Bump & Run: Is it time for Jimmie Johnson to be worried?

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How alarmed should Jimmie Johnson be after finishing outside the top 15 at Atlanta and Las Vegas for the first time in five seasons?

Nate Ryan: It has to be somewhat unsettling, even though so much was unknown for the seven-time champion entering this season. Getting acclimated to the new rules, crew chief and sponsor simultaneously is a new experience for the 17-year veteran. It could be simply a matter of getting settled. But at 43 and coming off the first winless season of his career, Johnson surely is feeling some urgency. He wants to prove last year was an anomaly, but so far 2019 has been a regression.

Dustin Long: There should be some concern but it should be tempered. There’s little time during the West Coast swing to update cars based on what is learned at the previous race. This just shows the team it has some work to do. If this team is still running like this by Kansas in May, then the level of concern will increase significantly.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be worried. He has an average running position of 17.4 through three races and the only reason he has a top 10 is because most of the field wrecked at Daytona. He finished two laps down in Atlanta and he wasn’t part of any incidents. If we get through Martinsville and Johnson hasn’t earned another top 10, then it’s time to full on panic.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though his winless streak now stands at 62 races (dating back to spring 2017 at Dover), it’s not time for Johnson to push the panic button just yet. If he gets to say, Bristol, and he’s still struggling, then there may be pause for concern. But remember, just one win puts him in the playoffs and he can build from there. He’s likely still learning communication and unique nuances with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, so I’m not overly worried just yet.

With consecutive victories and a strong showing by Joey Logano in the Daytona 500, how seriously should Team Penske be taken as the team to beat?

Nate Ryan: It’s only two races, but the organization’s flair for adaptability is undeniable, and Penske seems to have as strong a handle on the new rules as any team in Cup. If Ryan Blaney’s team can shake off its error-prone ways, Penske could have all of its drivers eligible for the playoffs before many teams have a guaranteed berth.

Dustin Long: Team Penske is until someone beats them, but let’s not get too carried away with what they’ve done at Atlanta and Las Vegas. While Brad Keselowski has scored top 10s in both events, he’s done that in each of the past two years at those races. Joey Logano would have the same streak had he not placed 23rd at Atlanta this year. The point is they’ve been strong early in the season before and they’ve shown the ability to excel with this new package.

Daniel McFadin: Penske is the top team right now. Dating back to last season’s Southern 500 they have won eight of the last 15 races and the championship. The fact the new Mustang model hasn’t impeded them is even more impressive. If they’re not up front in Phoenix, I expect them to be the team to beat at Auto Club Speedway where Penske hasn’t placed a driver outside the top 10 in the last four races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Right now, they ARE the team to beat. Yes, teammates Ryan Blaney (15th place in the standings) and Paul Menard (20th place) are struggling, but I expect both to get back on track in the next few races, particularly by Martinsville. And don’t forget, with Logano and Keselowski are now both locked into the playoffs, Team Penske can potentially allocate more resources to Blaney and Menard to get their cars working better and stronger.

Despite flashes of promise, Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing have one driver between them ranked in the top 20  in points. Is this an indication that the new rules package is less of an “equalizer” than some had predicted?

Nate Ryan: It seems more a reflection on the teams and their relatively inexperienced drivers than on the rules. Mistakes (several in the pits) by RCR and JTG Daugherty have undermined the strength they’ve shown at times.

Dustin Long: NASCAR stated that it was their intent with this rules package that the best teams still would be the ones to beat. Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing are not the best teams. RCR has shown speed in practice and qualifying but still has to figure out things for the race. The penalty to Austin Dillon’s pit crew didn’t help at Las Vegas. JTG Daugherty is building their own chassis and refining that takes time.

Daniel McFadin: I don’t think so, Las Vegas was the first race with the full package. RCR showed plenty of speed all weekend, but Austin Dillon’s effort was hurt by a pit penalty. We won’t know what the full potential of this package and its benefits to teams until Auto Club or at least Texas.

Jerry Bonkowski: Let’s not forget that RCR is down to only two teams this season and JTG Daugherty really hasn’t improved much. If anything, it’s in another growth mode. So, lack of success for both teams this early in the season is not entirely a surprise. And unfortunately, it’s not likely to get much better any time soon. Sure, Austin Dillon has looked strong at times this season, but he can’t carry RCR or partners JTG and Richard Petty Motorsports on his shoulders. And while the teams may be struggling with the new rules package, it’s simply going to be a matter of time, patience and trial and error before they start to make any significant progress.

