Stewart-Haas Racing — Still waiting on that first win of the season after winning 12 times last year. Yes, the team had two top 10s with Daniel Suarez fourth and Kevin Harvick seventh but this team is built to win, not be satisfied with top 10s.
Erik Jones — He was 14th in points last month. Now he’s 18th after going 40th, 3rd and 31st in his last three races. Rough stretch for the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver who doesn’t have a Cup victory this season.
Austin Dillon — While he did score a stage victory, his 26th-place finish marked his third consecutive finish outside the top 25. That’s not enough to climb back into playoff contention.
Jimmie Johnson — Contact on two separate occasions on pit road affected his race. He finished 15th. He has finished 14th or worse in four of the last six races. That has him holding what would be the final playoff spot if the season ended today.
With a winless streak nearing two years and a contract expiring next year, Jimmie Johnson admits he’s getting impatient.
“We haven’t been in contention to win a race yet this year, and we’ve got to fix that,” Johnson said this week after unveiling the camouflage car he’ll drive in next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. “If I’m not in contention to win a race, there’s no chance of winning a championship. This middle portion of the season is key for me to get things where they need to be so we can win races and ultimately win a championship.”
Asked if he’d rather win this weekend’s All-Star Race or the Coca-Cola 600, the seven-time champion quickly answered: “600. Lock me into that championship. I want eight, damn it.’’
He laughed, but it’s clear how serious he is.
Johnson enters the All-Star Race winless in his last 71 points races. His last Cup victory came June 4, 2017, at Dover.
Since stage racing and playoff points were implemented in 2017, 80% of the drivers who had two or more wins by the All-Star break went on to compete in the championship race in Miami. The only driver who had multiple wins before the All-Star Race and didn’t make it to the championship race was Johnson in 2017. He had two wins before the All-Star Race but was eliminated in the third round of the playoffs that year.
Four drivers this season have multiple Cup victories coming to Saturday’s All-Star Race: Kyle Busch (three wins), Brad Keselowski (three), Denny Hamlin (two) and Martin Truex Jr. (two). Based on the past two years, it would mean that at least three of those drivers should make it to Miami to race for a championship.
By dominating victory lane this season, Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin and Truex also are stockpiling playoff points that could help them advance and offset a bad race in a round. Johnson doesn’t have that luxury. He has no playoff points.
Johnson also is in a precarious spot. He’s 16th in the standings — which would be the final transfer spot to the playoffs provided a driver below him in points doesn’t win.
Johnson is the only driver who has competed in NASCAR’s postseason format every year since it debuted in 2004. To keep that streak going, he and his team have to be better.
Even though he finished sixth last weekend at Kansas Speedway, Johnson struggled with the car’s handling for more than half the race and said that the team needed to “make better decisions.”
“Certainly I was venting when I got out of the car Saturday night,” Johnson said. “We have been working hard on things, our processes and decision-making process looking at the All-Star Race. We’ve made some changes to be a little wiser going into the All-Star Race and hopefully have that play out and take it to the 600, but it’s tough.
“When we look at pre-Texas, we knew we had to make big changes. We kept changing and changing and changing. We go to Texas and (three of the four Hendrick) cars qualify one through (three).
“So after that, it’s like, ‘Let’s be aggressive, continue to be aggressive.’ Then you get burned a couple of weeks and you’re like ‘OK, where is that fine line really at?’ I don’t have a clear answer. Ultimately for us to win and compete for another championship that process has to clean up somehow.”
Johnson has ranked last among his Hendrick Motorsports teammates the past three races in green-flag speed, according to NASCAR’s statistics. Although teammate Alex Bowman finished second in each of the past three races and teammate Chase Elliott won at Talladega, putting their setups on Johnson’s car isn’t that simple.
“We have flexibility in the group to change cars and build cars in different ways,” Johnson said. “At times, we’ve found ourselves very close together. I think there are some areas where the cars are closer together than they have ever been … but we have flexibility to run different versions of chassis, spindles, certain suspension components and shocks and springs.
“The journey the driver kind of leads the team or the engineers on that team lead the group on, we all end up in our own spaces with our own setups. Unfortunately, this weekend when we unloaded (at Kansas), we knew right off the truck that we were down on speed, our team was. We made some provisions to race better and try not to pay attention to single-car speed, a lot like you would see at a restrictor-plate track.
“So Friday we’re trying to react and hoping it would race better. When I got into the race, the first half of the race was so bad for us. We didn’t have the raw speed and we didn’t have a better car in traffic. I have to give Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) a ton of credit. … He made some killer decisions. Our pit stops were awesome. Those guys rallied around him, and we had a great second half of the race and finished sixth. We know what’s making speed with our own company. We just need to figure out how to put those pieces into our car with our philosophies.”
