his first shot by doing the grunt work. Not a seven-time champion who many keep asking how many years he has left.

After a couple minutes, it was time for us both to get back in our cars and do our jobs. In his case, it was working with the multitude of Chevy engineers to make sure the data they were gathering was useful to improve their chances in the battle against the pointy end of the Cup field.

And in my case, it was to lament that I didn’t take notes.

As I was working with a small team that has only a handful of starts, Jimmie’s advice was once again invaluable to me. When we take the green flag at the Coca-Cola 600, it will be my team’s seventh start – the same number as Jimmie has championships.

The thing is, often in my other job, I am asked what makes Jimmie Johnson so good. People want to know what makes one driver better than another.

Usually, I’ll name a couple of his attributes and his incredibly unassuming nature. But on this fateful day at Charlotte, I finally saw the answer.

What makes Jimmie tick is a challenge. He loves, relishes and searches for a challenge. And right in front of him is maybe the largest he has ever faced.

But I’m not betting against him.

As he said, “They won’t outwork me.”

Noah Gragson wins pole for tonight’s Truck race at Dover

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Noah Gragson posted a lap of 157.660 mph to win the pole for tonight’s Jegs 200 at Dover International Speedway.

This is Gragson’s first pole of the season and fourth of his career.

He beat Johnny Sauter (156.917 mph) by .108 seconds.

Todd Gilliland (156.481), Justin Hayley (156.420) and Jesse Little (156.420) rounded out the top five.

NBC Sports analyst Parker Kligerman (156.304) qualified sixth.

Gilliland set a track record in the first round of qualifying with a speed of 158.653 mph.

Today’s race is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. ET.

Click here for the complete starting lineup.

NASCAR America: Chase Elliott frustrated at the wrong people

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Chevrolet driver Chase Elliott was frustrated by the lack of help from Ford drivers in the closing laps of the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but there wasn’t much more that the field could do under the current rules package according to NASCAR America analysts Parker Kligerman and Jeff Burton.

Elliott should have been frustrated by the NASCAR executives who created the current restrictor-plate superspeedway rules package.

“This is my problem with this package,” Kligerman explained. “I’ve had a gripe with this package since we’ve run it the last couple of years. Where it seems like to develop runs – to make the energy to make the run, at times with too few cars, it’s too tough.”

Burton agreed that the problem was that the field had been thinned by the multi-car accident that occurred on lap 167.

Chase Elliott said if he had one other guy go with him it would have made the difference; it wouldn’t have,” Burton said.

“You have to have two-wide, three-wide with this package to get those runs,” Burton continued. “It’s hard to just drag your brakes … As we roll forward and look at the end of the race, where Chase Elliott was so frustrated, there just weren’t enough cars.”

For more, watch the above video.

Bump & Run: Is Dover Jimmie Johnson’s time?

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Next on the schedule is Dover, a place Jimmie Johnson has 11 wins and is the site of his last Cup victory (33 races ago). What does this weekend mean for Johnson?

Parker Kligerman: Personally, I feel he is as motivated as ever and that a win would be great for the entire HMS organization. But to be solid championship contenders, there will still be a lot of work to be done – no matter what happens at Dover.

Nate Ryan: It’s another opportunity for his team to find its footing. It represents a better than average chance than he’s had at winning in 2018, but it would be uncharacteristic for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to enter one of their best tracks with outsized confidence or expectations based on past results.

Dustin Long: This is a chance to take a step forward, to build on what they’ve been doing this season. This is merely part of the process. This won’t solve every issue but has the potential to provide some momentum.

Daniel McFadin: It’s obviously his best shot at a win. Since his win there last June, Johnson has two top fives, in the fall Dover race and earlier this month at Bristol, where he also won last year. Late cautions at Richmond helped him finish sixth and Talladega is its own thing. Even if he does perform well at Dover, there’s no way of knowing if it’ll be a sign of things to come.

Dan Beaver: The No. 48 team is still a long way from contending for a win, but if Johnson can get a top five – only his second of the season – this should be counted as a step in the right direction. That would be his seventh top-15 in the last eight races.

This weekend is the final Dash 4 Cash event in the Xfinity Series. Cup drivers have not been allowed to compete in those races. Cup drivers also can’t compete in the Xfinity regular-season finale and playoff races. Should there be further reductions on Cup drivers in Xfinity races?

Parker Kligerman: At this point, how much more can we limit them without entirely banning them? That’s the real question here. I will say it has been more of an incentive to watch, and I enjoy the races more knowing we may see a winner like Ryan Preece, but I don’t know if there is any more room to limit them without saying they simply can’t. 

Nate Ryan: It seems as if the reductions will happen naturally given the current trends, so it seems unnecessary to implement more restrictions.

Dustin Long: I’m leery of running Cup drivers out of all races because teams say it helps with acquiring sponsorship. I’m all for limiting the total number of Cup drivers in some Xfinity races as a further reduction down the road but not ready to ban them for every race.

Daniel McFadin: I’m for any restrictions that go toward an environment in which it’s not a big deal when a full-time Xfinity regular wins a race. Three through nine races is one better than this point last year, when the third full-timer didn’t win until the 14th race (William Byron at Iowa). I applaud NASCAR’s efforts, but there’s more that could be done.

Dan Beaver: It has been very refreshing to see the Xfinity only drivers compete. Giving them a chance to actually win races and stage bonus points makes their playoff more meaningful. Reducing the number of Cup drivers in a given race is not going to help with that, but it would be nice if NASCAR would make other “Free Zones” throughout the season – three or four races at a time, free from Cup drivers. That would also help with the developmental process for up-and-coming drivers.

Who wins first: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson or Jimmie Johnson?

Parker Kligerman: Brad Keselowski. The Penske cars are looking great and I think Brad is operating at a high level with a lot of motivation right now. 

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin has yet to win at Dover or Charlotte, but he could break through at either this month — possibly even Sunday at the track he once dreaded. If not there, Kansas and Charlotte will present major opportunities.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson is the one I’m keeping my eye on in the next few weeks.

Daniel McFadin: If Bristol was any indication, if Kyle Larson can finally put together a clean race, he’ll be the person to watch out for at Dover.

Dan Beaver: Team Penske has been on the cusp of winning all season and now that Joey Logano has shown the way, Brad Keselowski will soon follow. His second-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway made him best in class after Kevin Harvick’s dominance. The No. 2 team was only about one adjustment away from winning at Auto Club Speedway.

NASCAR America: Cautions declining in Cup

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Cautions are continuing their decline in Cup, NBC Sports research shows.

Six races into this season, there have been an average of 5.3 cautions per race — the lowest total since 1999. The Martinsville race featured four cautions, it’s lowest total since 1978.

There have been 32 cautions this season. In 2008, there were 66 cautions after the first six races.

So what has led to the decrease? NASCAR America’s analysts gave their opinion:

Steve Letarte: “I think they’re lower because NASCAR is doing a better job of identifying what’s on the race track and we’re seeing less debris yellows. … I think the drivers have seen what early accidents cause for pain when it comes to points and making the playoffs.”

Parker Kligerman: “I don’t want to say the cars are easier to drive, but the teams have made them better. … This isn’t a bad thing. I think when races play out sometimes, you start to see the best races. You let a long green-flag run to end a race – where one guy is falling back and one is coming – when that happens, it’s the most exciting thing that can happen in the sport at times.’’

Kyle Petty: “Goodyear technology, engine technology, brake technology and car technology, technology has changed the caution.’’

To see more of what each said, check out the video above.

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