A year into his role as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief and facing another challenge to make the playoffs, Cliff Daniels has a simple request.
“I’m not even asking for things to exceptionally go our way,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m just asking for them to exceptionally stop going against us. When that happens, we’ll be OK.”
This has been a dizzying season of disappointment for Johnson and his team since the season resumed in May. The result is that the seven-time Cup champion is outside a playoff spot heading into this weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway and in danger of missing the playoffs for a second year in a row.
Since May, there have been few highlights for Johnson and the No. 48 team.
# Clint Bowyer gained five spots in the last 11 laps at Atlanta to remain 12th in the owner standings and ahead of Johnson. That was critical because cars 1-12 in owner points are eligible to start in those spots via the random draw. Cars 13-24 in owner points, drew for those spots. Johnson’s luck in the random draw would prove to be terrible in the summer, costing him points in the first stage. Johnson has scored Stage 1 points in three of the 10 races since Atlanta.
# While running 13th at Kansas, Johnson was collected in a multi-car crash and finished 32nd, again losing points.
# Last weekend at New Hampshire, contact with Clint Bowyer’s car spun Johnson as they raced for fifth place late in the opening stage. Johnson went on to finish 12th — his best finish in his last eight starts.
All this has put Johnson 25 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron for what would be the final playoff spot with six races left in the regular season.
The challenge is that with Johnson only eligible for starting spots 13-24, it is not easy to score points in the first stage of any race. It won’t be easy this weekend at Michigan. The first stage in both races is at Lap 40 — a quarter of the way through the 156-lap race. Last year, the first stage ended about a third of the way into the race. With fewer laps, it makes it more challenging to gain points early. NASCAR will change how the starting lineup is determined beginning next weekend and that could help Johnson.
Johnson will start 17th on Saturday. That also impacts how Daniels will set the car.
“We really have to slide our scale more toward the traffic balance potential, and you’ve got to be aggressive on the restarts, get all we can for positions there, and then make sure we’ve got a car that is able to pass,” Daniels said. “If you look at Kentucky, if you look at Texas, if you look at Kansas, that kind of paid off for us in making sure that we could pass and we did. We were able to pass and get up into the top 10 or better at all three of those tracks pretty quickly. … I do expect us to get our shot out front at some point during the day (at Michigan), at least that’s the plan.
“We’re going to keep marching forward in what we have built into the car in terms of being able to pass, have good pit stops and good restarts and a good strategy. The tough part is when we get up to the front we may not have quite the raw potential built into the car, so we’ll have to duke it out with them and that puts even more emphasis on executing those restarts and pit stops to keep our track position.”
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, explained in 2018 the manufacturer’s interest in developing talent:
“If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that manufacturer’s don’t have any business developing drivers. You know you look at Kasey Kahne being brought up as a Ford driver and getting poached by Chevy or Jeff Gordon, kind of all of these examples – what we came to realize is one, why shouldn’t manufacturers have a role in driver development? From the competitive perspective you have two options, develop your own or steal them and you know Rick Hendrick and I have had a friendly you know jab about that because he’ll say ‘I’ll just steal them from you.’
“Arguably, he did already, but that’s okay because the second part of it is more altruistic I’d say and that’s that I think as a stakeholder in this sport, we have a responsibility to give back and we recognize – and the troubling part about it is Toyota doesn’t own racing teams. That’s not our role. The tough part about it is we’ll lose as many of these young kids as we’ll be able to keep just because you know the higher you climb the ladder, the fewer seats are available. That’s what keeps me up at night, frankly.”
3. A catwalk unlike any other
Among the many events postponed by the pandemic was the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Catwalk for a Cause. The charity event held in May has raised more than $600,000 each of the past two years and highlighted pediatric cancer patients and survivors — heroes as they are called — in the fashion show.
Last year’s event raised money for the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Children’s Emergency Department at Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center and the Sherry Strong Integrative Medicine Oncology Clinic at Novant Health Presbyterian Main.