As for Johnson’s future, he’s unsure at this point.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a couple of years,” he said. “My contract is up in 2020, and I’ll have to evaluate what I want to do after that.”
Until then, his focus is on finding enough speed to win again.
2. More close calls coming?
Erik Jones’ block of Clint Bowyer on the last lap of last Saturday’s race at Kansas upset Bowyer, but it might be just the beginning.
In a season where only six drivers have won, drivers will have to be more aggressive to get a victory. If they can’t, then they will need all the points possible. That can mean everything from pit calls by crew chiefs to drivers blocking.
With the races dwindling before the playoff field is set — next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point of the regular season — there could be more big moves on the track.
“The points are so close at the edge there at 16th,” said Dillon, who is 18th in the standings, 11 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final transfer spot. “There’s going to be a lot of guys fighting for every point.”
3. An idea for next year
Car owner Richard Childress says he likes the rules package that NASCAR has gone to this year, but he’d make one change for next year.
“If I were them, I would have the 550 (horsepower) engine everywhere,” Childress said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “We’ve got it at Daytona and Talladega. We got it everywhere except the half-mile tracks and the 1-mile tracks. Just go with one engine package. That way your development is around one engine package (instead of two).”
Cup cars run the 550 horsepower engine or 750 horsepower engine depending on the track’s size. Teams use the 750 horsepower engine for all races on ovals 1 mile or less and the road courses. That’s 14 of the 36 points races. The 550-horsepower engine is used at the other points races.
4. One last time (for this year)
Friday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will mark Kyle Busch’s fifth and final start of the season in that series. He seeks to complete a sweep of his races.
Busch and all other drivers who have more than five full-time seasons in Cup and are scoring Cup points are limited to five Truck races a season (and seven in the Xfinity Series).
Busch has won Truck races at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Martinsville and Texas this season.
5. Slight change
Pocono Raceway announced a change to its race weekend in two weeks. Cup qualifying will be held before the Xfinity race on Saturday, June 1.
Last year, Cup teams had one practice on Friday and then qualified. Cup teams had one Saturday practice.
Now, Cup teams will have two practices Friday and then only be on the track Saturday for qualifying. The race is Sunday, June 2.
Daniel Hemric trying to get on right foot, break rookie slump
After two strong seasons in the Xfinity Series (fourth in points in 2017 and third in 2018), Hemric is learning to race in a whole different way in his rookie Cup season.
“The No. 8 team is focused on putting one foot in front of the other,” Hemric said last weekend at Richmond Raceway.
Hemric’s first nine Cup races of 2019 for Richard Childress Racing have been a struggle. His best finish has been 18th (at Phoenix), and he’s coming off a 19th-place finish at Richmond, which buoyed his hopes after four prior finishes between 27th and 33rd.
“Coming out of Richmond with a top-20 finish? We’ll take it,” the Kannapolis, North Carolina native said.
Even with the rough start, Hemric hasn’t lost any motivation, or more importantly, support.
“It’s great to have a group of guys that haven’t given up on me,” he said. “We didn’t finish exactly where we wanted (at Richmond), but we definitely out-kicked our coverage from the positions we’ve put ourselves in over the last few weeks. We’ll take it and hopefully it’s a building moment for everyone on this No. 8 team.”
Hemric knows it’s just a matter of time before things click and results go in his favor. Until then, he’s not panicking, not doing anything crazy.
“It’s just been a matter to fall back on the things that got me through times like this in my life,” he said. “This is definitely one of the harder moments because you kind of got to regroup and redo it all over again, so it’s such a quick timeframe.
“Some of the other series I’ve ran, you have more time to dwell or rebuild on whatever situation and so it’s kind of a good thing, bad thing. You have to turn it around really quick and flip it around.”
Finally put 1 foot in front of the other tonight @RichmondRaceway. We will count our blessing from this weekend & continue to build. We missed @LukeLambertCC on the box, but owe a thank you to @justinalexcc for stepping up to the plate in a tough situation.
In addition to his team, Hemric is also getting a lot of support from his wife, family and friends.
“They know the trials and things we’re going through and it’s not anything that any haven’t experienced before,” he said. “It’s just been a little longer drawn out than we would want it to be.
“In the grand scheme of things, I’ve said that when the sun comes up, you get another shot at it and that’s the way I’m approaching it.”
Even fans are pitching in to do what they can to help Hemric shake the bad luck problems that continue to plague him and his team. One fan even went so far as to send Hemric and his team eight rabbit foots to hopefully bring some good vibes.
Hemric went into the Easter break 28th in the Cup standings. Teammate Austin Dillon is 14th in the standings, coming off his best finish of the season, sixth, at Richmond.
