Rusty Wallace

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to friend

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The record books list Jimmie Johnson as a seven-time Cup champion.

But they are wrong.

They credit him with 83 Cup victories.

Again, they are wrong.

Truth is, Johnson has never won in Cup.

Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.

Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.

Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.

When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.

Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.

During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.

But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.

He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.

“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.

2. More of the same in 2020?

With the industry’s focus on the Next Gen car in 2021, one of the concessions is that there won’t be as many rule changes for next season.

In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.

So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?

Yes, Chevrolet has an updated car and there are some wind-tunnel testing restrictions, but will it be enough to top Toyota and Gibbs? Or will next year be more of the same?

“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.  

“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.

“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”

3. A new tire isn’t that simple

As NASCAR looks at the racing, particularly at short tracks, one idea from fans is that Goodyear should change the tire so that it wears more.

But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.

“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.

“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.

“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”

4. Who will be the fourth?

Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace at Darlington Raceway in 2015. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.

Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.

Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.

Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.

Or is it someone else?

5. Moving on

Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”

Marks, who came from a road racing background, made 79 starts throughout his NASCAR career among Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He had 38 Truck starts and 35 Xfinity starts.

His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.

Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.

“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.

“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”

While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”

As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.

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By the Numbers: Dover’s first 100 Cup races

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2019 has been a notable year for anniversaries in NASCAR.

Among them are the four active Cup Series tracks that are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Those include Talladega Superspeedway, Michigan International Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and the track NASCAR returns to this weekend – Dover International Speedway.

The “Monster Mile” will host its 100th Cup Series event Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the first race in the second round of the playoffs.

The Cup Series first ventured to Dover, Delaware, for a race on July 6, 1969, when the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 was “In The Year 2525” by Zagar & Evans and the film “Easy Rider” was eight days from being released.

On that day, Richard Petty took his No. 43 Ford to victory lane after leading 150 of 300 laps (the first 500-mile/lap race was in 1971). It was his first of seven wins there, including his 199th Cup win in 1984.

Richard Petty won his 199th Cup race in 1984 at Dover (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images).

Also of note, the inaugural race was held only two days after the July race at Daytona International Speedway, almost 900 miles away.

“So we had to come up all the way up the East Coast, brought the car up here and had never seen the race track,” Petty recalled in 2013. “We were pretty dog tired by the time we drove the (Daytona) race, drove all the way up here and run the race.”

Here’s a look at interesting stats and facts from the track’s first 50 years.

– Dover first opened as a facility used to accommodate both harness racing and motorsports events.

– Sunday’s race will be the 50th held on the oval since the track went from an asphalt to concrete surface in 1995. The track’s surface is the oldest the Cup Series races on.

– The track changed its name from Dover Downs International Speedway to simply Dover International Speedway in 2002.

– The track changed the length of its races from 500 to 400 miles in 1997.

Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with 11 victories. His last win there in 2017 was also his most recent win overall.

Jeff Gordon is the last driver to win three consecutive Cup races at Dover, from 1995-96. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

– NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Petty are next on the list with seven wins. Hall of Famer David Pearson holds the top-mark for pole positions with six. Ryan Newman’s four poles leads current drivers, with the most recent in 2007.

– Three times a driver has won three consecutive races – Pearson (1972-73), Rusty Wallace (1993-94) and Jeff Gordon (1995-96). The last time a driver won back-to-back races was Johnson in 2013-14.

– Kyle Petty won his last Cup Series race in 1995 at Dover after starting from 37th, the deepest in the field a Cup winner has started at the track.

– Mark Martin, a four-time race winner, holds the record for most runner-up finishes (eight).

– Ricky Rudd has the most starts at the track with 56. His first came on May 16, 1976 and his final start was on June 4, 2007. In-between, four of his 23 career Cup wins came at Dover.

– Hendrick Motorsports holds the record for most wins (20) for an organization at Dover. Since 2009, the team has not gone more than one season without a Dover win.

– Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with 40 wins in the first 99 races.

– Bad news for any driver hoping to get their first career Cup wins at Dover: It’s only happened twice, with Jody Ridley in May 1981 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2007.

 

Tonight’s Cup race at Darlington: Start time, lineup and more

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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NASCAR’s throwback weekend reaches a crescendo with tonight’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Paint schemes that pay tribute to such drivers as Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart and Tim Richmond and cars from “Days of Thunder” and “Stroker Ace” will circle the track.

Here’s all the info you need for tonight’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 6:07 p.m. by 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and Waddell Wilson along with Jose Armario, Bojangles’ CEO. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 6:15 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage opens at 1 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 4 p.m. Driver introductions are at 5:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 6 p.m. by Dr. Bill Curtis, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Darlington, South Carolina. Edwin McCain will perform the National Anthem at 6:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 367 laps (501.3 miles) around the 1.366-mile short track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 100. Stage 2 ends on Lap 200.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 5 p.m. with NASCAR America. Countdown to Green begins at 5:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 5 p.m and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts a high of 81 degrees with a 41% chance of scattered thunderstorms at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Brad Keselowski won last year’s Southern 500. Joey Logano finished second. Kyle Larson placed third. 