Sherry Pollex, partner of Martin Truex Jr., told NBC Sports that COVID-19 and the economy are forcing foundations to examine how they raise funds.
“I think we’re going to have to come up with some ideas that are outside of the box, that we’ve probably never seen before because we need to honor these commitments to these hospitals and these children that we were going to fight for,” Pollex said.
An example is what the foundation looks to do with Catwalk for a Cause.
“We’re hoping that we can still do something special,” Pollex said. “We’re trying to put all the pieces together right now. We’re not really sure what it’s going to look like. We want to obviously protect the kids and their health and their families and everybody that is going to come in, but we’re hoping it’s going to be kind of like a drive-in movie theater type atmosphere where you drive your car in and are tailgating from the back of it. We’ve got some great ideas for that and we’re hoping that goes off in September so we can get funding from that.”
Fundraising continues for the foundation, which has been selling a variety of T-shirts this summer. Truex said the key is to keep the “word out on what we’re doing. Simple things like selling T-shirts. Our fans and supporters have been excited about little things like that and that keeps the fire burning.”
Truex’s sponsor Auto-Owners Insurance combined with his foundation to sell 500 limited edition mini helmets signed by Truex and Pollex. The helmets sold out this week in less than three hours. Auto-Owners also matched employee donations to the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation. That and the sale of the helmets raised more than $80,000. To celebrate, the hood of Truex’s car this weekend at Michigan will have the names of 1,900-plus Auto-Owners associates who made donations to the MTJ Foundation.
“Racing is tough,” Keselowski said in a media conference Thursday. “It’ll make you bitter. There ain’t no way around it. It’s competition in all forms. It’s competition from the driver level, the owner level, the crew chief level and it’s tough.There’s no way around it.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the ownership model being broken. I’m not so sure I believe that. Sometimes I think it is. Sometimes I think it isn’t. There’s a lot to be said for the very pure and true competitive and capitalist model that NASCAR team ownership has, so it’s got its positives and its negatives.
“I don’t enjoy seeing guys like Bob Leavine or anyone else for that matter leave the sport in ownership. I take no pleasure in their pain, but then on the other side I do recognize that in competition there must always be winners and losers, and maybe some people lose that don’t deserve to lose. That probably happens from time to time, but it’s part of the story of our sport is that there are winners and losers.
“We don’t have to like who the winner is, and we certainly don’t have to wish for someone to lose. We might not like who it is that loses. I think in this case, Bob seemed like a really great gentleman who has brought a lot to this sport in a very short period of time, but it’s a tough sport. It really is, and this is part of that unfortunate cycle of life for our sport as well.”
5. Kyle Larson’s future
Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, met with the media this week. One of the questions he was asked was if there had been any conversations about whether Kyle Larson could be in a Ford next year.
So, could Larson drive for Ford in NASCAR next year?
“We’re in the midst of silly season and what I can say is we’re looking at all of our options,” Rushbrook said. “A lot of our seats have long-term contracts and are solid. You saw the extension announced (Monday) for Brad (Keselowski). We certainly have some seats in play, so looking to see what the best options are.
“We’re here to win races in the right way. We want to be competitive on track. We want to have our innovation and tech transfer, and we want the marketing out of it, so looking to see what we can do with any open seats for next year to fill them with the best driver.”
Tonight’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App) marks the beginning of the second half of the Cup season. So here are 18 questions for the final 18 Cup races of the season.
The Dover doubleheader is coming up on the schedule (Aug. 22 and 23) and that was the site of his last Cup win in 2017. Heading into tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway, Johnson’s winless streak is 112 races. His best finish this year is third at Bristol and the series will be back there in September in the playoffs.
2. Who will drive the No. 48 car in 2021?
There’s plenty of interest in this high-profile ride that has a full-season sponsor already in place. Will car owner Rick Hendrick go with an established star or pick a younger driver with plenty of potential? What Hendrick decides could greatly impact the upcoming Silly Season.
“Stewart-Haas is a wonderful organization,” Bowyer said this week. “I want to be there. I want to retire there, and I love the opportunity and the people behind it.”