There were more accidents on pit road than on the track at Atlanta and Las Vegas. What’s your take on the lack of cautions for accidents in the last two races?

Nate Ryan: It’s surprising and also a little unsettling. With the new rules delivering additional downforce and lower horsepower, there were concerns that the degree of difficulty might be lessened. Hopefully the lack of crashes isn’t indicative of that emerging trend because the cars need to be hard to drive.

Dustin Long: It’s simple. Sometimes they wreck (Daytona) and sometimes they don’t (past two weeks). Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: We are fully entrenched in an era of a lack of attrition and the vanishing act of debris cautions. I expect cautions to roar back in Phoenix with its short-track characteristics. 

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR is giving fans what they want in terms of closer racing. That’s a good thing. Teams are still getting used to the new rules package. It’s an evolutionary process, with drivers still feeling their way out on track. Once they get a bit more confident or more familiar with the new package, it’s likely you’ll see more aggressive driving – which likely means we’ll start seeing more cautions for accidents, as a result.

Friday 5: Jeffrey Earnhardt ready for challenge of winning Xfinity races

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Jeffrey Earnhardt sighs and says “too long.”

He rests his head in his hand and stares ahead.

“It’s been too long,” Earnhardt says since he last won a race. “Hell, I can’t remember. That’s pretty sad. It’s been a while.”

A journey that started with racing a Yugo — yes, a Yugo — and later moved from small team to small team in NASCAR, now has its reward more than a decade later.

Earnhardt will drive in nine Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, beginning with the Feb. 16 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. 

The expectations are high — “it’s wins or nothing” he saidbut the pressure can’t compare to what Earnhardt faced to reach this point.

“The pressure to go and get in a car that is capable of winning, that’s the pressure I’ve been looking for my whole life,” he said, wearing a black Joe Gibbs Racing T-shirt in a conference room at the team’s Cup headquarters.

Instead, the pressure has been to survive in the sport. Beginning with the Yugo.

He begged his father for a couple of years to let him race. His dad eventually relented, saying Earnhardt could compete if he found a car and sponsorship to pay for it. Earnhardt got the Yugo and sponsorship for it.

He never won in that car. But he didn’t drive it long.

“I ended up flipping it,” Earnhardt said of a race at Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Virginia. “Because it was so slow. A guy shoved me off in the corner and turned me sideways and another car came and hit the front end of the car … and turned me head-on into the outside wall. Flipped. Landed on its roof.

“I was like, ‘Man, this thing is going to catch on fire.’ I’d seen too many movies. I ended up getting my shoelace hung on the brake pedal and didn’t think I was going to make it out alive. Everyone was like, ‘You’re fine, we’ve got you.’ ”

He thought everything would be fine when he joined Dale Earnhardt Inc. and drove in what is now the K&N Pro Series East Series in 2007-08.

“Signed a four-year contract at 17 years old and thought, this is going to be a walk in the park,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Everything is going to be taken care of.”

But his ride went away after DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing in November 2008. The struggle to find rides began. Earnhardt ran one K&N Pro Series East race and two Xfinity races in 2009. He ran five Truck races in 2010. In 2011, he drove in two Xfinity races and five Truck races.

Earnhardt fought in one MMA bout in 2012 — he won — but realized afterward that he still wanted to race.

“I did the MMA thing to try to find something that gave me that rush that I get in a race car and it still wasn’t the equivalent,” Earnhardt said.

He continued to search for rides.

“What my grandfather did and his legacy means the world to me,” Earnhardt said of the late Dale Earnhardt. “I would hate to not think that I gave literally everything I possibly could to make it continue.”

He’s driven in 151 races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks but never with a team that could compete for wins. His best Xfinity finish is 12th at Bristol (2014) and Talladega (2015). His best Cup finish is 11th in last July’s Daytona race.

With JGR, top 10s should be common. Earnhardt will drive the No. 18, a car that won twice last year with Ryan Preece at Bristol and Kyle Busch at Pocono and saw Noah Gragson finish second with in his Xfinity debut at Richmond last year.