“I don’t look at Austin as just a teammate, he’s family to me,” Hemric said. “I watched him grow up and have been a part of some of his success and seen him have the success he’s had. He’s also had his own struggles at times and stuff that I’ve seen and witnessed with my own eyes.”
That’s why Hemric huddled with both Dillon and team owner Richard Childress after Texas (33rd, second-worst finish of the season).
“I asked them both, ‘Man, this is probably the bottom for me. I got to know which way to go here,” Hemric said.
And that’s where the learning to walk again analogy came back into play.
“They said just keep putting your best foot forward and leaning on guys like that who have experienced the same struggles at times and came out on the other side with success, that’s all the motivation you need,” Hemric said. “It’s no different with our boss (Childress) and what he’s done with the company, Richard Childress Racing.”
Richard Childress learned a valuable lesson in the 1970s when it came to getting into a brawl. Take off your watch.
“We used to go out to the bars and have a good time and everything,” Childress recalled on this week’s Dale Jr. Download (airs today at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN). “We were up at an old bar at Daytona one night and a big fight broke out. I happened to be in it. I had a Rolex. First Rolex I ever had in my life. I lost it in that fight. Ever since that you always take your watch off.”
That creed is now synonymous with Childress thanks to a 2011 altercation with Kyle Busch.
But the buildup to that confrontation began the previous year in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“That night, hell, I was good friends with Kyle. We were eating at a place and him and I think his girlfriend at the time, this was before he got married, and a guy from Toyota was there. (Toyota) had won the (Truck) championship.”
Childress went over to congratulate them on the Truck championship.
“You know I’m going to wreck your car?” Busch said, according to Childress.
“What do you mean?” Childress asked.
“Kevin wrecked me today. I’m going to wreck your car,” Busch repeated.
“What you need to do is wreck his Xfinity car, don’t wreck my car,” Childress said.
“Nope, I got to do it in Cup,” Busch said, according to Childress.
That didn’t sit well with Childress.
“If you wreck my car I’m going to whip your ass,” he told Busch.
“So they carried us over in the (NASCAR) trailer,” Childress said. “Got on to all four of us. I think Joe (Gibbs) was in there. Kyle and me and Kevin. I just told them what I was going to do and I kept my word.”
Three race weekends later, Busch was upset by how RCR driver Joey Coulter raced him in the closing laps of the Truck Series event at Kansas Speedway. That led to Busch rubbing fenders with him on the cool down lap.
Afterward, a watchless Childress confronted Busch in the garage and put him in a headlock
During Childress’ visit to the Dale Jr. Download, he also recalled a feud from Dale Earnhardt’s heyday.
Childress doesn’t remember how the late 1980s rivalry between Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine started, but he’s sure of one thing.
“It was one of those deals where whatever he gave that guy, Bodine, he deserved,” Childress said. “It was one of them deals we didn’t want to be run over and they started it. In my opinion, he started it. Once it started, we wasn’t going to be the ones to give up. Mr. France helped us give up.”
“Mr. France” was Bill France, Jr., the president of NASCAR at the time who played a hand in diffusing the rivalry that inspired Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns’ feud in the 1990 film, Days of Thunder.
“A lot of the story part was true,” Childress recalled. “But it didn’t all go down like that. I remember Bill France bringing us in there and telling us, ‘I want to see you guys running and if you have to run on each side of the race track, you’re not going to get together again.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to destroy our sport.'”
There is one detail about the film, which Childress has only seen once, that he took issue with.
“They had some fat guy doing me as the owner (actor Randy Quaid) and I didn’t like that,” Childress said.
Custer, who remained in Southern California after Saturday’s Xfinity race, told NBC Sports he got a call Sunday while “eating a jumbo platter at a fast food restaurant” about 90 minutes before the scheduled start of the Cup race.
The arrangement is unusual in that Custer is a Ford driver and Dillon drives for a Chevrolet team. But with the series on the West Coast and most Xfinity drivers gone, there were few choices for the Richard Childress Racing team.
Car owner Richard Childress said both Ford and Chevrolet approved Custer being put on standby for Dillon.
“I think he’ll go,” Childress said on pit road shortly before the race. “You’ll have to go and pry him out of the car. He’ll drive it. He’s just so weak. He said, I’m not as bad feeling, I’m just so weak right now.”
On a parade lap before Sunday’s race, Dillon radioed his team: “I think I’ve got the flu but am feeling better. I think the racing will help.”
Custer has three career Cup starts, all coming last season. He raced at Las Vegas, Pocono and Richmond last year for Rick Ware Racing. His best finish was 25th at Las Vegas.