Said Jones, who is battling for a playoff spott, this week: “I’ve had a really good relationship with (Joe Gibbs Racing) for quite a few years now. I put probably the most pressure on myself. I wouldn’t say JGR ever comes to me and asks questions or questions why you’re in this spot. They see the same things we do and the same things we struggle each weekend and why we’re in this spot. People aren’t blind to that.”
He led 150 laps last weekend at Texas, won the first two stages but didn’t win the race when a caution came out at the wrong time. He finished seventh. He ranks third in laps led this season but has one Cup win. He could have a few more wins. Instead, those are playoff points lost. Will that hurt him later in the year?
In 2014 and 2016, a record three drivers outside a playoff spot won aCup race. Could there be a third such winner this year? Among those outside a playoff spot entering tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway are William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher.
6. Will Kyle Busch make it to the championship race a sixth year in a row?
Busch has talked about the struggles at Joe Gibbs Racing this season and how the lack of practice has made it more difficult to fix the issues. With NASCAR announcing this week that it will go the rest of the season without practice and qualifying, Busch’s task has become more difficult.
7. What drivers in last year’s playoff could miss it this year?
Kyle Larson will since he’s not in the series. William Byron enters Kansas two points out of what would be the final playoff spot. Erik Jones enters Kansas outside a playoff spot. As does Ryan Newman, who missed three races because of his head injury suffered in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. He has a waiver and would make the playoffs should he win a race. Newman is too far back in points to make the playoffs that way.
8. Which will be more of a wildcard race: Daytona road course or Daytona oval?
Drivers will have no practice before running the road course for the first time in Cup cars (same for Xfinity and Trucks). And the Daytona oval race is the final regular-season race, so desperation to make the playoffs will be high.
Both races in August could prove quite interesting.
9. Who will win rookie of the year?
Cole Custer has a win and is in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick has arookie-high six top-10 finishes, including three in a row. Christopher Bell is showing signs of progress after a rotten start to the season. John Hunter Nemechek has had a few highlights this season.
This will be worth watching as the season progresses. Some are suggesting this could be among the best rookie crop in years.
10. How will NASCAR change the starting lineup draw?
11. Martinsville moves to the final race before the championship. What type of chaos could be seen there?
Well, let’s see. Last year’s playoff race saw Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano scuffle after the race. In 2018, Martin Truex Jr. was upset with Logano for his bump-and-run to win. In 2017, Hamlin and Chase Elliott had a heated exchange after Hamlin’s contract wrecked Elliott late. In 2015, Matt Kenseth wrecked Logano in retaliation for an incident earlier in the playoffs at Kansas.
Now, Martinsville is the last race before the championship field is set? Safe to say plenty of tempers will be on display that day.
12. How big will the crowds be at upcoming races?
There will be no fans allowed tonight at Kansas. Next week’s race at New Hampshire can have up to 19,000. The following weekend features the Cup doubleheader at Michigan before no fans. The races at Daytona — both on the road course and oval — will have fans but no total has been announced. Nothing has been announced for the playoffs. Among the playoffs tracks is Bristol Motor Speedway, which hosted an estimated 20-25,000 for the All-Star Race earlier this month.
13. What happens if a playoff driver tests positive for COVID-19 in the playoffs?
NASCAR gave Jimmie Johnson a waiver when he missed Indianapolis for testing positive for COVID-19, but what happens if a playoff driver has to miss one or two races in a round? Will that driver be allowed to advance to the next round and just make one more driver advancing than scheduled?
14. How high a stack of pennies will Corey LaJoie have at the end of the season?
Corey LaJoie’s mantra is stacking pennies, meaning a little progress can grow into greater success over time.
He had seven top-20 finishes last year for Go Fas Racing. LaJoie already has six top-20 finishes this season. He’s stacked plenty of pennies so far.
15. Will Matt Kenseth be back after this season?
Kenseth was coy about that when asked about his future recently, saying he was focused on improved finishes. He has had four top-20 finishes in the last five races heading into Kansas. With the number of drivers available for next season, Chip Ganassi Racing could have many options.