“I was talking on the phone with my manager and I was like, I’ve gone from the struggle of trying to keep the car under me for the whole entire race and not wreck to now the struggle is going to be those late-race restarts when you’re on the front row,” Earnhardt said. “That’s a new challenge, it’s a good challenge.”

2. Reversal of fortune

What would have happened had NASCAR disqualified cars last year that failed inspection after a race instead of doing it this season?

Two Cup races would have had different winners.

Kyle Busch would have finished the season with a series-high nine wins instead of being tied with Kevin Harvick at eight.

Harvick would have lost his win at Las Vegas after his car was found to have an issue with the rear window during an inspection at NASCAR’s R&D Center. That would have given Busch, the runner-up, the win.

Also, Harvick would have lost his Texas win for an issue with the spoiler — also discovered at the R&D Center. But runner-up Ryan Blaney was penalized because his car failed inspection and the win would have gone to Joey Logano, who finished third in that race.

Nine cars that finished in the top four in a Cup race last year failed inspection after the event and would have been disqualified under this year’s rules.

3. Disqualification penalty appeals

Should a vehicle be disqualified after failing inspection after the race, the team can appeal. They will have to pay a non-refundable appeal filing fee of $5,000.

Unlike a regular appeal, which features a panel of three people, the race disqualification appeal will be heard by one person. It could be one of the 28 people listed in the rule book as appeal panelists or it could be the Final Appeal Officer or their alternate.

One thing to note in this particular type of case is that the decision of that one panelist is final. The decision cannot be appealed to the Final Appeal Officer.

4. Charter transfers

With a new season, comes the transfer of charters in Cup.

Six of the 36 charters have changed teams for this season.

The charter that was with BK Racing’s No. 23 car last year, which Front Row Motorsports purchased, will be with the No. 38 car of David Ragan.

The charter that had been with Ragan’s team goes to teammate Matt Tifft. Front Row Motorsports added a car, growing to a third team this season.

The charter with Richard Petty Motorsport’s No. 43 car with Bubba Wallace goes to Rick Ware Racing and will be aligned with the No. 51 car and driven by B.J. McLeod in the Daytona 500.

The charter that was with Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 car last year goes to RPM’s No. 43 car this season.

Furniture Row Racing’s charter was purchased by Spire Motorsports and be used with the No. 77 car. That will be No. 40 for Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500 and then go back to No. 77 the rest of the season. 

The charter that had been with the No. 72 car of TriStar Motorsports moves to the No. 52 car at Rick Ware Racing.

5. Rule changes

NASCAR came out with a bulletin this week that updated its rule book.

Among some of the changes:

— Drivers must have all four tires below the orange box at the commitment line to enter pit road. That had been the case last year at all tracks except Martinsville. Drivers needed to only put two tires under the orange box there. Now, they will have to adjust at Martinsville.

— A pit crew member’s foot must not touch pit road before the vehicle is one pit box away from its assigned pit box or the equivalent marked distance. Should a crew member’s foot or both feet touch the pit road surface too early, the pit crew member can re-establish their position back to or behind the pit wall before servicing the car to avoid a penalty.

— A sixth person can go over the wall during a pit stop but that person’s duties are limited to servicing the driver in their health and well-being, assisting with safety systems, window net, helmet and cooling ventilation hose, radio system replacement, steering wheel wiring, providing personal medical supplies and cleaning the windshield. Such a person, though, is not allowed to help repair the body and/or mechanical components on the car.

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Bubba Wallace lands sponsor for Daytona 500

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Bubba Wallace will be sponsored by AfterShokz in the season-opening Daytona 500, Richard Petty Motorsports announced Tuesday.

Wallace, who is scheduled to make an appearance on NBC’s The Today Show on Wednesday, will have the producer of open-ear headphones on the hood of his No. 43 Chevrolet as me makes his second start in the “Great American Race.”

Wallace made history in 2018 when he placed second in the race, making him the highest finishing African-American driver in the race’s history.

Richard Petty Motorsports

“After last year, we know we can win the Daytona 500,” Wallace said in a press release. “Our team at Richard Petty Motorsports knows how to put together a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is capable of giving me the handling and speed I need.

“We raced up front last year at Daytona, both in the 500 and in July, so I expect us to do it that again. That’s going to make a great day for AfterShokz, too. I’m thrilled they are joining us in the journey this year. They have become friends of mine and we’re going to Daytona together to win it.”