TO THE REAR: Kyle Busch (engine change), Aric Almirola (backup), Reed Sorenson (transmission change), Joe Nemechek (unapproved adjustments) and BJ McLeod (unapproved adjustments)

STARTING LINEUP: Southern 500 lineup

Brad Keselowski to have Rusty Wallace Darlington throwback weekend look

Photo courtesy Darlington Raceway
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To paraphrase an old saying, there’s something old and something new for the Blue Duece.

Or in this case, it’s now the Black Deuce.

Brad Keselowski revealed on Twitter Monday afternoon the paint scheme his No. 2 Team Penske Ford Mustang will carry in the upcoming Darlington Raceway throwback weekend will be an homage to the 1996 ride of NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace.

MORE: Retro rundown 2019 Southern 500 paint schemes

Check it out:

As for Keselowski’s reaction, here it is:

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Bump and Run: Who will earn final playoff spots?

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Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson are fighting for the final two playoff spots (provided someone below them in the points doesn’t win any of the next three races). Which two do you think make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer.

Dustin Long: Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson.

Daniel McFadin: Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez. Of the four drivers they’re the only two who have produced consistent enough results.

Jerry Bonkowski: Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson. Suarez has had a strong season but hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. Making the playoffs will be a huge boost for him and his team. Ditto for Johnson. Sure, he hasn’t won in his last 82 starts, but he’s never missed the playoffs. That would be even more embarrassing than remaining winless for the rest of the season.

At this point, who would be your Championship Four in Cup for Miami?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr.

Dustin Long: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin

Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

There are 36 charter teams. Sixteen make the Cup playoffs. That’s 44.4% of the charter teams making the playoffs. Are you OK with that? Or should there be a different number of teams make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: I’d prefer that the field be limited to 12 drivers and the elimination sets changed to reach the Championship Four (how about eight drivers after Round 1 and six after Round 2?). While the “anybody who gets in can win the championship” argument is appreciated (and with Tony Stewart’s 2011 as a rallying cry), this season in particular seems to have accentuated that there are only so many teams truly worthy of running for a title. While Jimmie Johnson extending his playoff streak and Ryan Newman gritting out a berth are both nice storylines, they are the NASCAR equivalent of 16 seeds.

Dustin Long: It’s too many. But it’s on par with the Truck series where eight of the 19 drivers (42.1%) who have run in at least 80% of the races made the playoffs. And it’s on par with the Xfinity Series where 12 of the 28 drivers (42.9%) who have started at least 80% of the races will be in the playoffs. The 80% marker is used since one Truck driver, Tyler Ankrum, started 81.3% of the regular-season races, missing the first three because he was too young to race on those tracks, and made the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be OK if there were only 14 drivers in the Cup playoffs. It would add more drama to the regular season and postseason. Playoff eliminations don’t have to include round numbers in each round. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d like to see the playoff structure changed to see the top-20 teams make the playoffs. Then, 10 teams would be eliminated after the fifth playoff race, five others would be eliminated after the penultimate race, leaving five teams/drivers to battle it out in a winner-take-all race in the season finale.

What is your most memorable Bristol memory?

Nate Ryan: As far as races covered there, my first taste of a night race in person – Jeff Gordon bumping Rusty Wallace aside for the win during a 2002 race filled with emotion (Ward Burton’s heel pads, Jimmie Johnson’s obscene gesture, Elliott Sadler’s finger-pointing) – would rank at the top, beating out Carl Edwards’ bump on Kyle Busch in August 2008, Jeff Gordon’s shove of Matt Kenseth in March 2006 and Kurt Busch’s win under duress in August 2003.

Dustin Long: The 1999 night race where Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte but meant only to “rattle his cage” on the last lap. What is most memorable is that several minutes after the race ended, the track played the radio call of the final lap on the PA system and when it got to the point where Earnhardt spun Labonte, boos cascaded from the stands. The stands appeared to be more than half full even then, people not wanting to leave after seeing such a wild finish.

Daniel McFadin: My memory comes from the first time I covered a race at Bristol in 2017 and it doesn’t involve the race itself. While driving to the track, I rounded a corner and suddenly it was in front of me. It just doesn’t make sense that a facility like Bristol exists where it does. Having grown up for 20 years watching Bristol races, it was a surreal moment.

Jerry Bonkowski: The first time I attended the night race at Bristol in 2000 is a memory that will forever stay with me. It was a battle of the senses, sounds, smells and more. Honestly, when cars took the green flag to start the race, the first thing I immediately thought of as I watched the action from pit road was tens of thousands of angry hornets had been released, the sound was deafening and overpowering.