He has had a fantastic season with four wins, a series-high 11 top-five finishes, including five in a row, and a series-best 15 top 10s. He’s finished in the top 10 in 83.3% of the races. Remarkable. So far so good.
17. Or is this Denny Hamlin’s year?
The Daytona 500 winner is tied with Harvick for most wins this year with four. Hamlin had a four-race streak of top-five finishes, including two wins, before struggles the past three weeks. Heading into Kansas, Hamlin has not finished better than 12th the past three races. Still, he has nine top-five finishes and 10 top 10s this year.
18. What about 2021?
NASCAR is working on a 2021 schedule. No date has been set on an announcement.
If Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was a Broadway play, Justin Allgaier would be the understudy stepping in to fill in for the star, namely, Jimmie Johnson.
And while it may be looked at as only a fill-in role for Allgaier driving Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet due to Johnson having tested positive Friday for COVID-19, a strong run in Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) could put Allgaier’s name on the list of potential replacements for Johnson, who is retiring at the end of this season.
“I would say the list for the 48 car of potential drivers is extremely long and I don’t know where I fit on that list,” Allgaier said after finishing sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “For me, 100% is what I can give. I think it’s gonna be important to go out there and just do what I can do.
“And if an opportunity were to come out of that and to go somewhere, obviously I would love for that opportunity. But on the other side of that point, I have a great relationship with my team at JR Motorsports. … That’s gonna be the most important part is, just going it 100% (Sunday) and whatever happens after that happens.”
Johnson filling in for Johnson isn’t exactly a surprise. Allgaier has been Johnson’s designated backup since NASCAR resumed racing in May following a nearly three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have had our own basically secondary line-up and that includes anyone from driver to crew chief all the way through the crew members that travel to the race track,” Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, said. “There really was no extra thought that we had to put into it. This lineup was already set.
“We had all the plans in place just out of the abundance of caution that we wanted to take. And again, even before going back racing in Darlington, this has been in place. There were no extra decisions to be made. Justin has been on stand-by this whole time and has been aware that this could happen.”
For now, Allgaier is slated to replace Johnson for Sunday’s Brickyard 400. There’s also the possibility he could stay in the No. 48 for next weekend’s race at Kentucky.
Johnson must have two negative COVID-19 tests in no less than a 24-hour period and also be given clearance by his doctor before he can return behind the wheel.
By missing the Brickyard 400, which he’s won four times, Johnson also snaps a streak of 663 consecutive starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie campaign in 2002. It’s the longest streak of any active driver in the Cup Series.
“I didn’t expect this opportunity would come to fruition,” Allgaier said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team, the 48 team, I’ve worked with a lot of guys on that team closely. I’m excited in one aspect, but the other part of this is we’re thinking about Jimmie and his whole family. Their safety is of utmost importance.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, we want to see Jimmie get healthy and (Johnson’s wife) Chandra get healthy. … I texted Jimmie last night and said I want to see him get healthy quick so he can get back because I want to see him back in victory lane a lot more before the end of the season.”
While Allgaier is known most for his 319 Xfinity Series starts, 11 wins and 182 top-10 finishes, the 34-year-old native of Riverton, Illinois, also has 76 starts in the Cup Series on his resume, with a career-best finish of eighth at Bristol in spring 2015.
Given his prior Cup experience, as well as working hand-in-hand with Hendrick Motorsports in various capacities such as testing over the years – team owner Rick Hendrick is also a part-owner of JR Motorsports – Allgaier is both comfortable as well as somewhat nervous of becoming the first driver to ever fill in for Johnson during Johnson’s Cup career.
“That really resonates with me as a driver when you’re already on pins and needles when you’re filling in for somebody else,” Allgaier said. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything right and give them the best finish that you can give them.
“When you’re able to do that and be comfortable, that makes a big difference, and I think that’s what’s been the best part about all of this for me.”
Allgaier considers racing in Johnson’s shoes one of the most humbling experiences of his career.