Wallace enters the 2019 season with a new crew chief in Derek Stamets.

Wallace ended his rookie season 28th in the standings with three top 10s, including his Daytona 500 finish.

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Teams leave two-day NASCAR Las Vegas test with positive feelings

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If Kevin Meendering left Las Vegas with a big smile on his face, there’s a very good reason.

No, the new crew chief for seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson probably didn’t hit it big at the slot machines or poker tables, but he definitely was very happy with what his new driver did in Thursday and Friday’s NASCAR open test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Johnson was fastest of 21 NASCAR Cup and Xfinity drivers that took part in the test, hitting a top speed of 178.885 mph on Thursday. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski was fastest in Friday’s abbreviated half-day session, just a tick below Johnson’s previous day’s speed at 178.436 mph.

I think it was a huge learning experience for us,” said Meendering, who took over for Chad Knaus this season (Knaus moves to crew chief for William Byron). “We got out there in a decent pack and figured out what issues we’re going to have, what we need to work on and some direction of how we need to develop our cars.

“It’s going to be a trade-off of building speed in your car versus handling, and that’s going to be track dependent and is going to be a big learning curve, for sure.”

In addition to the way the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 performed, Meendering, who previously was crew chief for the now-retired Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, was particularly happy with how he and Johnson communicated in their first on-track time together.

“(Johnson’s) feedback’s phenomenal,” Meendering said. “He really has a great understanding and feel for the car and gives great feedback, so it really makes my job a lot easier.

“The communication’s been great, he’s easy to talk to and I feel like the learning curve has been pretty quick.”

Friday’s portion of the two-day test was only a half-day in length. Drivers racked up a number of single-car laps, plus there were two additional drafting sessions like Thursday in packs of up to 11 cars each.

Friday’s speed chart

Keselowski, teammate of defending Cup champ Joey Logano, also came out of the test with a positive feeling.

“We were pretty good, and I feel like, if we’re as fast as we were today when we come back to race (for the Pennzoil 400 on March 3), I feel like we’ll be a threat to win,” said Keselowski, who won the first playoff race in LVMS history last September. “(The car) is about as different as it can be, but it’s our job to master it and be the best with it.

“I feel like we learned some things and got better, and that’s kind of what you expect when you have something so much different than what we’re normally accustomed to, but I’m glad to see that’s how it played out.”

Another driver that took part in the test was Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bubba Wallace.

“It’s just good to get back in the car and knock the dust off,” Wallace said. “(The car) was completely different than what I expected.

“I expected it to be a little bit like the (2018) All-Star Race, but it had a lot more speed than that. When we got in the pack, it was a little bit of a handful, and we’ve still got to work on passing a little bit.”

As for working in the draft, Wallace added, “It’s not quite plate racing, but (when you get out of the draft) you can hear the motor pick up a different octave and feel it in the seat. It’s just the fine balance of if you want your car really fast by yourself or really fast in the pack.”

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Richard Petty Motorsports promotes Derek Stamets to Bubba Wallace’s crew chief

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Richard Petty Motorsports announced Thursday it has promoted lead engineer Derek Stamets to crew chief for Bubba Wallace in the No. 43 Chevrolet.

Stamets has been RPM’s lead engineer since 2012, being part of race wins with Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. Prior to joining RPM, he recorded multiple Cup wins with a number of drivers including NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan.

“Derek was a logical decision for us to move up,” RPM director of competition Philippe Lopez said in a media release. “He spent the full season with Bubba and our Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 program last year and has been with our organization for seven seasons. We want to keep the chemistry that Derek and Bubba built together while continuing the experience we built with Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing. We are confident in Derek’s leadership of the No. 43 team.”

Stamets will begin his new duties immediately and take part in the NASCAR test with Wallace today and Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He replaces Drew Blickensderfer, who moved to crew chief of Front Row Racing’s No. 34 Ford, driven by Michael McDowell.

“Derek has a lot of knowledge of our program,” Wallace said. “He’s not having to learn a new program and I’m not having to learn a new personality. I’m comfortable working with Derek and this makes the most sense for improvement. I think he’s eager to make more of the decisions and put his footprint on our race team.”

Wallace is entering his second full-time season on the Cup circuit. As a rookie in 2018, Wallace had one top five – a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 – and three top-10 finishes, with an average start of 24.8 and an average finish of 24.5. He also had six DNFs.

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