“I can’t even begin to describe it to you, to be honest with you,” Allgaier said. “The cars at HMS, any of the four cars, it’s definitely an honor to drive and to be part of that program.
“The 48, being the iconic number it is, Jimmie winning seven championships and here (at Indianapolis) four times, the guy Jimmie is and the respect he has in the sport, you top that off with the fact he’s the only driver to drive the 48 since he started his career there.”
While Johnson and Hendrick aren’t putting any undue pressure on Allgaier, he understands the gravity of the position he’s been placed in.
“If you have the opportunity to drive for Mr. Hendrick, you take it, no questions asked and try to run with that ball,” Allgaier said.
But at the same time, Allgaier isn’t going to try and drive over his head or beyond his ability just because he has such a great opportunity.
“Opportunity or not does not supersede to go out there and do the job at hand,” Allgaier said. “100% is what I have to offer. That’s what I’m going to give them tomorrow.
“101 or 110 (percent) or trying to be a hero, there’s no place for that. This isn’t what this role is about. My plan is to go out and give the 48 car the best opportunity to run at its max potential.
“In my mind, I believe that max potential is to go out and win the race tomorrow. So I’ve gotta do a really good job. … I need to make sure that I don’t put myself in bad positions, I don’t do things Jimmie wouldn’t do and being somebody different in the car, everybody in the field is going to know that.
“There are going to be some that respect that and others who are probably going to take advantage of that. You just have to know who you’re racing against and put yourself in the best position you can.
“I just have to make sure when the checkered flag falls tomorrow, I’ve given it 100% and whatever the results are, that’s just what they’re going to be.”
Hendrick Motorsports said in a statement Friday that Johnson will not return until he is cleared by a physician.
Johnson, 44, has not experienced symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Hendrick Motorsports statement. He was tested upon learning Friday morning that his wife Chandra tested positive after experiencing allergy-like symptoms.
“My first priority is the health and safety of my loved ones and my teammates,” Johnson said in a statement from Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ve never missed a race in my Cup career, but I know it’s going to be very hard to watch from the sidelines when I’m supposed to be out there competing. Although this situation is extremely disappointing, I’m going to come back ready to win races and put ourselves in playoff contention.”
Johnson, who is in his final full-time Cup season, has the longest streak for consecutive starts among active drivers at 663. He was to have started fourth in Sunday’s race.
Said car owner Rick Hendrick in a statement: “Jimmie has handled this situation like the champion he is. We’re relieved he isn’t showing symptoms and that Chani is doing great, and we know he’ll be back and ready to go very soon. It’s going to be difficult for him to be out of the car and away from his team, but it’s the right thing to do for Jimmie and everyone involved.”
NASCAR announced that it has granted Johnson a playoff waiver should he win a race before the playoffs begin. NASCAR also stated:
“Following the guidelines outlined in the Event Operations Protocol manual, Jimmie Johnson has alerted NASCAR that he has tested positive for COVID-19.
“NASCAR has outlined the steps for Johnson’s return, in accordance with the CDC’s current guidelines, which includes that Johnson is symptom free and has two negative COVID-19 test results, at least 24 hours apart. NASCAR requires Johnson to be cleared by his physician before returning to racing.
“Jimmie is a true battle-tested champion, and we wish him well in his recovery. NASCAR has granted Jimmie a playoff waiver, and we look forward to his return as he races for an eighth NASCAR Cup Series championship.”
Hendrick Motorsports stated that as a precaution, it identified one member of the No. 48 traveling crew to self-quarantine due to close contact with Johnson.
Hendrick Motorsports stated that it has implemented detailed procedures to protect the health of its team members. That includes daily COVID-19 screenings at the team facilities; the separation of facility operations and traveling personnel; split work schedules; stringent face covering and social distancing requirements; and an increased level of disinfecting and sanitization of all work areas.
The announcement about Johnson came shortly after Major League Baseball announced Friday that 31 players have tested positive. Nineteen different teams had at least one player test positive.